Change Management
September 21, 2012

Alice through the Looking Glass …

Public sector reform can be like falling down a rabbit hole — things just get “curiouser and curiouser.” Some characters, events, and destinations may even parallel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For change leaders, reform can be bizarre reality, a bad trip, or a dream cum nightmare.

Professor Margaret Kobia, chief executive of the Kenya School of Government, was involved recently in studying three decades of public sector reform in Africa. She had this to say: “[A]lthough the objectives of PSR in Africa are noble, public servants who are expected to champion reforms are struggling to define PSR in their context. Trying to understand the many concepts that come with PSR has been mind boggling. How can we simplify the PSR journey for the majority of public servants? The lessons learned on the way need to inform future efforts to improve public service.”

Her take on things calls for simplicity and implies a proactive role for public service training institutes. But first, five pillars of granite block the road to reform and need shifting:

  • Complexity: Growing complexity, not just rapid change, is causing governments to rethink reform. Making the complex understandable requires common sense and plain language. It also means remaking fragmented ideas and strategies into whole-of-government approaches.
  • Sophistication: Methodologies are often more sophisticated than useful. Unfortunately, some experts would rather appear clever than be pragmatic. Institutionalization is now widely recognized as a more realistic strategy for capacity building than restructuring.
  • Implementation: Public servants are well versed in what needs to change in their organizations, but follow-through falls short. Implementation requires dedication, extra effort, and the right competencies. Project management is much cited as a skill gap.
  • Replication: Cloning, cascading, and adapting initiatives produces mixed results. Replicating “reform space” is more difficult but lasting. Painstaking institutional development can stimulate widespread demand, coherent policy, constructive interrogation, and continuous learning.
  • Impact: Despite billions invested in measurement systems and gathering evidence, the jury is still out on proving impact. Tracking sustainable results, value for money, and return on investment requires ongoing, relevant, and integrated monitoring and evaluation.

Once these obstacles are cleared, governments may see the way forward and tap the rich institutional legacy of storytelling that permeates traditional culture, local legends, and home-grown case studies. That’s the book on international public sector development.


John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Executive in Residence with the Public Management Program in the Schulich School of Business at York University (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca or johnkwilkins@gmail.com).

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