The principles of effective civil service reform in developing countries


The question of effectiveness in at the center of all current discussions around development aid. At the same time there is a clear consensus that aid can only play a catalyst role due to its monetary value. Technical advice, especially in governance and institution-related issues, is seen as one such promising catalytic area where aid could make a difference. 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 civil service reform programmes, and discusses how the most common barriers to effective reform can be overcome.

The civil service is the backbone of the state, and can either support or undermine a country’s entire system of governance. Donors recognize this is important 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. Repucci argues that there is a simple set of principles which should be followed when designing civil service reforms and that following these principles will lead to more successful reform processes.  
Principles of civil service reform
Repucci outlines eight principles key to effective civil service reform that build on the five principles of the Paris Declaration (2005): local country ownership, donor alignment to local objectives, harmonization of donor processes, focus on results, and mutual accountability between donors and aid recipients. These civil service principles are:
  1. Adapt to the local context
This is the principle that Repucci highlights as the one most important to successful civil service reform. It is a mantra the donors have repeated many times, but Repucci suggests that actions have not always followed words in this case. It is likely that any civil service reform programme which does not take local context into account will be unsuccessful.
  1. Appreciate the long-term nature of reform
Reforming the civil service is essentially reforming the fundamentals of a political and social system. While the changes that lead to civil service reform may be implemented quickly, these changes require follow ups such as monitoring, training, and public information campaigns. Consequently, reform of the civil service takes time, often longer than people hope for or realize. This needs to be recognized early so it can be taken into account during the planning stage. Donors who fail to take the long-term nature of civil service reform seriously will be more likely to withdraw support due to pressure from their domestic constituencies, or because they misread slow change as no change.
  1. Focus on the timing and sequencing of reform activities

© John Hogg / World Bank

When it comes to civil service reform there is often more to be done than is possible at one time, and often certain tasks need to be completed before others begins. Consequently, planning the timing and sequencing of reform activities is particularly important. Repucci suggests that the sequencing of reforms should be influenced by two main factors. First, sequencing may be determined by the logic of reform. It makes sense to make lay-offs before implementing pay increases, or to institute merit-based recruitment policies before taking on professionals. Second, the sequencing of reform should be influenced by local conditions. For example a change in a country’s economic situation might lead to financial reform being given priority, or political support for certain reforms may give them priority over others. 
  1. Ground all reform in analysis
Donors often emphasize the importance of doing background research before engaging in a reform project. However, Repucci suggests, they all too often neglect to put this into practice. There are various types of research donors could, and should, pursue, ranging from contextual analysis, to diagnostic work and capacity assessments. Repucci acknowledges that research has been improving over the years, but suggests that there are still more examples of projects based on inadequate research than the contrary.  
  1. Ensure national ownership of the development process
The logic of national ownership is that if local government is engaged in the reform process and helps to develop the approach, then it will feel more responsible for the outcomes and will take implementation more seriously. This is in contrast to reform programmes imposed from the outside, which are often seen as prioritizing interests other than the target country’s well-being. Ownership is most complete when a project is run entirely by the domestic government, with outside donors playing only the role of resource provider. However even in cases where donors have specific objectives they wish to achieve, ownership can be fostered by bringing the local government into the planning process to help design the reform strategy. 
  1. Involve a broad range of stakeholders
Repucci argues that all reform processes can benefit from the inclusion of external stakeholders. In the case of Civil Service reform, key external stakeholders include civil society groups, independent journalists, organized labour, and grass roots social movements. Repucci suggests that engaging external stakeholders has two main benefits. First, civil society can put pressure on the domestic government to ensure that reforms are sustained in the long term. If key actors are aware of the reforms that are taking place they can act as external monitors, helping to maintain reform in the long term by keeping it in the public eye. This is particularly important in situations where the reform process spans across changes in government. Second, engaging with external stakeholders can help reduce opposition to reform. Trade unions, for example, may initially see reform as a threat to their interests and so may resist. Including unions in the process of designing reforms can help mitigate this resistance. 
  1. Co-ordinate with other donors
A developing country with limited capacity will often find dealing with multiple donors—with different conditions and priorities—difficult and discouraging. Furthermore, coordination increases opportunities for donors to learn from each other and improve their practices. If reform is to be effective, coordination is crucial. Repucci suggests that donors know their funding needs to be coordinated, but that they often fail to put this into practice. This is partly because donors often struggle to reconcile their constituents’ domestic policies with the pooling of resources in a third country. Similarly donors may rush to put together funding packages without considering whether they could complement other programmes elsewhere. Repucci points out that a number of successfully coordinated programmes  involve national ownership, with the domestic government taking the lead role and ensuring that the various donors work together to serve their interests. 
  1. Decide whether systemic  or incremental reforms are appropriate
There is a debate amongst civil service reform experts about whether reform programmes should focus on a specific, manageable aspect of reform, or whether programmes can only be successful if they pursue systemic change. Repucci suggests that the answer to this question is not clear, and that consequently the appropriate approach must be tailored to the particular characteristics of the country in question. This is perhaps best articulated by public administration experts Salvatore Schiavo-Campo and Pachampet Sundaram, who suggest that reform should be both as fast as possible, and as slow as necessary (Schiavo-Campo and Sundaram: 2000: 733).
Having outlined the key principles of effective civil service reform Repucci moves on to look at some of the major barriers to civil service reform, and to suggest ways in which they can be overcome.
Barriers to successful civil service reform
In part 2 of this summary we outline six key barriers to effective civil service. These barriers are:
  1. Political will
  2. Systems of patronage
  3. Weak institutions
  4. Sustainable reform
  5. Lack of an analytical framework
  6. Donors
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 further research be done, leading to lessons 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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