There is debate in the literature over whether a whole-of-system or a focused, incremental approach to civil service reform is more effective. Flexible approaches to exploiting ‘windows of opportunity’ (Bunse and Fritz 2012) and building on existing areas of capacity (Leonard 2008; Crook 2010) have shown success in some cases. While the emergence of these types of opportunities is likely to be unpredictable, long-term, ongoing contextual analysis may help identify them.
One recent evaluation of donor support to public sector governance reform finds that a whole-of-system approach to civil service reform has been most successful, though other factors may also influence results (Turner 2013). On the other hand, some criticise comprehensive approaches to civil service reform as over-ambitious and argue it is better to build on ‘islands of effectiveness’ (Crook 2010). Scott’s (2011) literature review on public sector governance reform finds that incremental approaches may be more sustainable and politically feasible, but also notes the importance of timing and sequencing.
Windows of opportunity
‘Windows of opportunity’ occur when political economy factors align so as to enable progress (Bunse & Fritz, 2012). Such a window could be created, for example, by a combination of a period of fiscal crisis combined with a growth opportunity creating space for reforms, an interested political leadership, sufficient incentives among key stakeholders, and/or a capable policy entrepreneur (Bunse & Fritz, 2012).
Reid (2013) suggests that to optimise windows of opportunity that might emerge in different areas, development partners could support a diverse portfolio of institutional reforms. He suggests that reform strategies be undertaken sporadically over a long period, with the timing of individual interventions depending on when windows of opportunity open and close.
Pockets/Islands of Effectiveness
Leonard (2008) identifies the existence of ‘pockets of effectiveness and productivity’: public organisations that carry out their missions effectively despite an atmosphere of ineffective or corrupt governance. He argues that productivity is most easily achieved where there is little conflict over goals and methods and a clear tie between organisational work and desired outcomes.
Crook (2010) extends this concept further. He suggests that governments and donors should abandon over-ambitious, best-practice-based general reform programmes and identify and work with the competent managers in ‘islands of effectiveness’. He argues that supporting existing talent and commitment would promote more positive organisational cultures and incentives.
However, Reid (personal communication, 23 April 2013) notes the potential limitations of building on islands or pockets of effectiveness. Certain public administration agencies (such as central banks, securities and exchange commissions, and tax administrations) are more amenable than others to reform that is independent of the wider civil service. Such agencies can be exempt from normal civil service constraints, able to marshal their own financial resources (and therefore set higher than average salaries), and can offer jobs that develop skills that are also valuable in the private sector (e.g. analysis of securities and capital markets).
A tale of success in two ministries in Ethiopia: A desire for change can overcome entrenched patrimonial systems
Mengesha and Common (2007) find that business process re-engineering (BPR) has transformed service delivery in Ethiopia’s Ministry of Trade and Industry (MOTI) and Ministry of Education (MoE). BPR aims to help organisations improve customer service and cut operational costs by restructuring to focus on their business processes. In MOTI and MoE, although the change process has been sluggish, BPR has improved performance and increased user satisfaction. The authors note that these improvements are surprising given the patrimonial features of Ethiopia’s public administration system. They highlight the following implications:
- Success is driven by a desire for change on the part of concerned stakeholders, including management, clients, staff and politicians.
- Access of reform-minded individuals to policymakers (to request amendments of legislation, proclamations and changes in working procedures and regulations) may also contribute to success.
- Foreign-induced strategies and policies will only be put into effect when there is commitment, ownership and involvement by top management.
- BPR and other initiatives require ‘street-level’ staff to adapt to change and perform well.
Source: Mengesha, G. H., & Common, R. (2007). Public sector capacity reform in Ethiopia: A tale of success in two ministries? Public Administration and Development, 27(5), 367-380.
- ^ See the upcoming GSDRC Topic Guide on Sequencing Reform in Fragile States.
- Tendler, J. (1997). Good government in the tropics. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press.
- Kiragu, K., & Mukandala, R. (2003). Public service pay reform: Tactics sequencing and politics in developing countries: Lessons from Sub-Saharan Africa (draft report). PricewaterhouseCoopers and University of Dar es Salaam.
- Bunse, S., & Fritz, V. (2012). Making public sector reforms work: political and economic contexts, incentives, and strategies. Policy Research working paper no. WPS 6174. Washington D.C.: World Bank.
- Reid, G. (2013, in press). Why and how to address the implementation challenges of civil service reform. In G. Reid & C. Garrity (Eds.), Civil service reform in developing countries. Washington D.C.: World Bank.
- Leonard, D.K. (2008). Where are ‘pockets’ of effective agencies likely in weak governance states and why? A propositional inventory. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.
- Crook, R. (2010). Rethinking civil service reform in Africa: ‘Islands of effectiveness’ and organisational commitment. Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 48(4), 479-504.
- Mengesha, G. H., & Common, R. (2007). Public sector capacity reform in Ethiopia: A tale of success in two ministries? Public Administration and Development, 27(5), 367-380.
- Scott, Z. (2011). Evaluation of public sector governance reforms 2001-2011: Literature review. Oxford: Oxford Policy Management.
- Turner, M. (2013). Summary report of the public sector governance reform evaluation. DFID, Sida, Irish Aid and Oxford Policy Management.
- World Bank. (2011b). World Bank approach to public sector management 2011-2020: Better results from public sector institutions. Public Sector and Governance Board. Washington D.C.: World Bank.
- Meisel, N., & Ould Aoudia, J. (2007). Is ‘good governance’ a good development strategy? DGTPE Working Papers – No 2007/11. Paris: General Directorate of Treasury and Economic Policy (Direction Générale du Trésor et de la Politique Economique – DGTPE).
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