Lithuania Exemplifies What It Takes For Public Sector Reform To Succeed

You may not be very familiar with Lithuania other than it was once part of the Soviet Union.

But Lithuania’s story is important for showing what it takes for public sector reform initiatives to take hold and create any number of positive outcomes. First, there must be a clear desire for and interest in change by a country’s people and leadership. Second, they must come together around a shared vision of the end goal. Finally, conditions to achieve that goal must be clearly defined and understood by all stakeholders.

That’s the kind of background or qualification or context that has earned Lithuania the 19 th spot in the Heritage Foundation’s 2018 world Index of Economic Freedom, which measures 186 countries based on trade freedom, business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights. These are all among the pillars of a successful democracy with a strong public infrastructure.

That this standing was achieved less than 30 years after Lithuania gained its independence as a stand-alone state speaks volumes about the strength of the desire to change. Lithuania’s leaders and its people did not want to be in the Eastern Bloc of countries. They wanted the benefits, support and credibility of being part of the European Union. That was the end goal.

The price of admission into the EU was meeting a set of specific conditions, including the reform of Lithuania‘s public administration infrastructure, including its policy planning and decision making processes, its justice and its financial management systems. But when you’ve been under the yoke of an authoritarian rule for 50 years, knowing where to start and how, can be an issue.

Canada stepped in to help and a project which I managed assisted to lay the groundwork for Lithuania’s new public administration. The reform involved a comprehensive management approach that introduced strategic business planning at the center of the government and spanning outward from there. Over the four years of the project, we assisted them to set up a system to ensure that the central government’s priorities were developed and reflected in the planning, budgeting and accountability of its ministries. An approach to monitoring and metrics was key for public transparency on outcomes being achieved.

The project was completed in 2003. Lithuania went on to meet the EU’s conditions for membership was admitted by 2004. Now, the country is seeking access to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Overall, the Index of Economic Freedom gives it good marks for a relatively sound legal framework that sustains both an effective judiciary; the country also ranks well for investment freedom, judicial effectiveness and fiscal health.

But here’s what has always struck me about Lithuania and other reform successes in which I’ve played a role. You can give $10 million in reform support to one country that will successfully produce large, positive change. But in another country, the same reform support can drag on and, in the end, not much in the way of advances or improvements will occur.

Ultimately, there has to be an imperative to change, and a sense of urgency that something be accomplished because there’s something tangible and of value at stake – as in Lithuania’s case, membership in the EU. EU membership came with clear conditions, including a better managed public sector. The stake for Lithuania in the reform of its public administration was high and the country had the foresight to embrace Canada’s technical support.