AGI's Approach to Public Sector Reform

16th March 2011

Last month’s ODI event on Public Sector Innovation focused on the need to move beyond purely technical approaches to reform, whether in the OECD countries or in the developing world.

Christian Bason spoke about how those leading public services need to practise ‘professional empathy’ to help them understand the way services are actually experienced by citizens.

Similarly, at the Africa Governance Initiative, we often talk about the need to “walk in the shoes” of leaders, so that in developing government capacity the focus is on the critical capacities that are really needed to drive implementation of key development programmes - whether that is electrification schemes or extension services for smallholder farmers or free healthcare for mothers and infants.

In my talk, I described these critical capacities as the ‘3 Ps’ of prioritisationplanning andperformance management. The discussion afterwards included some challenging questions and observations about how to strike the right balance between being pragmatic and systematic. How do you make sure capacity is embedded in systems, not just in individuals? When is it better to focus on quick wins to try to build momentum for change and when on fundamental reforms?

It’s a difficult balance to strike.

On the one hand, big system-wide reform programmes often seem to struggle to generate political buy-in that they need to be successful. As the World Bank’s new Africa Strategy puts it, “The Bank’s experience with civil-service reform has been, to put it politely, mixed.” One reason is that politicians are (understandably, and rightly) impatient to see concrete impact, and so are rarely operating on the same timelines or with the same incentives as these long-term programmes.

But on the other hand, interventions focused too squarely on just getting the job done – such as Project Implementation Units – are widely derided for putting the interests of particular projects ahead of the long-term needs of the wider public service (“PIUs may neither develop capacity nor sustain projects”, according to one report, and “can be used as a cop-out for fundamental reforms” according to another).

The consensus seemed to be that the trick is to align the politics of reform with the practicalities, by linking the longer-term capacity improvements that the system needs to the concrete short-term results that politicians and the public care about. That’s something David Booth and his colleagues on the Africa Power & Politics programme are thinking about. It’s also something we’re working on at AGI.

For example, in Rwanda, AGI has been supporting the development of the Strategic Capacity Building Initiative, announced last month by President Kagame during a Conference to mark the 20th Anniversary  of the African Capacity Building Foundation. The SCBI will take a different, more practical approach to capacity development, that starts with the key medium-term priorities that the government has identified in sectors like agriculture and energy, and works back to the capacities needed to achieve them.

As President Kagame said, “We have spent far too much time, energy and resources on building the capacity, but we continue to lack the commensurate results we ought to expect from this investment.”

We’re excited to be part of this new approach to making sure the return on capacity investment is better in future.

Paul Skidmore is AGI’s Director of Strategy and Fundraising, and will be speaking at the CIPFA International Conference on Wednesday 16th March with ODI’s Director Alison Evans on the role of good governance in achieving the Millennium Development Goals.