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Public sector reform—changing behavior with cars and computers?

Anand Rajaram's picture

During a discussion on public service management reform (PSM) in Zambia, a senior official with strong experience in this field, explained: “in order to implement PSM, I had been asked to provide cars to reforms teams, we did it; then, we were asked to provide computers, we did that too; then, we were asked to provide them formal training overseas, we did that as well; they came back and what happened?... Nothing! There was no greater capacity to reform despite these investments. Why is it so? Because reforming public sector requires a change in behavior and mindsets of people; cars, computers and formal training do not help in most cases”.  

What is the assessment of successive projects in Zambia in this area by our interviewed senior official? “The day a project is initiated, our problems begin”. Why? “Because of differentiated treatment of those in project units and the mention of vast sums of funds; civil servants outside the project unit do not wish to cooperate and consider the reform as alien to them and do not try to implement project tasks and certainly do not change behaviors”.  

But would not a lack of computers/cars/training be an excuse for delaying implementation of painful reforms? If yes, does it help to provide them to achieve the expected impact of the project? One could argue that, without money, donors’ leverage would be low. However, is $10-20 million for a project in this area the best way to convince civil servants in a country to be more productive and change behaviors? The promise of significant financial resources to Ministries seems to promote perverse incentives… In many countries a project becomes a way to extract and share rents rather than achieve improved public sector performance. This could be considered a waste but it may be more problematic if it is seen in countries as a way to procrastinate on reforms: requests for training/equipment upgrade could indeed never end…

Our senior official concluded on performance management: “all the individuals have performance much above the average in my department but collectively, the unit performs much below the average. How is that possible?” A Zambian version of Lake Wobegon!

How could we try to tackle these issues? First a $10-20 million project, conventionally implemented for 4-5 years, is often not actually designed to address a range of complex issues within government and across Ministries. Can we change mindsets across the board in the civil service in this period of time? Probably not and almost certainly not through the conventional approach, which presumes leadership for change within government and ignores the underlying incentive structure.  Absent such leadership for change, the financial assistance provided by investment lending often only serves to distribute rents and sustain a dysfunctional public sector. 

So what is the alternative? First, we need to recognize that any government represents a system to which people are adapted. Even a dysfunctional system has strong incentives and behaviors which will adapt and shape a conventional project to fit its needs, often to achieve goals that are not consistent with the project’s objectives. Thus we need to recognize the possible distortions in how projects are actually implemented. 


Second, in countries and situations where the ability to manage a broad scope reform is weak (as in many countries where donors operate) a key principle of design could be to target a “catalytic” action in an area where there is an internal constituency for change. That would also provide a demonstration effect and indirectly widen the constituency for reform. A series of small but successful reforms may hold more hope for behavioral change than a large reform that presumes internal leadership and proves ineffective. Experimental pilots could be undertaken in selected Ministries or departments to understand how behavioral change could be initiated and how we might “work with the grain” to bring about change. What is usually missing in most projects in this area is the in-depth understanding of the drivers for reform/status quo forces and incentives at the individual level (from senior management to the bottom of the pyramid). Some Ministries can appear to be impervious to change at some stages and it may be good to acknowledge it.

Third, if money is not the most important constraint to solving a public management problem and might actually lead to perverse effects, we should have the flexibility to think of launching small “projects without lending”, that would only consist of technical assistance/knowledge transfer in order to change (at the margin in a first step) individual/collective incentives in a public institution. 


Hey, did nothing change since I started in this line of work in the 80s? I started as a young professional in Africa, and was amazed that my local colleagues, with a decent local education, were always off, with their capacity being build. While I just stayed put, doing the job. In fact, the lack of capacity is mostly a sign of bad priorities rather than a lack of degrees or a lack of staff. Meanwhile "capacity building" is as vague a priority as sustainable development or happiness.

Submitted by Graham Teskey on
A couple of points: (i) Capable bright people with equipment does not necessarily mean high performing organisations. In short - turning individual competence into organisatuional capacity requires institutional change. This includes the incentive structure Anand is talking about, as well as the broader political economy challenge that in many LICs political elites do not view the bureaucracy as a developmental instrument. It is a vehicle for patronage. (ii) Development time does not match political time. When elites want some for m of change they need it in the short-term - not in the years talked about by us developmental types. (iii) And actually there is lots known about capacity development, starting with Arturo Israel in 1987. Trouble is, as Sam notes, nobody bothers to inject the term with much meaning. Along with 'political will' it is the most over-used and least understood area in development.

Submitted by Nils Boesen on
Unfortunately a quite familiar story. Graham is right that we actually know a lot about when reform and capacity development (CD) is likely to happen - and about the often quite limited role that external partners can play in these processes which must be driven from within. And we have known it for many years. I would actually venture into saying that it is quite well-understood - but the knowledge is largely ignored. So the real issue is to figure out how to address the political economy drivers that incentivize donors and partners to continue to agree to do things that does not work. Why are donors poor at transforming lessons into changed behaviour along the lines in Anand's blog? My quick take is that it would in many cases imply that donors would have to recognize that their significance is far smaller than they would like it to be. And that is a difficult message to sell to donor country politicians and taz payers. For years, there have been substantiated calls that donors should understand the context better, apply longer time horizons and be more modest. What will make such calls be heard where it matters?

Submitted by Sanjeev Ahluwalia on
The proposed solution of restricting PS interventions to small pilots as opposed to whole of government reform projects has the danger of degenerating into a series of interventions which may achieve results but could be doing so by simply free riding on the backs of winners. In every Government there are "winner" departments and Ministries which demonstrate better than average performance and have a more pronounced change orientation. Restricting PS interventions to only those departments and ministries which are either conducive to change or which are already in the process of change due to internal dynamics risks making the Bank intervention redundant. More seriously the approach risks making Bank interventions focused so narrowly that they miss altogether departments and ministries which are not winners but where change is perhaps more sorely needed though difficult to achieve. Secondly "whole of government" reform cannot be ignored in nascent governments which have not yet matured and are still in the process of being established. Training, institutional development and capacity enhancement are key in such environments. It is in mature governments where the framework exists but performance enhancement is the key problem that focused, narrow, demonstration projects could be useful though as stated earlier with appropriate safeguards against "free riding" on preexisting positive trends in an attempt to show "quick" results. Thirdly,"investments" are not the culprit and so "non lending projects" cannot be the answer. It is rather our inability to focus programs on results which is key to the "floating" and somewhat disjointed and random reform steps which PS reforms undertake. Tightening the results framework should have a positive impact on wasteful investment. However PS projects are not unique in this problem and a practical orientation is required while allowing or disallowing the odd car and computer.

Submitted by herbert mcleod on
What is missing in all the postings is an understanding of the politics of public administration in African countries. This is essential if we are to determine what drives the public adminstrator's performance, since this is what we want to influence in order to improve the overall performance of the public sector. Examples in the previous blogs include the concept of "nascent" governments and "established" governments. Even post-conflict countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia have well established civil services with traditions and survival systems that are well honed, albeit in corrupt practices. Unless we understand underlying forces determining behaviour in these administrations we are bound to continue to think in terms of capacity development in the form of training, computers and cars. The solutions proferred by donors are even worse. As stated by Nils Boesen, donors are excurciatingly slow at learning from earlier errors. Again understanding the politics of donor behaviour will help us in understanding why. Here we all know that the average donor's reaction to cover up and justify becomes a natural reflex after only two to three years on the job. So they keep repeating the same errors and explaining it away by pointing at the incompetent and corrupt beneficiaries. At least Sam Gardner seems to be on the right path by pointing out that the true explanation is not the lack of degrees, and I would add in most cases, but poor priorities. Graham Teskey scratches the surface but does not go deep enough. I will offer one hint; what keeps a public official in his post is less performance than connections. Donors cannot eliminate the latter and replace it by the former. Only local efforts and time can achieve this. In the meantime donors must understand this and think outside the box to link the two. The lower the country is in the development ladder the more difficult this task.

Submitted by Dennis Mutuku on
The essay sites a common excuse for non performance by non performers in Africa - 'we have no money/computers/cars/offices' In Kenya through the World Bank the Govt adopted the 100 day Rapid Results Initiatives (RRI) where large scale projects were broken down into small scale results producing efforts that act as building blocks towards achievement of a longer term objective. Using RRI, this common excuse has no bearing as teams are challenged by their leadership to deliver tangible results based on their current capacity and using existing resources. The 100 day time frame coupled with rigorous M&E leaves no room for inertia and teams quickly move into action which unleashes hidden potential and practically demonstrates to the participants what they can achieve if they set their minds to it. This experiential learning in my view is what catalyzes behavior & attitudinal change and shapes success for the reform effort. As the author rightly notes, nothing succeeds like success. The initial results achieved from the RRI Pilot phase were so Transformational that more government departments felt encouraged to try out the methodology. The ripple effect from these initiatives coupled with a number of structural changes have organically manifested a silent but steady transformation of the Kenyan public service into a more focused and results oriented service

Submitted by Max on
How will they make this possible.?

Submitted by AndreeK on
Transformation cannot occur without deterrent. The success of public sector reforms will mirror the national/ goc mindset. No reform can be put in place if rentiers prevails, if nepotism and corroption are unabashed. The most critical reform to be put in place are the following: - Reform of the judicial system - Implementation of robust supreme audit institutions. From this point, no "encouragement" will be needed: incentives will be in place and EFFECTIVE deterrents may be triggered. As Martin Luther king said, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice".

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