Barriers to effective civil service reform in developing countries

UNU-WIDER / Jan 2013

The civil service is the backbone of the state, and can either support or undermine a country’s entire system of governance. Donor’s recognize this important fact and have often tried to promote civil service reform in the countries they are providing aid to. However these attempts have all too often been limited in success. In the WIDER Working Paper ‘Civil Service Reform: A Review’ Sarah Repucci draws on existing research to outline a number of principles that will enable donors, governments, and advocates to design more effective reform programmes, and discusses how the most common barriers to effective reform can be overcome.

Principles of civil service reform

In part 1 of this summary we outlined the eight principles key to effective civil service reform that builds on the five principles of the Paris Declaration, local country ownership, donor alignment to local objectives, harmonization of donor processes, focus on results, and mutual accountability between donors and aid recipients, analysed by Repucci in her paper. These principles are:

  1. © UN Photo/Albert González FarranAdapt to the local context.
  2. Appreciate the long term nature of reform.
  3. Focus on the timing and sequencing of reform activities.
  4. Ground reform in analysis.
  5. Ensure national ownership of the development process.
  6. Involve a broad range of stakeholders.
  7. Co-ordinate with other donors.
  8. Decide whether systematic or incremental reforms are appropriate.

But the next question is; what are the most common barriers to effective civil service reform and how they can be overcome?

Barriers to successful civil service reform

1. Barrier: Political will

Repucci highlights political will as the greatest single challenge to civil service reform. If political leaders are not invested in reform then donors are unlikely to make any major headway. Political will is so important to civil service reform because the civil service is fundamental to the political system to the extent that change cannot take place without the agreement of the most powerful players. They are essential both in terms of ensuring reforms continue over the long term and as a source of accountability. Furthermore civil service reform can be politically costly upfront and as such politicians are unlikely to persist with it unless truly committed.


Repucci suggests three strategies for dealing with a lack of political will. First, donors can pursue an incremental approach so as to reduce political turmoil. Second, donors can attempt to engage with governments after a strong electoral victory when they feel confident enough in their position to implement reforms. Third, donors can attempt to put pressure on political leadership from the outside by strengthening civil society, or through support for democracy and good governance.

2. Barrier: Systems of patronage

Political patronage often leads to vested interests that see the civil service as a source of personal gain through pay, promotions, and employment status. Such interests are likely to see any reforms to the civil service as a threat to these benefits. Similarly many within the civil service benefit from being able to dole out public money, jobs, and other contracts and are unlikely to willingly give up such powers.


Repucci suggests that civil service reform projects faced with strong patronage systems work best when they focus on specific areas. Focussing on, for example, merit-based recruitment can both improve civil service reform while at the same time chip away at the power of vested interests.

3. Barrier: Weak institutions

Systems with weak institutions will often lack the drive necessary to push reforms through. Weak institutions are often associated with a lack of civil society, and thus external pressure for reform may be absent. Furthermore if the rule of law is weak in the country as a whole, it may well be weak within the public service. This can mean that policies are not properly elaborated and that employees are not aware of their rights and responsibilities. Reform processes in systems of weak governance start from a lower point and have more to accomplish.

© UN Photo/Rick Bajornas


Repucci argues that donors need to do two things to encourage civil service reforms in countries with weak institutions. First, they need to be realistic about what can be accomplished and the quantity of resources that will be required; often basic structures will need to be addressed before wider reforms can be pursued. Second, donors need to work harder to engage with domestic constituencies to ensure the political will for reform is present.

4. Barrier: Sustainable reform

Civil service reform can be costly in terms of time and money, and many countries undergoing reform could not afford to undertake it without donor support. However donor support cannot be indefinite and donors therefore need to ensure that the reforms can continue once their funding is focussed elsewhere.


Repucci states that to achieve this sustainable reform it must be designed so that recurrent costs can be met by domestic resources. This involves performing successful economic and political calculations during the planning process.

5. Barrier: Lack of an analytical framework

The data and evidence necessary to conduct an analysis of civil service reform is not always easy to come by. Conducting research, such as a census, to determine this necessary information can be a costly and time-consuming process. Consequently it is often difficult to find a baseline against which to measure progress. Furthermore many analysts argue that it is impossible to measure progress in civil service reform due to the many factors that affect developments.

Consequently, Repucci points out, the World Bank has emphasized the need for an analytical framework for civil service reform. However due to disagreements about the factors that affect civil service reform no uniform framework has been adopted.


Repucci argues that until there is an agreed-upon framework, donors must decide for themselves which information and models best fit the situation at hand.

6. Barrier: Donors

The final challenges Repucci highlights are created by donors themselves. Short budget cycles, staff rotation, and priority shifts can lead to a lack of stability. Furthermore donors often do not coordinate with each other as well as they could.


The solution to this problem, Repucci argues, is for donors to work to live up to the commitments made in the Paris Declaration.

Repucci finishes by suggesting that the current understanding of how best to promote civil service reform is incomplete. She argues that more studies are needed on the successes and failures of civil service reform programmes. Only once a complete picture is drawn can more complete lessons be drawn for reform proposals for the future.

This report by James Stewart summarizes WIDER Working Paper no. 2012/90, ‘Civil Service Reform: A Review’ by Sarah Repucci. 

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