What political and institutional factors explain the different trajectories of governance reforms in Uganda? This discussion paper from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) surveys three governance reforms in Uganda in the 1990s. The Ugandan experience highlights the difficulty of sustaining successful reforms over the long term in a context of patrimonialism and personal rule.
The success of governance reforms in Uganda in the 1990s is generally thought to be a function of political commitment, technocratic insulation and organisational autonomy. However, this cannot explain the subsequent decline of the reforms. The underlying pattern of politics and informal institutional arrangements, the influence of patrimonialism and the nature of incentives for reform must all be examined as underlying factors for this.
The paper analyses three governance reforms: the restructuring of the civil service, the creation of the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) and a range of anti-corruption initiatives. Each of these reforms aimed to make structural changes in state institutions and change the incentives of state actors, so as to improve the quality and quantity of public services.
- Civil service reforms were successful in the mid-1990s, achieving a sharp reduction in the payroll, improved salaries and ministerial restructuring.
- The semi-autonomous URA had an impressive impact initially, increasing tax collection substantially.
- A number of anti-corruption bodies were reinvigorated or created: The Office of the Auditor General, the Department of Public Prosecutions, the Criminal Investigations Department, the Public Accounts Committee, the Inspectorate of Government and the Directorate of Ethics and Integrity.
- The momentum of Civil Service Reform slowed due to the waning of presidential enthusiasm; the focus on more pressing issues such as the war in the north; and the greater interest in service delivery outcomes. The political will needed to achieve the reform’s objectives was weak due to political compulsions which undermined them.
- The increase in tax revenue was not maintained due to the erosion of the URA’s institutional autonomy resulting from political interference and deficiencies in governance structures.
- Despite the many anti-corruption institutions, Uganda is still one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The political pressure of maintaining support for the ruling party, coupled with resource and capacity constraints meant the institutions were unable to perform effectively.
The reforms share three common features: (i) Each followed a similar trajectory: Initial success followed by reversals (ii) The institutional features which explain their early success also help explain subsequent failures (strong political support for technocratic elites, coupled with insulation from political and societal interests) (iii) The imperative of preserving the institutional foundations of patrimonial politics contributed to their failure.
- There were also significant differences between the reforms. The first was in the different political incentives for reform: Reform momentum remains strong if there are continued political pay-offs. The second is the motivation of individual civil servants: Each reform posed different threats to civil servants which had different effects on the reforms.
- There were also different degrees of public engagement. However, none of the reforms generated public involvement on any significant scale due to the weakness of civil society.
- The best explanation for the faltering of the reforms is the politics of patrimonialism. Political impulses and informal institutions were vital in shaping the design and implementation of reform initiatives.
- Operational autonomy is a sound design strategy. However, current forms of autonomy provide insufficient insulation from political predation and limit the accountability functions of civil society.