Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Public sector reform—changing behavior with cars and computers?

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During a discussion on public service management reform (PSM) in Zambia, a senior official with strong experience in this field, explained: “in order to implement PSM, I had been asked to provide cars to reforms teams, we did it; then, we were asked to provide computers, we did that too; then, we were asked to provide them formal training overseas, we did that as well; they came back and what happened?... Nothing! There was no greater capacity to reform despite these investments. Why is it so? Because reforming public sector requires a change in behavior and mindsets of people; cars, computers and formal training do not help in most cases”.  

What is the assessment of successive projects in Zambia in this area by our interviewed senior official? “The day a project is initiated, our problems begin”. Why? “Because of differentiated treatment of those in project units and the mention of vast sums of funds; civil servants outside the project unit do not wish to cooperate and consider the reform as alien to them and do not try to implement project tasks and certainly do not change behaviors”.  

But would not a lack of computers/cars/training be an excuse for delaying implementation of painful reforms? If yes, does it help to provide them to achieve the expected impact of the project? One could argue that, without money, donors’ leverage would be low. However, is $10-20 million for a project in this area the best way to convince civil servants in a country to be more productive and change behaviors? The promise of significant financial resources to Ministries seems to promote perverse incentives… In many countries a project becomes a way to extract and share rents rather than achieve improved public sector performance. This could be considered a waste but it may be more problematic if it is seen in countries as a way to procrastinate on reforms: requests for training/equipment upgrade could indeed never end…

Our senior official concluded on performance management: “all the individuals have performance much above the average in my department but collectively, the unit performs much below the average. How is that possible?” A Zambian version of Lake Wobegon!

How could we try to tackle these issues? First a $10-20 million project, conventionally implemented for 4-5 years, is often not actually designed to address a range of complex issues within government and across Ministries. Can we change mindsets across the board in the civil service in this period of time? Probably not and almost certainly not through the conventional approach, which presumes leadership for change within government and ignores the underlying incentive structure.  Absent such leadership for change, the financial assistance provided by investment lending often only serves to distribute rents and sustain a dysfunctional public sector. 

So what is the alternative? First, we need to recognize that any government represents a system to which people are adapted. Even a dysfunctional system has strong incentives and behaviors which will adapt and shape a conventional project to fit its needs, often to achieve goals that are not consistent with the project’s objectives. Thus we need to recognize the possible distortions in how projects are actually implemented. 


Second, in countries and situations where the ability to manage a broad scope reform is weak (as in many countries where donors operate) a key principle of design could be to target a “catalytic” action in an area where there is an internal constituency for change. That would also provide a demonstration effect and indirectly widen the constituency for reform. A series of small but successful reforms may hold more hope for behavioral change than a large reform that presumes internal leadership and proves ineffective. Experimental pilots could be undertaken in selected Ministries or departments to understand how behavioral change could be initiated and how we might “work with the grain” to bring about change. What is usually missing in most projects in this area is the in-depth understanding of the drivers for reform/status quo forces and incentives at the individual level (from senior management to the bottom of the pyramid). Some Ministries can appear to be impervious to change at some stages and it may be good to acknowledge it.

Third, if money is not the most important constraint to solving a public management problem and might actually lead to perverse effects, we should have the flexibility to think of launching small “projects without lending”, that would only consist of technical assistance/knowledge transfer in order to change (at the margin in a first step) individual/collective incentives in a public institution. 


Anand Rajaram

World Bank Sector Manager

Patricia Palale

Public Sector Management Specialist

Gael Raballand

Practice Manager, Governance Global Practice in West Africa

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