From Ronaldo and Buffon to teamwork: what finance ministries can learn from the beautiful game

This page in:
Source: World Bank country economists, Karachi stock exchange, and World Bank calculations
South Africa is steadily preparing for the 2010 Soccer World Cup while the enthusiasm at ground level builds. Photo: © John Hogg/World Bank

If you were a football (soccer) player, who would you be? Representatives of Ministries of Finance from 20 African countries were confronted with this question at a CABRI-sponsored conference in Johannesburg last April.

​Some initial answers pointed to famous strikers, like Ronaldo or Messi, while a few felt more like goalkeepers under siege; but soon the group came to the conclusion that, as in football, no single player can win a match. Regardless of lightning skills or position, one needs to be part of a well-functioning team to succeed.

​Almost everywhere, Ministries of Finance are responsible for two critical areas of government activity: economic policy and public finances. There are many different models they use to perform these functions – from the besieged fortress to the party spoiler, or from the mid-fielder to the micro-manager. But what all effective ministries of finance have in common is their understanding that they cannot deliver on these responsibilities entirely on their own.

The effectiveness of economic policy depends on the behavior of economic agents beyond government. Managing public finances requires the concurrence of multiple stakeholders, from line ministries to members of parliament to audit offices. Many more actors are needed to make public resources result in the effective delivery of services, programs and projects.

To succeed in these two areas, Ministries of Finance need to convene, consult, analyze, communicate, partner, coordinate and align. None of these can be done in isolation. Effective Ministries of Finance, no matter how capable or powerful, need teamwork, very much like a skillful football midfielder.

Of course, finance ministries should have secure foundations in place – credible budgets, systems for predictable and well-controlled budget execution, cash and debt management, and accurate accounting and reporting. Without these basic fundamentals, successful policy implementation is a challenge.  

Just as good chemistry and communication between football players is crucial for teams to win, finance ministries must be open and communicate well to build incentives for change.  Ministries should keep it simple and explain intended reforms without getting too technical.

​They should also consult widely to obtain appropriate input, support and ownership. These steps will contribute to building healthy relationships and confidence to help foster a willingness to change.

Ministries of finance should also forge strong internal and external alliances  – with the Center of Government, the Cabinet, line ministries, departments and agencies. This means the finance ministry must have the skills to build relationships, to engage deeply and to adopt constructive approaches to help other government actors when needed.

​Finance ministries should not be ivory towers , but must instead play an active role in influencing and contributing to reform implementation across government.

To operate efficiently and integrate well across structural boundaries, finance ministries must seek and explore synergies across their different functions and be prepared for a changing environment. Establishing incentives to save in times of plenty will help ministries implement necessary reforms  during times of stress (a time when governments are normally open to reforms).

In addition, during times of plenty, ministries should create the right capacities and environment to facilitate the implementation of even bigger reforms during times of stress.

While it is true that at early stages of development Ministries of Finance concentrate a great deal of power due to unbalanced capabilities, economic risks, or lack of coordinating mechanisms other than the allocation of public resources, it has been observed that this role changes with political, economic and social progress.

​Rather than resisting such change, smart Ministries of  Finance use their power to strengthen governance beyond their walls.  Mastering the art of change for effective, sustainable and fiscally responsible policies involves learning and adapting through internal and external feedback. 
At the end of the Johannesburg meeting, African Ministries of Finance agreed that great teams keep their eyes on the prize and learn from failure as well as success. Let’s cheer them on.


Mario Marcel

Senior Director, Governance Global Practice

Join the Conversation

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