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Submitted by Carlos Santiso on
The World Bank’s proposed new approach to public sector management raises a number of important challenges and proposes avenues to explore for policy makers and development practitioners interested in understanding and strengthening public sector governance. We all agree that public sector management is critical to development and poverty reduction, as effective, open and accountable government is crucial to governments’ ability to deliver results across sectors. Further, we all now agree that understanding the political economy of public sector management and its reform is central to any effort to improve it; we need to look beyond the forms to the functions of public sector management and better understand the institutions, interests and incentives shaping public sector performance. But are we really practicing what we preach in our lending operations in support to public sector management? Would we actually still be doing PSM lending operations if we were? The challenge is to effectively translate this knowledge into practice to improve the design of PSM operation and mainstreaming governance concerns across sectors so as to improve operational effectiveness of development finance institutions such as the World Bank. It also requires addressing the political economy of development finance institutions themselves. In a way, the proposed approach seems to reflect a certain disillusion within the public sector management field. The 2008 IEG evaluation of the World Bank’s public sector management work showed mixed results, with promising improvements in the area of public financial management, but less in the areas of civil service reform or judicial reform. For development practitioners, the approach paper actually proposes the end of public sector governance as a “vertical sector” malleable to direct interventions and dedicated projects, and its transformation into a horizontal concern that ought to be mainstreamed across government functions and in particular in those sector critical for service delivery. It challenges us to rethink, recast and reposition the public sector governance agenda in the broader development field. Rather than an end it itself, the new approach decisively proposes to apprehend public sector governance agenda not as an end in itself measured by improvements in institutional and policy quality, but as a means to achieve development results and whose performance depends on its capacity to deliver. In fact, the World Bank’s new Africa Strategy adopted in March 2011 also treats governance and public sector capacity no longer as a sector pillar or vertical sector, but rather as the foundation of its strategy to improve competitiveness and employment, while reducing vulnerability and improving resilience. The proposed new approach is indeed seducing and tempting, but would it work? It does help recast the public sector management agenda - both upstream (at the strategic level of the machinery of government) and downstream (at the sector level focusing on service delivery and development results) – giving it a renewed sense of purpose it has somehow lost in the past decade. The danger of mainstreaming is to dilute the public sector governance “sector” until it evaporates in the air, being everywhere and nowhere.