To reform entrenched and arrogant officials

Civil service reform is one of the most persistent subjects of public debate no matter where in the world one turns. In Nigeria British aid money is channelled through UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) to an ambitious reform project (2011-2016), one in a long line of attempts to reshape the Nigerian civil service, whose original logic is to be found in British imperial rule.

The program has already been criticized in a recent evaluation with the warning that “vested interests” will hinder improvements of the inefficient Nigerian public service.

But British calls for reforms can also be heard at home. Former PM Tony Blair claims that the British civil service is no longer fit for purpose and there needs to be a new agreement to undertake radical reform of Whitehall. Blair, in an interview in the Times, said the civil service was hopelessly bureaucratic. ‘Time has passed them by’, he was quoted saying. The Daily Mail’s headline was written in less diplomatic terms: ‘We need a bloodbath to tame these arrogant officials’.


Wherever there is a debate on civil service reform negative thinking tends to dominate the discussion: we know what we do not want. The arguments too often neglect the context-specific institutional constraints in a country. You cannot have any civil service picked from the global shop shelves; you can only have one that fits into the contemporary national social fabric of culture and history. Professor Lant Pritchett is leading a project within ReCom on these issues with the aim of developing practical alternative modes of building capability for domestic and external stakeholder (here you can see his presentation on the subject).

What are we talking about when we say civil service reform? Wikipedia offers the following definition: ‘A deliberate action to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, professionalism, representativity and democratic character of a civil service, with a view to promoting better delivery of public goods and services, with increased accountability’. Webster’s promotes a somewhat less straightforward description: it is ‘the substitution of business principles and methods for political methods in the conduct of the civil service. esp. the merit system instead of the spoils system in making appointments to office.’

These two descriptions reflect the fact that there is no consensus even on the concept of civil service reform. Attempts to improve governance through development assistance are shown to have been less than successful by the evidence. In fact, it has turned out to be one of the longest lasting headaches of the development community.

Misguided at their worst

Sarah Repucci, a New York based freelance consultant with expertise in the areas of human rights, good governance, and anti-corruption, notes in her WIDER Working Paper ‘Civil Service Reform: A Review’, that this reform is part of a broader topic of public administration, which also covers public financial management, leadership, and policy making. Civil service encompasses importantly the most basic functions of the system, but it receives scant analytical attention. She also notes that reforms of the sector have been ‘ad hoc at best and misguided at their worst’.

Repucci reviews the literature on the topic and finds that, apart from work done by the World Bank where the size and costs of the bureaucracy is in focus, there are remarkably few studies on the issue. Therefor there is a clear need for more evaluation of civil service reform projects. She argues that all successful civil service reforms over the past few years have taken local factors into account, such as in Albania, Bolivia and Russia. The list of failures is much longer.

Even though a short list of principles that seem to be important exists there are also universal barriers to reform. Repucci underlines that both lists are incomplete, the implication being that current understanding of civil service reform is flawed.

Come to Stockholm

A brief of Repucci’s working paper is included in this January edition of the ReCom newsletter that also covers other subjects such as Abby Riddell’s review of lessons learned from foreign aid to education. Abby Riddell will be sharing more of her insights during the ReCom Results Meeting on 13 March in Stockholm. That is the first of four ReCom events this year that will be the arena for sharing and discussing evidence on what works and what could work in foreign aid.

The conference website is now up and running so please have a look at the program, which we think is quite impressive, and register for the event. If you are not able to come to Stockholm there is always the option to follow the debate through our webcast on Bambuser. If that is your option please register as webcast participant. I look forward to spending the day with you!

© UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

Carl-Gustav Lindén is Senior Communications Specialist, UNU-WIDER