Rolf Alter, Director for Public Governance and Territorial Development, OECD: exclusive interview
Rolf Alter, who leads a 200-strong team at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, is on a mission to help administrations improve their performance. He tells Winnie Agbonlahor what civil servants can learn from the most advanced governments – and what they have to work out for themselves
Rolf Alter has spent his whole career working to improve public governance around the world. And as the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Director of Public Governance and Territorial Development, he currently leads a 230-strong team working with 70 governments. So he’s a man who knows what works in strengthening governments’ performance – but he’s learned just as much about the importance of understanding the environment and tailoring solutions to local circumstances. “I think of a civil service as a very critical ingredient of a country which has its own specific history and social context,” he says: a particular approach can be hugely successful in one country, but completely useless in another.
Look at Australia, he says. The country’s federal government has a “very well-developed set of policies, very good institutional frameworks, and fits extremely well with the other parts of the governance system in Australia.” Nonetheless, other nations “can’t just copy what the Australians do.”
Or take Korea and Estonia, widely respected for their advances in digital government: “But can you take these places and simply copy them? No. you have to be in a world that is called either Estonia, which has started from scratch; or Korea, which has made an enormous transformation process from a relatively backward country to one of the leading countries in today’s policy league table.” If other countries tried a similar approach to developing digital services, he adds, they might find that citizens are “much more reluctant when it comes to the access of information and the management of information by governments.”
Not policies, but principles
Yet if the policies themselves can’t easily be transferred, Alter argues that certain principles do translate well across national borders. He believes, for example, that in addressing policy challenges governments should start at the beginning: with the needs and interests of citizens. “You don’t import something and [implement it]: you have to be in line with your citizens,” he says. “I think the most important investment by governments is to find out what citizens want. We need to be sure that we really give space to citizens’ voices. That’s where it all starts.”
And there’s another common factor, he says: governments today enjoy “this enormous privilege of having a set of objectives that are globally relevant: the sustainable development goals.” Set out in a 2015 UN resolution, the ‘SDGs’ and their 169 targets provide a clear framework for positive development, says Alter: governments that want to make progress “could say: ‘If I want to pursue them in my country, what do I need to do to get there?’”
To achieve the SDGs’ objectives and meet citizens’ needs, Alter adds, civil servants should certainly look abroad for inspiration – but it’s crucial that ideas are adapted to fit their country’s own unique circumstances.
To know the answer, first know yourself
Here’s a third common principle, according to Alter. “Most administrations don’t have an inventory of their human capital: they don’t have a list of the 500 or so most senior people, which, we think at the OECD, is a mistake.”
Governments without this kind of an overview of their senior leaders, he says, lack an understanding of their own capabilities, and struggle to identify “who they should invest in” and “what type of skills [they] need to deal with increasingly complex problems and innovation in the public sector.” Top officials may be able to identify the skills and capabilities required to address a particular problem, he explains, but “if I don’t know who I have to skill up, when and in what sense, this would be a missing piece of information that can become very costly.”
One country Alter believes bucks this trend is the Netherlands. In the Dutch model, “there is something called the ‘civil service core’ of 400 to 500 people who are treated as one important unit of the civil service,” he explains. “These people have to meet certain criteria and are tested against the highest standards of professional capacities.”
Though Alter seems fond of the Dutch model, he stops short of describing it as the right way to go. Instead, he refers to it as “a good starting point [for] a discussion about what needs to be done”, and a “very important way to look at it,” while emphasising – as is his habit – that “the same thing doesn’t work for every country.” The Netherlands system, he adds, “is very flexible, which I think pretty nicely of; but in many ways you could also say that the French system of extremely well-trained people that are going to work in government also has great merits.”
Along with leadership development, appointment processes for senior officials are crucial in creating a strong cadre of top officials. And here, there’s great variety between democracies in matters such as selection systems, sources of recruits and, most controversially, ministers’ influence over civil service appointments. The latter, Alter notes, has created some “real debate” recently. “I think there is growing awareness that we have to better marry political leadership and administrative leadership, because the political mandate and the administrative capacity need to really compliment each other,” he says – and this “doesn’t always happen in the most efficient way.”
So how much say should ministers get in appointing senior officials? “I personally think that ministers need to feel really comfortable with the people they work with: that’s absolutely critical. If you have no confidence in your direct collaborators, I don’t think that’s a good model, so I think political leaders should really have the freedom to make sure that they know people around them and that they trust them.”
There are, he says, “many ways to go about it,” adding that he is no fan of extremes. Replacing a swathe of senior officials with every new political leader – as in the USA – is too costly, he believes.
However, he argues that it’s “not possible” to leave the civil service leadership completely unchanged when a new government takes office. Returning to the merits of the Dutch model, Alter argues that the most effective way to “organise change” during political transitions is to examine the requirements of the incoming ministers’ policy agenda, then to find out “what the competency is inside government [by producing] a list of 400-500 people that are working in the senior positions”, and to match policy or reform requirements to the people best equipped to deliver them.
Inventing an inventory
This model only works when governments can produce such an audit of their leaders’ skills and experience. But many top officials, Alter says, are becoming increasingly aware of their administrations’ shortcomings – and are approaching the OECD for help. “There is a movement towards recognising that governments should be aware of the people [they] have and those that [they] would need,” he says. “And countries in the OECD have said they would like to work with us on defining what type of qualities you have to look for” in senior officials.
These skills, he adds, include “not just technical capacity: it’s also managerial capacity; the ability to instill innovation in the public sector; integrity; and certainly [the ability to] speak truth to your leaders.” In future, he adds, the OECD could create a profile featuring this “rich set of qualities, which will be applied when it comes to hiring and appointing people to these kinds of levels.”
So the OECD may be able to offer substantial help in future to countries that want to assess their leadership cadres, with the aim of plugging skills gaps, deploying individuals where they’re most needed, and helping senior officials to realise their full potential. But it won’t be a generic solution. For as Alter says, each country is unique – and each country needs its own, unique approach. He stands ready to help them develop it.
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About Winnie AgbonlahorWinnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.
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