Decades of reform in developing countries point to four enduring dilemmas:
1. Reforms focus on changing rules and behaviour by design rather than on changing practices during implementation;
2. Reforms rely on brokering the politics of special interests rather than on serving greater interests for lasting results;
3. Reforms that work in one place do not always work the same way in another place; and
4. Reforms have a long results chain, where a weak link anywhere can undermine implementation.
Nick Manning of the World Bank says that, “Lessons learned from past reform efforts suggest that the notion of ‘best practice’ needs to be replaced by ‘best fit’, where more pragmatic, context-sensitive solutions replace grandiose, comprehensive reform designs.”
Rather than starting from scratch every time, there is inherent pressure to adopt “best practices” from donor countries and international consulting firms in the absence of solid evidence to debunk claims. To adapt on the basis of evidence means tailoring reforms using rigorous diagnostics and extensive stakeholder consultations to specify problems. Reforms must be implemented with agility, learning on the go and sharing knowledge about what works.
The 2013 IPAC National Conference probed the general case under the theme of “Reinventing Public Administration.” The organizers asked: “Why do so many reforms disappoint or fail, while others mark an entire generation? We seek to identify and understand the factors responsible for this, with case studies drawn from here and elsewhere.”
Joe Eshun shared highlights from Deloitte’s 2013 study of East Africa reforms:
• Focus – public service, local governance, financial management, health, education, and justice;
• Challenges – governance, accountability, and corruption topped the list at 72.8%, followed by resources, implementation, government commitment, timing, and publicity; and
• Keys – behaviour change, execution capability, tapping into youth, and a solution economy.
Maria Barrados, former President of the Public Service Commission of Canada, stated that reform is simply “managing change to achieve a desired end state.” Drawing upon her international project experience, she observed that often there is “too much study and not enough action.” She called for clear direction — political support, stakeholder consultation, legislation when necessary — on what is to be done.
Canada has a moderate tradition of incremental reform, featuring interrelated initiatives. It has much to learn from comparative study of international development, as well as from cultural responses to approaches like index rankings, peer reviews, self-improvement tools, and south-south cooperation.