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Engaging Support for Reform


For public sector reformers administrative reform is a perennial topic. As a focus of reform, it seems relatively safe and self-contained in contrast to the costs of direct political reform. More to the point, politicians who hold the power to reform are far more likely to wield that power to reform others rather than themselves. It is therefore natural that reform gravitates to the subject of how the public sector is managed rather than why it is managed as it is.

There are various kinds of administrative reform. Some are participatory and designed to democratize administration. Most administrative reforms, however, are designed to enhance efficiency, cut costs, streamline government, and enhance managerial rationality. Certainly, greater efficiency is difficult to oppose on principle. But many questions raised by "reinventing government" are highly political (What should be the size and shape of the state? What goals are appropriate for particular agencies? How are cost savings to be achieved?). Efficiency-oriented reforms are rarely harmless (or Pareto-optimal).

The politics of administrative reform                      

Administrative reform, although often packaged as a matter of management techniques and increased efficiencies, is in fact a profoundly political issue affecting the balance of power between various actors – civil servants, ministers, legislators, and central executives – a well as between agencies, interest groups, and citizens. Resistance often comes from civil servants themselves because they fear, perhaps rightly, a loss of jobs, influence, and/or benefits. Other interest groups fear that their normal points of access to influence will be cut off. Legislators may also worry that reform will enhance executive power and diminish their own. In other words, groups worry about what reform means for themselves.

The motives for reform can be vastly different from one locale to another. In Britain the idea originating from the Thatcherite entrepreneurial conservatives was nothing less than to reconstruct the culture of the society, not merely its civil service – a task which New Labour has seen fit to consummate. Australia and New Zealand faced financial exigencies that helped drive fiscal and administrative reform together, though administrative reform was shaped differently in each country. In New Zealand, in particular, neo-liberal economists pushed privatization, purchaser-provider relations between agencies and private contractors, and, ultimately, the formal elimination of a tenured civil service.

The belief that administration needs to be reformed is undoubtedly the most important factor in determining the political success or failure of reform. The will to push changes, rather than merely assert their importance, is also essential. But institutions matter, as well. In fact, institutions affect both the agenda for reform and its outcome. Institutional complexity engenders more opportunities and pathways for reform proposals to arise, but also provides a greater number of blockage points to prevent reforms from ever being approved or implemented. One reason that reforms have gone farther in the politically less fragmented Westminster systems is that once the cabinet decides (itself no easy matter), the points of resistance are relatively few. A weak legislature allows the executive the opportunity to indulge in managerialism, whereas a more independent legislature frequently leads to greater conflict and unpredictability over essential questions concerning appropriate agency goals, control over resources, and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms.

Implications for administrative reform                    

Inducing administrative change is highly political. Would-be reformers should be aware that in the short run, at least, reforms designed to enhance economic efficiency tend to come at the expense of instruments that promote "political efficiency," i.e., the side payments available to cut deals and pay off otherwise recalcitrant players. A technical reform design should therefore be accompanied by a political strategy that accounts for necessary bargains. If not, the reform program is unlikely to produce positive results.

Recommended readings:                                        

  • Aucoin, Peter. 1990. "Administrative Reform in Public Management:Paradigms, Principles, Paradoxes and Pendulums," Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration, 3(2):115-137.
  • Burki, Shahid Javed, and Guillermo E. Perry. 1998. Beyond the Washington Consensus: Institutions Matter. Washington, DC: The World Bank.
  • Chaudhry, Shahid Amjad, Gary James Reid and Waleed Haider Malik. 1994. Civil Service Reform in Latin America and the Caribbean: Proceedings of a Conference. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank Technical Paper #259.
  • Pierson, Paul. 1994. Retrenchment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



This page was authored by Prof. Bert Rockman of the University of Pittsburgh, with assistance from Jeffrey Rinne of the World Bank.


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