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Better Public Sector Projects Which Don't Matter?

Nick Manning's picture

SDM-IN-042 World Bank In last week’s post, I asked whether Governance and Public Sector Management (GPSM) projects are having much large scale impact. It is tempting to reduce this to the question of why don’t development projects which focus on this work more often (although their track record is perhaps not as limited as some reviews of donor assistance might suggest). From this starting point, recent thinking suggests that donor rigidity and project designs which fix the visible form without improving the underlying public management function are the problem.   
The remedy, as set out most prominently in “Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation” and in the World Bank’s own Public Sector Management Approach, suggests that we should focus on the de facto rather than the de jure and adapt the nature of our support as project implementation unrolls. Problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) approaches are referred to in recent reforms of Ministries of Finance in the Caribbean and reform approaches in Mozambique and in Burundi. Bank interventions in Sierra Leone and in Punjab have been cited as examples of this approach in practice.

There are a few difficulties here however. First, we run the risk of declaring this more problem-focused, adaptive intervention style to be a success, when really all that we know is that the more rigid Plan A wasn’t too great. While there are strong theoretical grounds for hope in this more problem-centered approach, there is, as yet, little evidence.
Second, the learning that emerges from this approach is primarily in terms of intervention technique. Since the approach is, intentionally, idiosyncratic and based around the specifics of the context, it will not be easy to add up the findings across a range of cases.
The third problem is perhaps the most vexing. Adaptive approaches, in the way that they have been advocated to date, focus on the relatively small. If they raised the rate of project “success” in small areas of public sector management from, say, 50% to 75%, but reduced the scope of the resulting improvements in the process, would this be a big step forward? We would have a larger scatterplot of mini-successes, but would this add up to anything that really mattered? Surely we don’t want to do things right without making any progress in finding the right thing to do (a friendly critic of the Bank once pointed out that a project I had designed in Afghanistan was not so much like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, it was more akin to moving the umbrellas in the cocktail glasses next to the deck chairs). Wouldn’t we be prepared to tolerate a reduction in that success rate if at least some of them were in some way transformative – the country-level public sector equivalents of the Marshall Plan, the “Green Revolution” or the near eradication of smallpox?
How might we edge our way towards more transformative public sector management interventions? 
Taking the adaptive, flexible logic as a reasonable basis for GPSM interventions (but let’s not declare victory – it really is just plan B, and doubtless plans C and D will be announced with accompanying trumpet fanfares at some point) the challenge is to apply it in a way which allows us to build up a picture across time and space, so that we can learn more about what seems to work in public sector reform and where we can see the prospect of transformative change emerging.
Designing reforms that we can learn from…
Large scale improvements in the machinery of the public sector take a very long while to introduce (a reform of the public sector pay system in Afghanistan took 3 years to pass and 8 to implement) and even then don’t show up as improvements in the real world of service delivery until some considerable time later. This is why, when we measure GPSM improvements at the aggregate, country level, we can’t find transformative change. So we need sound metrics of things that can be changed in the short to medium term which we have reasonable grounds for believing will make a significant difference in the overall capacity of the public sector in the long term.
One possibility is that we focus on measuring and improving the different, underlying management systems (public financial management, procurement, human resource management, etc.) within the public sector. This is starting to happen and there are now a variety of system-specific instruments for tracking progress including the World Bank’s CPIA, PEFA, TADAT and CABRI for aspects of the public financial management system and MAPS for the procurement system. 
…and which likely contribute to transformational change
Of course we also need to be comfortable that real change in these management systems is associated with improved development outcomes. There’s a lot to learn from.  Countries such as the Central African Republic, The Gambia, Kyrgyz Republic and Tonga have all made dramatic improvements in their CPIA scores for GPSM (Quality of Budgetary and Financial Management, Quality of Public Administration and Transparency, Accountability, and Corruption in the Public Sector) in the period 2004-2011.   How did these system improvements relate to improved development outcomes in these countries?
There is significant new thinking emerging
The debate initiated by a recent article from Francis Fukuyama has reinvigorated the debate on how to measure state capacity in a useful disaggregated way. The World Bank’s Indicators of the Strength of Public Management Systems (ISPMS) initiative is one of several signs of fresh energy being brought to bear on this topic.
There’s a lot to worry about in the development of such metrics.  Management system indicators could be a Trojan Horse, hiding the reappearance of, now much-reviled, “best practices” and again encouraging a “Washington Consensus”-equivalent approach to public management reform. There’s also the risk that such metrics distract us from important historical lessons about the necessary political conditions for institutional reform or from the significance of learning from positive outliers within countries. These are huge risks, but my sense is that without taking them, public management specialists in development might be doomed to doing ever smaller things right, but without finding the right thing to do.


Submitted by Robert Beschel on

This is an interesting and provocative blog from a distinguished practitioner and one of the most innovative thinkers on improving the quality of public sector interventions, and the points that Nick Manning raises are worthy of serious consideration by the broader donor community. There is much to embrace in the approaches suggested here—from moving to a more adaptable, problem driven and iterative approach to the use of improved governance metrics. The note’s broader thrust serves as a useful corrective against the tendency to pursue more narrow and incremental reforms in the hope of achieving greater success.
One could argue that public sector reforms need an aspirational dimension, even if it means that we inevitably fall short. It may be easier to sell reforms that involve improving performance and the quality of service delivery across government, for example, than introducing a new monitoring mechanism targeted at reducing absenteeism in remote schools or improved inventory control for pharmaceuticals in rural health clinics. But one gets the distinct sense that this is not the author’s intent—that he is focusing upon the substance and not the optics or the marketing of reforms.
As such, the blog begs the question as to whether the best can be the enemy of the good when it comes to donor supported governance and public sector interventions. There are relatively few examples of successful transformative change because, well, it’s really hard to do. In many cases, such reforms involve incurring considerable pain and/or dislocation for reforms that may not bear fruit within the time horizon of the politicians asked to implement them. In countries grounded in sectarian or identity politics, they may not generate tangible political gains at all. Many countries lack effective coordination mechanisms or the technical capacity to implement complex, integrated reforms reaching across the whole of government.
Organizations such as the World Bank can and should do a much better job of identifying and learning from examples where countries have made great leaps in public sector performance, and the blog identifies a number of useful approaches for doing so. But no matter how far we go down the learning curve, the windows for transformative change are likely to remain few and far between for the reasons noted above. An equally important danger not referenced in the blog—and one that donors are guilty of far too often—is that of over-reaching. We design elaborate and sophisticated reforms that are too complex and difficult to roll out in a timely and integrated fashion.
So in the end, we may indeed find ourselves usefully shooting for the smaller and incremental changes which, if successful, may contribute to something more transformative downstream. As long as we are open to the broader possibilities, that would not necessarily be a bad thing. And we should not forget that, from the Internet to the invention of crepes and chocolate chip cookies, most truly transformational changes often take place as the incidental byproduct of other activities.

Submitted by Sylvester Odhiambo Obong'o on

The attraction of focusing on small segments in public sector reforms as unit of special and registering results cannot be ignored. This has seen the focus of reforms mainly - those sponsored by the international development agencies singling out and focusing on aspects such as pay-reform, financial management, procurement and in the process registering "impressive results" in those specific projects or sectors. For example in Kenya, under the new Constitution of Kenya 2010- there is a a Salaries and Remuneration which was set up to regulate the salaries of all public servants to avoid the disparities that existed in salaries offered by different public agencies. Upon taking office, the after a benchmarking tour the commission noted that in differential between the highest and the lowest paid public servant in Canada stood at 7.9% while in Kenya it stood at 169%. Since that came to surface nothing substantial has happened to close this gap across the board. In fact, it gave an opportunity to the 'powerful elite' whose differential is not very far from the president to lobby for salary increaments- leaving the lowest paid earners.

The Anti-corruption unit was set, and if some body was looking for result, they can be pointed out that they have managed to push for the public service ethics bill and recover some assets, but has corruption in Kenya gone down- I do not know!! I can say the same for the Public Procurement Reforms- a law was passed, and a Procurement Oversight Authority established- is there any substantial difference, one might say a law was passed and a number of procurement initiatives deemed to have been unprocedural stopped. The most - disturbing is the much acclaimed reforms of the Judiciary- dubbed the Transformation. Citizens are slowly losing faith in these reforms after a lot of enthusiams and optimism.

What I am trying to drive at- what exactly is public sector reforms- are they piece-meal disjointed sectoral reforms or a reform of the entire Government Sector. Taking the case of Kenya- I looked at the Promulgation of the New Constitution of Kenya 2010 as a real foundation for Public Sector Reforms. It gave a basis for transforming the traditionships between politicians and bureaucrats- which has been the source of many ills in the public sector. In my view therefore for all intent and purpose public sector reform need to look at the BIGGER picture, understand the bigger picture, draw a plan for tackling the bigger and then implement it by systematically tackling its components. The bigger picture allows for understanding and appreciating the root cause of the 'smaller issues' - corruption, procurement, salaries etc. which which might be manifested within the components.

There is a saying in my language that a FISH ROTS from the HEAD. Public Sector Reform is a big issue, it is long haul and can be dangerous. But avoiding the dangers might not be a solution.

Submitted by A. Kremer on

The organisational incentives which prevail, both in donor organisations and in Governments, will ensure that "adaptive approaches" will adjust targets to what is actually happening, in order to ensure the appearance of success.

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