In October 2012, the Commonwealth Ministers Forum on Public Sector Development will meet in India. At their third meeting, held in Malta last October, public service ministers called for good governance, strengthened policy capacity, and effective service delivery. More than 80 delegates representing 28 countries, including newest Commonwealth member Rwanda, built upon the Australia (2006) and Barbados (2008) Forums to advance the public sector reform agenda.
The 2010 themes were “Valuing Good Governance in the Commonwealth” and “Innovating Public Policy Development at the Centre of Government.” Ministers agreed on the need to inventory governance oversight bodies, to research public consultation processes, and to train public officials in negotiation skills. Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi stated in his keynote address: “In the face of current global challenges, the public sector must be able to respond effectively, efficiently and in a timely manner.”
Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Ransford Smith, who chaired the Forum, stressed that, “public service is more important than ever, as it assists nations to achieve their development goals, while doing more with less and seeking new, creative and innovative ways to deliver services to citizens.”
A message from the Secretary-General added that, “governance is one of the Commonwealth’s strengths and one of the most defining things offered to member states.” The event saw the launch of the Commonwealth Secretariat publication Commonwealth Good Governance: Developing Capacity in the Public Sector.
These unique ministerial gatherings arose from discussions with the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) on ways to engage political leaders in shaping reform.
Convening power – Participation
The Commonwealth Secretariat is a member-based, demand-driven organization. It places a premium on member relationship management by consulting regularly with countries and stakeholders to remain relevant.
The three Ministers Forums attracted 250 delegates, with more than half of the membership represented at each Forum. This level of response is testimony to the desire of political leadership in the Commonwealth to lead from the front to create more transparent and accountable governance and improved service delivery to citizens.
Commonwealth and international stakeholders also observe Forum proceedings. This has included strategic partners like the Australian Agency for International Development, Caribbean Centre for Development Administration, European Union, Inter-American Development Bank, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank.
Consensus building – Prioritization
The Commonwealth is characterized by human connectivity, borderless economies and global competition. The Secretariat is alert to the effects of globalization. What happens elsewhere in the world invariably impacts the Commonwealth, whether international trade, development assistance, terrorism or climate change.
The global economic crisis has exacerbated the challenges facing member countries in meeting the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Yet, the public sector environment remains diverse, fast-paced and ever changing. There are mounting pressures on governments to reform their structures and processes and to achieve excellence, responsiveness and integrity in public service. Delivering high-quality services with scarce resources is a daunting task that requires self-examination, innovation and prudent management. Members borrow from each other’s experiences through south-south cooperation.
It was observed at the 2010 Forum that, “ministers actually deal with real policy issues.” The Forums offered a platform for ministers and senior officials to share expectations and to build consensus on Commonwealth governance and development priorities. The first three framed the governance agenda, relationships and principles at stake. Ministers’ priorities for action are captured in published reports available at www.thecommonwealth.org.
Collaborative leadership – Innovation
The Commonwealth is being challenged to think collectively “outside the box” to find new ways to collaborate. What has been learned in the aftermath of the global economic crisis is that leadership, institutions and values are the keys to public sector reform. Good leadership at all levels and in all sectors is essential to improve the human condition. Politicians and public servants alike are the champions of change.
In 2008, Prime Minister David Thompson of Barbados commented that, “these fora, that bring together Commonwealth Public Service Ministers, must serve as incubators for new ideas on public sector reform geared at keeping our various regions at the forefront of the delivery of public services.”
The Secretariat has responded with innovative initiatives on Good Governance principles and indicators, Public Service Training Institute networks and capacities, Commonwealth Connects projects and platforms, Leadership Development programmes and transitions, and Commonwealth Pacific Governance Facility strategies and partnerships. It has also published on good governance, public-private partnerships and contract employment at the request of ministers.
Growing complexity, not just rapid change, is causing governments to rethink and redouble their efforts in public sector development. Governments innovate to improve citizen-focused service, to reduce cost, to increase efficiency, and to stimulate economic development. Change depends upon individual country circumstances. For best results, reform requires stable policy, predictable funding, enabling processes, entrenched accountability and citizen and stakeholder voice.
A capable public sector is grounded in the principles of good governance. Governments need a professional and apolitical public service, guided by shared values and ethical standards. The value system of progressive public organizations today is about service, not bureaucracy.
The 4th Ministers Forum in 2012 will again benefit from twinning with the CAPAM Biennial Conference. This symbiotic relationship enables critical mass to form and political policy and administrative practice to mesh. The Forum format, without the strictures of a Ministerial Meeting, will travel farther down the road of exploring value for money in Commonwealth governance and development.
John Wilkins is the Head of the Policy Group with the Governance and Institutional Development Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat. He served 32 years in the Canadian public service, the last four advising Treasury Board on governance and service delivery innovations.