To achieve sustainable development goals, let’s get civil service right

This page in:
Sustainable Development Goals Sustainable Development Goals

Editor's note: This blog post is part of a series for the 'Bureaucracy Lab', a World Bank initiative to better understand the world's public officials.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address a swath of topics: poverty, hunger, education, gender equality, climate, and infrastructure, to name a few. SDG 16 calls to “build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels,” a task in which well-functioning governments play no small role. The call for effective governments, however, extends beyond SDG 16 and weaves its way throughout all other goals, which rely largely on the public sector to design policies, operationalize strategies, and deliver services to societies. 

To discuss and advocate for effective governments without considering the individuals that form them would be a glaring oversight. Institutional strength and government capacity depend largely on the civil servants that populate the offices, schools, hospitals, clinics, and fields around the world. A clear understanding of the factors that drive civil servant motivation and performance, then, can begin to illuminate the way towards greater government capability and cross-cutting SDG achievement.   

A growing body of research leverages high quality data to provide insight into these factors. In generating evidence on the best approaches to civil service, we can better understand how to achieve SDGs.  Some data-driven findings follow:

Better civil service practices can lead to better designed and managed policies.

Back-office bureaucrats — the administrators who draft policies, design reform, and manage projects — constitute a large share of civil servants. Their performance matters for the efficiency of public service delivery. In Nigeria, for example, an increase in autonomy for bureaucrats corresponded to higher project completion rates in a range of sectors, including that of energy (SDG 7) and infrastructure (SDG 9). In Italy, managerial talent impacts public sector office productivity. Pinpointing context-specific best practices in civil service management can yield returns in policy design and implementation.

Better civil service practices can improve front line service delivery.

While back-office civil servants draft policies and manage projects, front line civil servants put them into play.  These are the teachers, nurses, doctors, community health workers, and extension agents that bridge the gap between paper and practice in public health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), economic development (SDG 8), and inequality reduction (SDG 10). Their performance — and related management practices — matter for service delivery. 

In Paraguay, providing agricultural extension agents with GPS-monitoring cell phones, for example, increased the share of farmers visited by 22 percent. In Zambia, recruitment strategies that emphasized opportunities for career advancement led to the selection of community health assistants that conducted more household visits and organized more community meetings

Better civil service management can translate to better citizen outcomes.

Ultimately, we want to see that civil service management practices can transform citizen welfare. In India, we find just that: performance pay for teachers increased test scores. In Peru, unconditional wage increases attracted higher quality teachers and also increased test scores, underscoring the need for context-specific research. And in the above Zambia study, communities served by the “career”-recruited community health assistants had higher rates of vaccination, breastfeeding, de-worming treatments, and safe stool disposal; and lower rates of child respiratory illness and child malnutrition.

Better civil service practices can open up more funds for SDG achievement.

If governments get tax and procurement practices right, millions of dollars could be redirected to SDG-achievement.  Estimates in The Russian Federation suggest that if the worst-performing 20 percent of procurement officials were as effective as the median officer, the government would save 10 percent of its procurement costs — or a jarring USD 13 billion. Civil service data and research provides insight into how to achieve such savings. In tax offices in Pakistan, performance-based pay for tax inspectors led to a 46 percent increase in tax revenue growth rate. In procurement offices in Pakistan, giving procurement officers more autonomy reduced procurement prices without sacrificing quality, opening up significant funds for other use.

Approaches to and conversations about SDGs often lean on individual and household-level micro-data, which, to be sure, yields key information on best approaches to development. However, data on civil servants holds powerful insights for government performance and welfare outcomes. No one-size-fits-all approach exists for civil service management practices. More and better data can reveal best practices for varying contexts. This data, along with experimentation, can help to push SDGs ahead. 

To broaden the database on civil servants is to uncover pathways to optimal resource allocation, policy-making, and service delivery, all of which play an instrumental role in achieving the SDGs by 2030.

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000