14 March 2016
Public Sector Reform (PSR) is one of the central unsolved challenges of the development agenda: we know that developed countries tend to have strong states, and we assume that an effective state is a precondition for sustainable inclusive development. But we also know that much of the comparative historical experience that we can rely on points to processes and dynamics unfolding on a scale of centuries – not years, nor decades. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, public sector reform initiatives as currently designed consistently fall short of their intended targets, much less significant outcomes in terms of service delivery or poverty reduction. This has resulted in no small amount of self-examination within the PSR community, with a clear discursive shift away from ‘best practice’ and towards ‘best fit’. The aim is no longer good governance, but ‘good enough’ governance: not which models are in abstract better, but which forms are in practice more likely to succeed.
The failure of PSR seems to have brought the conversation from the Platonic realm of theory and strategy down to the tangible praxis of implementation tactics. In the wake of disappointment with conventional wisdom, ‘new’ approaches to public sector reform have begun to stir the development agenda: we categorise them broadly into ‘leadership’, ‘social accountability’ and ‘policy adaptation’.
What is interesting about this next generation of reforms is that they try to sideline the seemingly intractable challenges of PSR by looking outside the state as such, generally shifting the focus away from bureaucratic institutions and towards political leaders and civil society. It is early days for new approaches to public sector reform in Africa: while ideas like political commitment, transparency or learning have been around for many years, their most recent expressions in policy are still being tinkered with in search of greater effectiveness. If one lesson emerges from ongoing experiences, it is that novel approaches are likely to work better when carried out alongside one another: committed leadership coupled with strong social accountability; transparency initiatives which give rise to innovative reforms guided by clear vision; and policy adaptation driven by long-term political commitment open to public criticism. All three seem to hold greater promise when seen as intersecting approaches, rather than individual interventions.
We take issue with new approaches to PSR not because they are intrinsically wrong, but because they risk neglecting the core challenges that made old approaches a disappointment to begin with: a move away from building formal institutions may be smart from a project implementation perspective, but may devolve into a kind of short-term naiveté which mistakes tactical changes for strategic transformation. The lacklustre performance of the conventional public sector reform agenda was not rooted in the wrong choice of goals, but in the wrong frame for intervention and assessment. Strong public financial management or auditing are necessary for any state to be sustainably effective, whether that state is Denmark or Liberia. Anti-corruption efforts are not out of place simply because one is in Kampala rather than Seoul. And Weberian bureaucracy remains a worthy ideal, no matter how long it takes for a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo to achieve. What the institutional and political history of Denmark and South Korea demonstrates is that public sector reform – state-building – is a hard, long-term struggle between tradition and change, one that involves building new institutions, overcoming entrenched social norms and attracting the ire of those who stand to profit from informality.
The old challenges of public sector reform call for a clear political strategy, and yet it is worth asking whether new approaches offer much beyond a few tactical innovations. That is the crux of the problem: leadership, social accountability and policy adaptation feel like short-term fixes to donor problems, in the vein of ongoing efforts to make development assistance more politically smart. But they offer little to those civil servants and politicians in African states who are ready and willing to swim against the current, making numerous and powerful enemies in their drive to enforce public sector laws and regulations. Embattled reformers need strategic political support that is sustained over the long institution-building cycle, and courageous enough to build reform coalitions within and beyond the public sector itself, even at the risk of ruffling some feathers.
Aid donors and country leaders need to come to terms with the fact that the challenges of PSR do not call for novel technical fixes, but for a strategy of sustained political support for reformers.
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