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Brief Assessment of Global Experience with civil Service Reform: the IEG Experience

IEG LogoThe development of a country depends a great deal upon the quality of its public sector. Since the 1980s, the World Bank has been promoting public sector reform to improve efficiency and promote better delivery of public goods and services, as well as to enhance transparency and accountability.  Civil Service and Administrative (CSA) reform is one important thematic area of public sector reform. While important, CSA reform has been met with variable success. According to the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), fewer than 45 percent of borrowers in this area show improvement, compared to 60-70 percent improvement in public expenditure and financial management in public sector reform.(1)

CSA reform is the second most common public sector reform in the World Bank portfolio after public expenditure and financial management. CSA reform efforts include measures to track, contain, and reduce the number of civil servants in a given country, compensation reforms, organizational reforms, demand-side reforms, human resource management and training and capacity building. Many of these components face challenges that are country-specific; however political risk, financial costs, and capacity all contribute to the success and failure of CSA reform.


The lack of political commitment can affect even the least contentious components of CSA reform. Coupled with discontinuity over the implementation period, reallocation of resources, and staff turnover, the lack of political commitment can slow, stall, and kill any public sector reform. Changes in political leadership and political time horizons can also undermine the reform process. In countries where the patronage system is prevalent, reforms that affect pay, recruitment, and promotion are very difficult to achieve.

IEG identifies six factors that seem to contribute to the success in CSA reform and in their absence, likely contribute to reform failures. The first is to have strong and coherent analytic diagnosis and advice. Unlike public expenditure and financial management reform’s PEFA indicator, CSA reform lacks a standard analytic tool or report. This coupled with the scarcity of standardized data (ex. the number of staff by grade or occupation group) often prohibits strong and coherent analytic diagnosis and advice from being realized.


IEG TableAnother factor is to have realistic external expectations. CSA reforms take a long time to implement and an even longer time to see results. Donors usually act on their own timeline, which is often much shorter than the time needed to realistically reform. Whether it is due to inflexible project deadlines or for financial disbursement reasons, too short-termed reform efforts will inevitably lead to failure.


A third factor is to ensure the appropriate packages of lending instruments. Particularly in countries with low capacity for implementation, policy-based lending should be coupled with technical assistance. Capacity building and ensuring the transfer of knowledge will not only ensure success but will help create sustainable programs.


A fourth consideration in CSA reform programs is to identify tangible indicators of success. Political leaders are more likely to champion reforms where they can point to the benefits, whether it is a cost savings or a new system in place. One way of indentifying tangible indicators of success would be to link CSA to more concrete reforms such as that of public financial management. Another way would be to develop measurable indicators of results, though this would clearly be a more complex approach.


A fifth factor is to take a pragmatic and opportunistic approach to CSA reforms where institutional environments are challenging. Diagnoses have concluded that the patronage system in developing countries creates a very difficult reform environment. It is important to be realistic that a country’s system will not change overnight and that focusing on select entry points and incrementalism will be more successful than any attempt at remodeling an entire system.


Finally, effective donor coordination is imperative to a successful reform strategy. Facilitating efforts between donors can ameliorate the results of a single donor’s effort in absence of political commitment and in a difficult reform environment. Minimizing conflicting advice and multiple agendas is also a necessary component of effective donor coordination.  

CSA reform is not futile. In addition to the six factors of success outlined by the IEG, focusing on incremental and select entry points can be successful and can lay the foundation for later progress. Concurrently, CSA needs strong country ownership and donors need to tailor assistance to a country's pace of reform.

(1) Public Sector Reform: What Works and Why? IEG

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