What Makes Public Sector Reform Projects Succeed?

It’s something we take for granted in advanced societies like Canada. Our mail gets delivered regularly. Our trains run pretty much on time. We know the policies that our government officials are developing on matters that affect us, like the environment and health care and welfare programs. And if we don’t like what is being done in our public sector, we have an established system to try to elect new people to make decisions we like better.

Many countries, though, do not have this kind of public service infrastructure in place. Their economies are developing and so are their public sectors. Oftentimes, others unfortunately have had their sectors decimated due to civil war.

The fact is that there’s a strong correlation between the quality of a public sector and economic growth and poverty reduction.

That’s why the challenge for the rest of us – world leaders like the U.K. and Canada, the United States, France and Germany, among others – is to help make that happen. To help other nations rebuild and reform public sectors and their capacity for designing and managing policies, agencies and services that help people move forward.

The question, though, is this: What does it take to create public sector reform projects that work?

A report several years ago evaluating the World Bank’s reform projects over the years pointed to three factors instrumental to their success. They align perfectly with my experience in helping lead reform projects in a range of countries like Ghana, Lithuania, and Liberia.

First, we must be realistic as to what is feasible to accomplish, politically and institutionally, but also opportunistic in putting the underpinnings in place for the future when our ideas of what’s feasible might change. One example was in Bangladesh, where funding supported work in civil service reform and anti-corruption activities – all of which came into play when a reform-minded government later took control.

It’s also important to understand that technology is important and powerful, but its role is superseded by the need to change behaviors and cultures. In Ghana, it took first addressing such needs before implementation of an integrated financial management system was able to move forward successfully.

And finally, first things first. It’s necessary to lay the groundwork with basic foundational structures before moving to more advanced or complex undertakings. The nation that is looking to install a complex tax collection system should first make sure citizens have secured unique identification numbers. The World Bank report noted that too often, neither personnel nor government administration capacity has been ready to handle the task at hand.

There is a lot at stake for our world community as we encourage public sector initiatives that ultimately will have the power to transform people and their environments. Studying what’s worked and where, and best practices for change will help us chart an effective course for the future.