This edition of Governance News & Notes tackles the difficult and complex challenge of civil service and public administration reform within the Middle East and North Africa region. “Civil service reform” is a broad discipline that covers a variety of sub-fields, many of which themselves are quite extensive. Typically, it covers topics such as how governments are organized and structured, often referred to as the “machinery of government”; how they are staffed (pay and employment issues); and how staff or human resources are managed. Other topics can also be fit within this rubric, such as policy coordination; strategic management; training and staff development; and performance monitoring and evaluation.
The challenge of public administration reform is particularly pronounced in MENA, which is home to some of the largest public sectors in the world. Egypt has more than 6 million public employees—more than the entire population of 10 MENA countries—as well as per capita staffing ratios that are on par with many developed countries. In other countries, such as some in the GCC, the public sector can employ as much as 90 percent of the native labor force. It is the employer of both first and last resort, and its fiscal burden can crowd out needed expenditure on supplies, maintenance and capital investment.
Beyond the size of the public sector and the potential burden of the wage bill, MENA countries can suffer from a variety of other problems. There are frequent complaints throughout the region about inefficiency and red tape that hampers the quality of service delivery. Bureaucracies can be seen as opaque, non-transparent and occasionally arbitrary (or worse) in their decisions. Factors such as wasta and patronage can undermine efforts to create a meritocratic public sector.
From Morocco through Yemen, a variety of efforts are underway to try to address these problems. We are fortunate to interview H.E. Dr. Ahmed Darwish, Minister for Administrative Development in Egypt, about his country’s efforts to manage the dilemma of advancing public sector reform while coping with traditional attitudes and resistance to change. Dr. Darwish’s thoughtful reflections about the challenges inherent in seeking to streamline and modernize Egypt’s public sector and improve the quality of service delivery are both stimulating and engaging.
We also highlight the experience of Morocco, which is one of the few countries within MENA that has sought to address the problem of overstaffing through embarking upon a Voluntary Retirement Program, or VRP. The Moroccan story is an interesting one. It was generally a success in fiscal terms, and it has helped to rebalance employment in more productive ways in terms of the categories of employees and their geographic distribution. However, it also struggled with problems of adverse selection (i.e. the best and the brightest employees leave government), which are common in exercises of this type. The Bank will shortly finalize a case study on the lessons of the Moroccan experience for other MENA countries.
Finally, we discuss the findings of a recent report by the Bank’s Internal Evaluation Group on the challenges of public administration reform throughout the globe. Bank experience has shown that such reforms can be difficult and contentious, which is to be expected whenever thousands or even millions of individuals depend upon government employment for their livelihood. However, there are also ways in which administrative reforms can move forward with a good probability of success. Their effectiveness depends upon a variety of factors, including excellent diagnostics, realistic expectations, the appropriate choice of instruments, and a pragmatic and opportunistic approach to reform.
Robert P. Beschel Jr.
Lead Public Sector Specialist
MENA Vice Presidency, World Bank