The World Bank and Public Sector Management: Taking stock

This page in:

ImageIn the two weeks that the draft PSM Approach for 2010-2020 has been published on this blog for consultation, many experts and colleagues have taken the time and trouble to offer comments. These comments have enriched the debate and, plus or minus a few contradictions, offer some very clear ways forward. On behalf of the team working on the PSM approach, I would like to thank all contributors who have posted on this blog or sent their comments by email. While this is only the start of a debate that will continue to unfold, let me attempt to summarize some key messages that have emerged from the feedback received so far:

The treatment afforded to "politics" in the Approach is clearly seen as very important. There is some appreciation for the significant step that the Approach is taking towards integrating politics within its mainstream PSM work – but there is a way to go. The points raised here fall into four main groupings.

First, there is the lobby for realism in diagnostic work – a plea that we don't just make the now obligatory genuflection to the importance of politics, but that we state clearly and starkly the need to understand how power is distributed amongst the elite when considering support options (Stuti Khemani) and "how politics is played around here" (Christopher Pollitt, Richard Allen, Anthony Higgins, Mark Robinson). More broadly, the emphasis on a greater discipline in diagnostic work is welcomed by several commentators – but some pointed out that what the Approach has in mind could usefully be spelled out in more detail (Malcolm Green). Sanjay Vani and Alice Poole propose that we raise the bar in terms of the quality of diagnostic work, noting that our newish concern with political economy must be able to predict winners as well as providing analyses that seem to justify our failures.

Second, on politics, Richard Allen and Gord Evans also suggest that the Bank is often rather coy about reaching a workable conclusion from political diagnoses – avoiding a clear conclusion that political interests will make progress implausible in some settings. Gord Evans asks where and at what point the Bank holds the robust discussions amongst informed specialists that are really necessary to assess the likelihood that the political situation will support a proposed reform program. Phil Keefer notes that the Bank must be able to admit (at least to itself) that how some political principals want to use the public sector is inconsistent with any efficiency- or welfare-improving reforms – and that this is not amenable to a simple technocratic response.

In proposing ways of moving from political analysis to action, Willy McCourt notes that the results chain comes over as somewhat technocratic and apolitical – as if we are thinking that if all the dominoes are lined up then it is inevitable that they will all fall when the first is pushed.  Willy's and others' points can also be taken to suggest that more humility would be useful on the Bank side – and that one way of using a political perspective is to look at the way that things are moving because of large tectonic political pressures, and then make our somewhat modest technical value-added at the margins of these more inevitable changes.

Finally, on politics, the question of the Bank's willingness to take risks was highlighted by Richard Hogg. In PSM there are many uncertainties and if we are to remain in this business then we need to accept the risks of ineffectiveness that come with it.  Richard urges some discussion of the Bank's own willingness to tolerate risk and its appetite for taking the long haul.

Benjamin Santa Maria and others note the lack of a "theory of government", and this seems to highlight a point made implicitly or explicitly by many, that the draft is insufficiently clear about its "theory of change" – it does not take a position about what makes change possible in a highly political environmentDavid Booth makes this point in the context of the discussion on indicators – emphasizing that the design of indicators must be constructed on the basis of a theory of change, and not aimless data-mining. Nicola Smithers and Alice Poole point out that the draft is weak on change management and on how the available "change space" can be actively enlarged through working with stakeholders and others to motivate reform. Stephane Guimbert also argued for more detail on the underpinning theory of change, noting the dangers of ending up with a completely agnostic "whatever works" position.

David Booth also suggests that, in clarifying the underpinning assumptions about the theory of change, that the Approach could usefully learn from the work on Limited Access Orders and, at a more disaggregate level, that being undertaken in the Africa Power and Politics research, which offer some practical insights into how ruling elites manages major economic rents and the implications that this has for PSM.

The risk theme was welcomed as a corrective to the temptation to imply that all new projects have found a way to manage all the inherent uncertainties, but Grace Morgan points out that the framing of risk management and mitigation seems to counter the sense of experimentation or innovation that was intended. She suggests that the Approach balances out (fewer) references to risk with a parallel focus on returns. This point is also made very clearly by David Booth who points out the emphasis on managing risks and asks "Why not be more up-beat, saying more about not missing opportunities?" 

Others pushed back at what they saw as a little too much agnosticism. Ray Shostak pointed out that in some areas there were, at least, "good" if not "best" practices – a point that was picked up by Christopher Pollitt in his observation that task-specificity is important: some conclusions could be reached about the differences between refuse collection and health care management. Zsuzsanna Lonti, Colin Talbot and Philipp Krause make similar points. 

Bringing some of the research and data collection gathering down to the ground was the theme of some remarks. The need for a basic set of comparative pay and employment data was emphasized (anonymous and "former sector management turned academic" – FSMTA). FSMTA also noted that the field, and the draft, would benefit from some longer term perspectives on how successful reforms evolved and were supported, counterbalancing the rush to declare victory in very recent reforms that tends to be the hallmark of donors. Zahid Hasnain's post on performance pay and the need for a greater degree of empiricism in approaching this question, also argues for better data collection on current practices. Zsuzsanna Lonti supports this – but notes that the move towards collecting data concerning behavioral (de facto) rather than formal (de jure) change increases the costs of data collection. 

Others pointed out a degree of introspection in the draft. In the discussion about the challenge of getting a large and multi-layered entity such as the World Bank to collaborate internally, we could be looking more closely at how this challenge is met in other large organizations (Talib Esmail).  Others noted that the possibility of collaborating more closely with other actors in the field, consulting practices as well as other donors, is under-emphasized (FSMTA and Lanre Rotimi). Mark Robinson also pointed out that the assumption behind strengthening professional communities of practice seemed to be that these would be located entirely within the Bank.

Several commentators identified some areas that risk being sidelined. A couple of commentators noted that work on public sector management at the subnational level could be emphasized more – not least because donors such as the Bank are likely to have more traction there (Warren Master and John Gonzalez). Marcus Manuel points out that public sector pay reform is sufficiently significant in itself to merit some distinctive treatment.  Another comment expressed a concern that the apparent attraction of the downstream work might squeeze out the center of government work upstream (FSMTA). Consistent with that point, Gord Evans noted that policy management, while mentioned, was not explored in any systematic way. Paul Zahra, Anupama Dokeniya and Svetlana Proskurovska raise points about leadership, values and morale – highlighting that these are key questions that are somewhat under-discussed in the draft. The recognition in the Approach that the domain in which the public sector "performs" is not just service delivery is clearly welcomed.  However, a couple of commentators found the references to regulatory quality a little perfunctory and under-developed (William Kandel and Jana Malinska). Ian Briggs points out that there is always a risk that the dominant assumption that the public sector is the provider rather than the commissioner of services will predominate.

Two major omissions were noted. Some commentators noted the surprising absence of any references to technology (Malcolm Green and Benjamin Welby), and others highlighted that the distinctive case of fragile states needs some specific attention (Mark Robinson). Lyn Squire noted that nothing was said about the costs of reform, pointing out that without this consideration then the tradeoff between costs and benefits could of course not be ascertained.

There were also some words of guidance concerning the tone of the ApproachNicola Smithers underscores that the Bank's successful experience with PEFA was built on some very careful relationship management with partners (other agencies and governments). She warns that the tone in relation to the diagnostic protocol, while technically correct, could be softened somewhat. On the consultative approach, Nicola Smithers urged that country level consultations be given a more prominent place, and an anonymous commentator pointed out that hosting the dialogue in English was, of itself, rather restrictive.

On the Bank's internal organization, Marcus Manuel also argues for further decentralization – placing staff nearer to the client (although this would require some considerable discussion about the degree to which this has already happened in some regions). Mark Ahern highlights that the more continuous dialogue urged comes with resource implications.

Bill Dorotinsky notes that the report's recommendations should be linked more strongly to the analysis in the draft.

Finally, Carlos Santiso puts his finger on a key dilemma – although does not say that the draft has got the balance wrong. Carlos highlights that in positioning PSM as a problem-solving approach rather than as a distinct discipline, we have to ensure that we mitigate the risk that we will dilute it out of existence.


Nick Manning

Retired Head, Governance & Public Sector Management group World Bank and former Head of the Public Sector Management and Performance Division at the OECD

Join the Conversation

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