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Improving public sector performance through innovation and inter-agency coordination

Bernard Myers's picture
Outside the Prime Minister’s Department in Putrajaya, the federal administrative capital of Malaysia. Malaysia sits at an important juncture in development history and the country’s experience is key in generating insights to improving public sector performance. (Photo: Samuel Goh/World Bank)
Bureaucracy, politics, lack of IT, corruption, low motivation - these are just some of the excuses we often hear around the world for why public sector services and agencies do not work as effectively as they should.  Citizens in developing countries and emerging markets have often grown accustomed to poor quality in service delivery or a lack of services altogether.  The real reasons behind the performance failures and the corresponding lack of corrective measures is not always obvious. This most likely involves some combination of the factors above, and others.

For public officials in charge of managing public institutions, improving public sector performance can look like a daunting task. Where to begin?  Is it really possible to overcome a system of inefficiency and ineffectiveness that has persisted for many years?  Can one really break through the obstacles that stand in the way of success?  And finally, can the public sector really improve the quality of services it delivers?

The World Bank Group Global Knowledge and Research Hub in Malaysia has been at the center of generating insights into these questions.  Recently, the Hub issued the first edition of a new global report series on “Improving Public Sector Performance.”  The report draws on the Bank’s network of governance specialists across the globe to curate 15 inspiring stories of how reformers are finding new and innovative ways to drive breakthroughs in public sector performance.

The report shows that innovation does not always require state-of-the-art or high-cost technology.  On the contrary, many of the innovations use technology in only a supporting capacity.  Across a diverse set of low- and middle-income countries, the Bank’s team found five common drivers of success in public sector management reforms:
  • Leadership
  • Incentives (either individual or institutional)
  • Institutional capacity building
  • Transparency
  • Technology
There are no silver bullets to transforming public sector performance.  In each of the success stories, three to five of these drivers were clearly present.  Political leadership is almost always an essential catalyst to embark upon a reform path and to navigate the forces that resist change.  But institutions and individuals can also be motivated to act when given the right incentives to care about performance.  Institutional capacity building helps assure sustainability of reforms.  Transparency about performance (individual and corporate) can also be a powerful driver to help motivate change and to hold key actors accountable.  Finally, technology can be an enabler to increasing capacity, streamlining processes, and creating much-needed transparency.

This inaugural report aims to inspire public sector practitioners to see what is possible – even in challenging environments -- and to encourage innovative ways to tackle long-standing problems in performance.  It shows countries addressing challenges in different function domains: civil service management, public financial management, policy management in the center of government, last-mile service delivery, and even justice services.

If public sector institutions are going to perform better and be more responsive to citizen demands they also need to find effective ways to tame what The Economist traditionally called “Leviathan.” As size and complexity of government functions grow with each generation, ministries and agencies risk becoming more disconnected from citizens, as well as increasingly disconnected from each other. Government departments and agencies are naturally prone to function in silos, and it requires concerted effort to mitigate against duplication of effort, hoarding of information, or working at cross-purposes. The Bank’s report spans the globe to examine why some the approaches to inter-agency and policy coordination are working, and why others are not.

Malaysia sits at an important juncture in its development history.  Despite a history of rapid economic growth over the past decades, Malaysia is positioned to do better over the next decade in creating a nation of shared prosperity and social well-being.  Experiences from around the world show that public officials are not giving up but are forging new ways to enhance public sector performance.  The Malaysian experience should be part of that future tapestry of transforming public sector performance.