What do we know about civil service reform?
Evidence guide: Strength of evidence for the impact of selected interventions
The civil service is usually understood as a subset of the wider public service. This subset consists of government ministries, departments and agencies, including people who advise on, develop, and implement government policies and programmes, and those who manage day-to-day activities. Reforming the civil service is important in improving governance, service delivery, economic policy and public financial management.
Civil service reform activities have included efforts to make government more organised, affordable, honest, and responsive; to bring government closer to the grassroots; and to make government perform and deliver better.
The literature on civil service reform in developing countries suggests that common challenges and traps are:
- Insufficient attention to politics: Understanding the particular context’s political economy dynamics is likely to be crucial to effective reform. Patronage is often a particularly important challenge.
- Attempting to transplant one country’s organisational structures and practices to another without due consideration of contextual differences.
- Over-emphasising downsizing and cost-cutting: An excessive focus on cost-cutting can undermine government effectiveness and fail to produce lasting savings.
- Failing to integrate reform activities into a wider policy and organisational framework.
The following key lessons have emerged from experience:
- A thorough understanding of context has assisted planning and implementation of reform. Evidence indicates that successful reform requires strong domestic political leadership. Political economy analysis tools can be useful for understanding context.
- Both whole-of-system and incremental approaches have been successful. An incremental approach is most likely to be sustainable and politically feasible. Approaches for reform include identifying ‘windows of opportunity’ and ‘islands of effectiveness’ to build on. Different reform models or approaches may be appropriate depending on the context.
- Introducing merit-based systems through wide-ranging organisational changes has improved performance and accountability and the ability to attract better-educated staff, has reduced corruption, and is associated with higher growth rates. Interventions that are narrowly focused on improving pay and conditions, performance management or performance monitoring have been difficult to implement, and have not always provided clear benefits. The evidence relating to the effects of performance-related pay in the core civil service is uncertain, typically owing to difficulties in quantifying outputs of core civil service departments, compared to service delivery units.
- Long-term and flexible donor support has contributed to successful civil service reform. Reform can be slow and can therefore require consistent, continuous support. In addition, capacity needs can arise that require responsive funding.
- Monitoring public administration performance and changes in it can be challenging because it can be difficult to identify tangible results outside of direct service delivery. Many assessments and information sources are available from which to tailor context-specific assessment tools.
- ^Political economy relates to the prevailing political and economic processes in society – specifically, the incentives, relationships, distribution and contestation of power between groups and individuals – all of which greatly impact on development outcomes. See the GSDRC’s Political Economy Analysis Topic Guide.