Why are civil services so hard to reform?

By on 01/11/2023 | Updated on 01/11/2023
A photo of a sign with reform written on it Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Many countries in the global south have run into difficulty when trying to reform their bureaucracies. So, how can countries become more successful at implementing change? By looking beyond the technical concerns of governance to set strategic aims – and making accommodation for politics, says Rafael Leite

In the research and practice field of governance, civil service reform has emerged as an elusive challenge of enormous proportions. Many societies grapple with a deeply entrenched patronage system of government, which forms a breeding ground for corruption, poverty, and stunted economic growth. The urgent call to dismantle this system and foster a new era of professionalism has become a shared global endeavour in many global south countries, but success is all too rare.

So, what makes the reform of the civil service such an intricate and complex task?

Firstly, the diverse nature of patronage systems is itself a monumental hurdle. They vary immensely, and their designs influence how open they might be to reform. Political systems, institutional structures, the allocation of patronage benefits – all these elements differ across countries, rendering any attempt to develop universal solutions nearly impossible. The multifaceted characteristics of patronage states demand an equally nuanced approach to reform.

As a result, reform strategies cannot be uniform or one-dimensional; they must be blended and tailored to each unique political, economic, and societal context.

Read more: Learning from global experiences: transforming public administration through senior civil service reforms

The ‘big bang’ approach, meaning the design and implementation of new structures from scratch based on wide support from grand coalitions, while transformative, rarely encounters political support and can disrupt existing systems, facing resistance from entrenched power structures. On the other hand, the gradual approach – understood as the implementation of small-scale changes that can transform large structures by “growing by the edges” – can lead to smoother transitions, but too often is discontinued due to loss of support for reforms after the first stages of implementation.

Yet, maybe there are more subtle ways to navigate these complex terrains. Incremental shifts within civil service practices (not the law) can produce significant change over time without provoking substantial institutional disruption. The accumulation of learning through the implementation of new human resource management mechanisms inside specific agencies could promote reputation-building in specific agencies, leading to the spreading of new practices across government. Similarly, building broad societal coalitions in support of reforms outside party politics can bridge gaps and align disparate interests, fostering an environment more conducive to reform.

However, the implementation of these strategies is not straightforward. It is contingent upon multiple variables such as the composition of the national political system – whether centralised or fragmented, presidential or parliamentary, and the specific nature of civil service reform being pursued. The goal might range from enhancing tenure protections to promoting merit-based selection or focusing on different levels of bureaucracy, such as street-level bureaucrats or senior civil service positions. Such complexities necessitate a clear understanding of every facet involved in the reform process.

This leads us to some broader insights for developing successful reform strategies in different contexts. More rigorous studies on the political economy of reforms are essential, especially in developing nations with their unique challenges and opportunities. We must seek more answers to the question: under which circumstances are countries able to implement consistent and lasting civil service reforms? Such an exploration can illuminate the subtle interplay between political intricacies and economic realities, revealing tailored and context-specific solutions. On the other hand, this requires much more openness to understanding the workings of government in global south countries, and their intricate contexts and singularities.

Additionally, a focus on positive examples of reform in the global south should be on the agenda. As important as it is to recognise that patronage is a shared challenge across countries, it is crucial to understand that valuable efforts are being implemented everywhere, and that the learning that arises from those experiences is fundamental to understanding how to grapple with the political economy and technical challenges of civil service reform implementations. It is especially important to look at subnational or agency/departmental level experiences, which can provide invaluable insights but are much less known. Such detailed examinations might uncover hidden patterns and successful practices applicable across different political systems and administrative cultures.

The challenge of implementing civil service reform is not merely technical, but deeply political. While technical solutions provide the framework, success depends on understanding the political forces at play, including the balance of political power, future political prospects, the role of political parties, and more. Ignoring these dynamics is a recipe for failure; any meaningful reform must skilfully navigate these political waters.

Civil service reform, while deeply rooted in technical aspects, is intricately interwoven with political dynamics. The effort to dismantle patronage systems and establish professionalism requires strategies that go beyond mere technical solutions and delve deeply into the political fabric of each nation. It’s essential to recognise the significant influence of various stakeholders – from political parties and administrative bodies to interest groups and the wider population. The success and resilience of any reform depends on the art of skilfully navigating these diverse political landscapes. The way forward therefore depends not only on a precise technical blueprint, but also on a strategic approach that responds to the constantly evolving political realities that shape the governance landscape.

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About Rafael Leite

Rafael Leite is a research associate at the New South Institute, a think-tank working on government and public action to strengthen delicate democracies by building effective and accountable institutions.

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