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Leading through tough times: Thoughts from the front lines of public administration

Paul Zahra's picture

Perched on top a 60 meter column in a bustling square on the waterfront of Barcelona sits a magnificent statue of Christopher Columbus. With one hand clutching a map and the other pointing towards the horizon, the statue is the perfect image of a great explorer leading his fleet to the new world. History has been kind to Columbus and has bestowed on him the credit of discovering the new world.

How would Christopher Columbus measure up against today’s standards for leadership excellence? After all, he failed to achieve his “mission objective” of reaching India by 10 thousand kilometers!  Will our current generation of public sector leaders be treated as kindly by history?  

The Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) is a membership-based professional association of public administrators and managers. CAPAM works with and for many senior public administrators – and their task over the next few years is daunting as the sword of fiscal consolidation hangs by a thread over many public sectors. A recent OECD report suggests that OECD countries are promising to cut back on public sector employment and labor costs dramatically.  The challenge has arisen both because of the revenue shortfalls, and some apparent inflation in public sector pay. It seems that about 20 out of 29 OECD countries are planning wage reductions, and 15 out of 29 staff reductions over the next few years. This is a remarkable prospect as OECD countries have not been able to achieve anything like this level of reduction in public sector employment or labor costs in the last 30 years. The situation facing many low income countries is not dissimilar. 

If leadership is about getting people to want to do what you want done, then there are two big questions facing public sector leaders. First, what technical means will they draw on to improve efficiency that will have any buy-in from their staff? Driven by deep budgetary deficits in the 1980s, the concept of “New Public Management” emerged from New Zealand and drew great interest across many governments. NPM focused on government efficiency, by borrowing private sector management concepts. In its most basic form, NPM is marked by the use of quasi-contracts – between core departments and semi-autonomous agencies for service delivery and between governments and senior officials responsible for their administration. Although results of NPM did have early indications of success, over the longer term only marginal financial savings and service level improvements were achieved.  What was gained in New Zealand was primarily through policy change rather than through ingenious new contracting methods. The effectiveness of NPM was even less marked in developing countries. Many staff are now deeply cynical about the potential of ever more tightly defined contractual specifications to deliver productivity – yet another set of performance indicators will not cut it. As many developing and OECD countries are once again facing enormous challenges in deficit management, what tools will they employ and will they be credible?

Second, leaders need to maintain morale. The strength of public service organizations has always been held to be based on the commitment of their employees to public service, ethical behavior and principled conduct. The historical deal was that these values were inculcated by contractual arrangements which provided heightened job security in exchange for loyalty. This bargain has long been under pressure and it is not clear how well this bargain was holding up in settings where a culture of entitlement and patronage is deeply ingrained – but most senior managers would see some remnants of this bargain in their daily negotiations with their staff. Are the last elements of this historical bargain to be swept away – with staff whose job security is diminishing returning the compliment by no longer buying in to the values of the public sector agencies that employ them?

CAPAM has no fixed position on these questions – but sees that leaders will have to find some way through. The World Bank Public Sector Management Approach should perhaps give some pointers about how the Bank will help public service leaders find that path.


Submitted by Ian Briggs on
The fundamental and unresolved question is where are public service organizations (PSOs) on the debate between a service provider and an orchestrator (commissioner) of services to the public. The prevailing mindset of both senior public servants and local politicians is one of service providers - even citizens first reaction to PSOs is that they are providers of services and often make little or no differentiations as to whether those services are provided directly or indirectly. There remains a huge task to both educate and reorient PSM towards a notion of public service commerce - traditional approaches to free markets never fully explains how the relationship between the citizen and state interact. Until senior leaders and politicians grasp the market dynamics of public services the prevailing model will dominate. Ian Briggs Senior Fellow Institute of Local Government Studies University of Birmingham United Kingdom

What role, if any, does the Bank see for the web in tackling these issues? Up to now governments have, in general, failed to use the internet effectively for saving money or improving the quality of democratic engagement. In the UK there is a growing desire to rewrite that story so that the web is a better option for transactions *and* interactions. As a result web cultures have started to inhabit the citizen-state relationship and the internal workings of organisations to promote community, collaboration and openness. A nice summary of that can be found in the work from the Harvard Kennedy School looking at the now wave, and next wave, of web enabled public services (slides here: On the question of morale the networking power and knowledge sharing potential of the internet seems to be both cathartic and inspirational. Indeed, far far from abandoning the ideals of their employers those involved in this debate are committing their spare time to further those discussions, share their ideas and resource one another through events like LocalGovCamp (

Submitted by Anupama Dokeniya on
It would be useful to address the extent to which the ideals of commitment to public service, ethical behavior, and principled conduct have been engendered through higher job security, as opposed to stronger accountability measures - both internal within agencies, and external to citizens groups, Parliaments, and other non-executive institutions. Is there evidence that public officials more readily comply with public service values when there is a contractual agreement providing job security even where the environment of accountability - strong non-executive institutions, disclosure and conduct rules, effective oversight and monitoring, audits etc. - is weak? In other words, what works better in engendering public service values - carrots or sticks?

It is commendable that the WB is rethinking their approach to Public Sector Management. Nick Manning suggested that the World Bank can play the roles of a thought leader, major development actor, knowledge-generator and integrator. Perhaps one more role that deserves WB consideration is that of an enabler. There is no lack of ideas, strategies, policies, best practices, visions and declarations on improving public sector management. What has been disappointing is the slow rate of improvement despite concerted efforts by dedicated and committed governments. Developing effective strategies is an essential, albeit relatively manageable, task. Implementing the strategy to achieve real results is much more difficult. The public service is a vast, complex and inter-related organism. Implementing change in this environment requires coalescing commitments from multiple organizations, coordinating the activities across organizational jurisdictions, sharing of resources and authorities, and, most importantly, the collective shouldering of accountabilities. This is where the quality of leadership will be the determining factor between excellence and mediocrity. Quality leadership should not be confused with authority and control from the top. The public service is an intelligent and thinking organism where no single person can, or should, direct all aspects of its operation. Leadership must reside at all levels of the organization so that all its components can adapt to changing circumstances while remaining focused on the collective objective. Competent, effective and ethical leadership is a prerequisite for improvements to public service management. The Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) estimates that within the 52 Commonwealth countries, over 100,000 public servants occupy positions of leadership. While they are all competent professionals in their own right, the majority have scant leadership experience and limited opportunities for leadership development. At the urging of member countries, the Government and Institutional Development Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat is putting forward a multiyear Commonwealth Leadership for Development Initiative. A key component of the initiative is to strengthen the capacity of training and development institutes in member countries so that they can design and deliver leadership programmes to meet national public service needs. This initiative will enable governments to better achieve results for public service management. We would like to invite the World Bank to consider their role as an enabler of change and join us in strengthening the leadership capacity of public service organizations. David Waung Executive Director and CEO Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management

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