Robert Beschel, global lead, Center of Government Practice, World Bank: Exclusive Interview
Robert Beschel has spent two decades at the World Bank, leading various public sector improvement programmes. He tells Winnie Agbonlahor why attention is now focusing on the very heart of government
Robert Beschel is wholeheartedly committed to what he calls the World Bank’s “mission to combat poverty and foster shared growth.” That’s why he joined the organisation soon after his time at Harvard University, where he secured a PhD in Political Science in 1993. Over the years since, he’s become one of the bank’s leading public sector specialists, pursuing his passion for good government through reform projects undertaken with more than 50 countries.
During Beschel’s time at the bank, he’s worked on issues ranging from service delivery, impact evaluation and civil service reform to public expenditure management, deregulation, e-governance and the anti-corruption agenda. But now he’s leading the World Bank’s newest strand of public sector research and advisory work, which focuses on the centre of government: presidential and prime ministerial offices, treasuries, and the central units established to pursue cross-departmental activity.
Demand for the bank’s help in this area has “exploded” in recent times, says Beschel – in part because governments around the world are facing ever more “pernicious and cross cutting issues”. Today’s challenges, he adds, “transcend any one ministry or departmental responsibility, and require a coordinated response” made more difficult because “ministries and agencies are stovepiped, and so coordination mechanisms frequently fall short of the task.”
Governments looking for the “silver bullet in public sector reform” often aspire to follow the example of the UK’s delivery unit, established by Tony Blair in 2001 to coordinate and track performance across government in policy implementation. Many governments have “hopes and expectations that a delivery unit can raise the game,” Beschel says, adding that central units “are often relatively inexpensive vis a vis some of the other sets of public sector reforms we would do.”
During his work with governments, Beschel has found some common gaps in civil services’ skills and capabilities. “Universally, governments tend to have too many low-skilled… workers, and not enough with critical sets of skills,” he says, highlighting a need for more digital experts and staff with “high-quality financial and policy analysis” skills.
Finance and policy analysis, Beschel says, “are areas where governments often struggle to get the skills and capabilities they really need.” Even in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, which is “quite involved in measuring and monitoring performance, and has really managed to install a customer service ethos,” he explains, it’s very difficult to get “accurate information on cost and the efficiency it’s providing on services”. Obtaining “accurate differentiating cost data” is challenging in governments around the world, he adds.
Another area which would benefit from improvement across the board, Beschel says, is manpower planning – and here he echoes the views of Rolf Alter, his OECD counterpart, who raised similar concerns in an interview with Global Government Forum published last month. “Very few governments really do robust manpower planning well,” says Beschel. “It is one of the functions one is often surprised to find are not done to the degree we’d anticipate.”
Beschel also shares Alter’s observation that governments are increasingly aware of the need to act on talent management, with many putting in place systems to develop and support top leaders. For example, “Abu Dabi has been very proactive and thinking very carefully and systematically about how to develop a sophisticated senior management cadre – which skills they need to apply there – and they have approached that with a great deal of rigour.”
Other civil services look much less cutting edge. India’s civil service, Beschel argues, “is very much what the British civil service was like 70 years ago”, with a strong emphasis on the generalist.
But Beschel isn’t criticising the Indian system, which has many advantages. Officials who manage to join the senior cadre – known as the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) – can rotate easily between departments and take on a number of different assignments, he says, whereas “in most OECD countries now, civil servants spend the vast majority of their career in one particular agency or department.”
The other benefit of the Indian approach, according to Beschel, is the “extraordinary rigour” of the selection process for IAS recruits: “Less than one in 100 are ultimately selected for the IAS, and so you end up with very high-performing and talented type-A personalities in senior positions throughout the public sector. I think the IAS is a cadre that many other countries would envy.”
Another big problem facing many countries today is the sheer size of their public sectors. “Certainly in the Middle East and North Africa, private sector growth has been modest and there’s been a very heavy reliance upon the public sector and the civil service to generate jobs,” he comments. Countries have continuously been growing their public sectors, he adds, pointing to Kuwait as an example: its public sector “doubled over the last seven years, and doubled before that.” In some countries within the Gulf Cooperation Council, he notes, “as many as 90% of nationals work for the public sector.”
These governments are “confronting very serious issues in terms of not being on a sustainable fiscal trajectory over the longer term, and this is recognised now,” Beschel explains. Saudi Arabia, for instance, recently announced its vision for the year 2035: the country intends “to foster more private sector growth, and many of the other countries are following suit.”
But, as with so many public sector reform initiatives, delivery is easier said than done. “The problem is that public sector employment has now become entrenched as a way of life in these countries: 81% of Saudis would prefer public sector employment to private sector employment, and people are waiting and queueing for public sector jobs rather than taking available private sector employment opportunities,” says Beschel. “So making this transition is going to be a really difficult one, given prevailing public attitudes and orientations.”
The origins of this situation, Beschel explains, lie in the region’s oil wealth: “The key to wealth moved away from entrepreneurial activity and more towards finding a way to tap into the vast reservoir of wealth that was presented with the discovery of oil. The state became extremely important, and I think many of these countries had an implicit agreement where public sector employment was viewed as almost a key to legitimacy; it was your share of the national oil wealth. So instead of setting up things like an Alaska Permanent Fund, or pushing a lot of the resources out in dividends or things like that, there was a reliance on public sector employment as a means for sharing the national mineral wealth.”
With the oil price flatlining, do civil servants and public officials in these countries face mass redundancies? Though Beschel admits that “it’s going to be difficult”, he believes that readjustment need not produce major shocks: “Many of these countries have large reservoirs of wealth and are capable of accessing bond markets and things like that, so there are various financing instruments available to them.”
Helping governments to “create an enabling environment for private sector-led growth” is another area that particularly interests Beschel and his colleagues, he says. For now, there’s plenty to do on centre of government work – but it sounds as if the World Bank veteran has already identified a new outlet for his passionate interest in how the world’s governments operate.
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