Researching the politics of development

Public sector effectiveness in Africa

Our research investigates what determines the success of public sector reform in some places but not others. To answer that question, we look at the interactions between a political regime’s ruling coalition and the policy coalitions that advocate reform in three African countries: Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda.
In a coalitional approach, we see the public sector not as a set of institutions, but as the expression of contentious interactions between state, regime, societal and transnational actors.
We identify two distinct policy domains:

  • Public sector management – the ability to guide and develop the capacity of the public sector to pursue and achieve goals.
  • Public sector compliance – ensuring that the pursuit of those goals is held accountable to the administrative rules that the public sector sets itself.

We make three propositions:

  1. The institutional space for change in the public sector is defined by the relationship between ruling coalition and policy coalition.

While in dominant regimes policy coalitions are likely to be subordinate to political incentives, more competitive settings open up to the possibility of policy coalitions using political windows of opportunity to promote change.

  1. The stability of the ruling coalition influences the kinds of reform ideas that can be translated into practice.

In dominant settings, normative paradigms are more likely to influence both public sector management and compliance. In competitive settings, there is usually not enough time for ideological and normative consolidation. Hungry for quick wins that may pay electoral dividends, political elites may be more receptive to cognitive models supplied by persuasive policy entrepreneurs.

  1. The impact of transnational actors will depend on the relative strength of the existing policy coalition.


Our findings on Ghana

We find that, due to the competitive clientelist political settlement in Ghana, reforms have been repeatedly stalled by electoral turnovers. Reforms adopted after international pressure have been subverted by political elites, as a way to channel public funders to party financiers and loyalists. Organisational fragmentation and politicisation is evident in both public sector management and compliance. Neither the management or compliance domain have developed a strong enough policy coalition able to secure autonomy from successive ruling coalitions. Lack of consistency over time, and coherence across the public sector, has limited the sustainability and impact of donor reforms.

Our findings on Uganda

The weak dominant political settlement in Uganda has combined broadly populist measures with the political pursuit of ever narrower interests aimed at keeping the ruling coalition in power. In terms of formal institutional reform, many public agencies simply do not comply with the public procurement rules. The mismatch between mandate and practice is also evident in the management of the public service. Transgressions in public sector management could be curtailed by a strong compliance domain, but the anti-corruption system has been characterised by constant politicisation.
Increased corruption results from the president’s ability to appoint politically compliant heads of anti-corruption organisations. While there is increasingly vocal coalition around public sector compliance, the dominant position of the ruling coalition continues to limit its impact on actual enforcement. Now the ruling coalition has become weak, elites systematically curtail the prospects of public sector reforms having lasting impacts.

Our findings on Rwanda

In post-genocide Rwanda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front has spent the last two decades building a coordinated and capable bureaucracy able to use donor funds in an efficient and relatively corrupt-free manner. As a dominant regime, there is something fundamentally different about Rwanda and Uganda and the public sector helps us understand what that is. Rwanda has a coherent and impactful national planning system. This is based on tangible and well defined objectives and the performance of public servants is constantly assessed. Planning strategies are symbols of a broader political programme: the Rwandan Vision 2020. The reforms have been initiated by the government and their ‘home grown’ nature is a matter of pride. Public service management has been a core political goal of the government. Animated by the perception that, historically, violence had resulted from nepotism and corruption, the creation of a specialised agency arose in the late 1990s.
The dominance of the ruling coalition is not sufficient for explaining public sector effectiveness in Rwanda: reforms were initiated, adapted and enforced in compliance with the governing ideology that is missing in similarly dominant regimes, such as Uganda. Dominant ideas among ruling elites – ideologies of governance – are key. Rwanda has a series of strong policy coalitions directly empowered and nurtured by the ruling coalition because the ruling coalition understood that they would serve their larger vision for the country. The commitment to overcome sins of the past has combined with the fear of political instability, to produce an effective public sector.