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Submitted by Willy McCourt on
I want to add to the comments of others, especially Stuti Khemani and Richard Allen, on a single highly charged issue: the relationship between politics and PSR, relating it to the ‘public sector results chain’ as it is outlined in the draft. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread: I suspect that this is currently a sore spot within the Bank. But the sore spot may be the one that needs treatment. So I shall blunder on, even though my remarks may be about as welcome as Banquo’s ghost was to Macbeth. I think putting results at the centre of the debate, in the form of the public sector results chain, is the right strategic decision, as the experience of countries like Malaysia and the UK has shown: this fundamental NPM insight is correct always and everywhere. The ‘Approach’ will have been worth the price of admission if it reminds all of us that results are what we are in business to help clients to deliver. The centrality of the public sector results chain within the draft makes it very important to get the details right. The links in the chain as it stands are well specified, but as a whole the explanatory force of the chain is not as strong as it could be because it omits politics. The implied reform sequence is: specify reform (and then) get political buy-in In other words, we craft our reform proposal, and then we bolt on the politics. If this was the correct approach, we wouldn’t have the long line of Bank evaluations showing that CSR interventions have had disappointing results. Barbara Nunberg noted this in a paper in 1997, drawing on a large number of Bank evaluations of the period. Essentially the same point is repeated in the Independent Evaluation Group report of 2008 (the report is referenced in the draft). Only last year, a paper was circulated within the Bank with the title Why do Bank-sponsored civil service reform programs such have a poor track record? The consistency of the outcomes, if nothing else, is tremendously impressive! Part of the answer to that question, I believe, can be found in the truly enormous number of studies of the political economy of reform which show that politics comes first. Within the Bank discourse, the 1998 David Dollar Assessing Aid report is a convenient summary of them. Its basic insight has been fleshed out over the last decade. Within the donor discourse more generally, Dahl-Østergaard et al. (2005) is a good summary. So I think we must make politics integral to our thinking about reform. However, I gather that within the Bank, there is some resistance, and even resentment, towards political analysis, which might be summed up in the old saying, ‘Fine words butter no parsnips.’ The belief is that political analysis has failed to deliver on its promise. Political analysts have been unable to tell practitioners what they should do differently. Their critiques may be sophisticated, but they are futile – ‘academic’ in the worst sense of the word. So the challenge for those who are convinced that politics (and in my case, this is a conviction that has strengthened over more than a decade and which I have tracked through a series of publications) is to demonstrate the practical value of political analysis. And if I may say so, the challenge for the Bank is to be open rather than defensive to the extent that said practical value is demonstrated. EXHIBIT A: SRI LANKA By the early 2000s, successive waves of reform in Sri Lanka had resulted in the public sector employing more, not fewer people, despite its commitment to do the opposite, and the major donors had withdrawn in disgust. But that was precisely the point where the government introduced a reform that was more fundamental than anything the donors ever envisaged: a constitutional amendment, passed with the support of over two-thirds of MPs, which restored the independence of the service commissions, including the Public Service Commission. Indigenous reformers believed that while overstaffing was the ‘presenting problem’, the root of the problem lay in the patronage system which was embedded in Sri Lankan public administration and the wider society. Freed from the confounding effect of heavy-handed donor influence, they used their networks to assemble a reform coalition within the major political parties. When I studied it in 2004, the reform was working: in the view of a Deputy Chief of Police, for example (not a soft touch!), political interference had gone down ‘from 90–100% to 5–10%’ of appointments. There had been reform stirrings bubbling under all along, but the donors were unable to read the signals. (Source: Chapter 7 of McCourt, W. (2006) The human factor in governance (London: Palgrave Macmillan) EXHIBIT B: MALAYSIA Following the 2008 election in which the ruling BN coalition got the fright of its life, losing the two-thirds majority which it had taken for granted, the government introduced a Governance Transformation Programme. It contains ambitious targets for abolishing hardcore poverty, reducing street crime, improving rural infrastructure etc. The government has oversold its first-year progress and it is still early days, but the progress is real. But a donor focusing only on public finances might miss that progress altogether, or downplay it, not realising the powerful head of steam behind it, and the sheer irrelevance of other reform models, however powerful in their own terms, within current Malaysian politics. For better or worse, at the moment GTP is the only game in town. (Source: McCourt, W. (2011) ‘Reconciling top-down and bottom-up: Electoral competition and service delivery in Malaysia’, University of Manchester Working Paper.) What moral should we draw from these two exhibits? Sensitivity to politics in these two cases means (or would have meant): • Going with the grain of domestic politics in a way that makes reform more sustainable • Being more, not less ambitious about the scale of reform. (Why do we always assume that indigenous reformers are less ambitious than we are? From my earlier research, I recall that the donors’ influence in Uganda was to persuade President Museveni in his early fire-breathing phase to moderate his civil service reform ambitions, not to toughen them up.) However, sensitivity to politics also means being flexible about models of reform that are worth investing in, and having top-rate political intelligence. It is my sincere hope that the draft on which I am commenting shows that the Bank, as the market leader in PSR, wishes to rise to this challenge, and show other development actors the way. The Bank is the most important international agency working on PSR. That’s not just in terms of amount of money spent, but in its long track record, the reach of its operations and the fact that PSR has remained central to the Bank – different from other major agencies in that respect. Anyone who believes that PSR is central to development must wish to see the Bank as an effective player. I therefore strongly welcome this exercise, and the spirit of self-criticism in which it has clearly been conducted.