Opinion
June 27, 2012

World Bank charts new course in public sector reform

What happens when a minister asks: “What’s the solution to the problem?” In international development, there is often no one right answer. Canned solutions to problems are rare in an era of significant political interest and interference. And the notion of “best practice” is a misnomer. “Best fit,” deploying good or smart practices, is more realistic.

Eighteen senior public servants from 13 countries gathered in Toronto on June 4-15 at York University’s Schulich School of Business for the 13th Commonwealth Executive Program in Public Management to learn about the latest developments and to hone their leadership capabilities. The World Bank’s Approach to Public Sector Management 2011-2020,subtitled ‘Better Results from Public Sector Institutions’, was featured on the first day.

Public sector governance advisor at the Bank, Nick Manning, observed that, “Very often, we simply don’t know how public sector reforms are going to play out. The World Bank can’t solve all the problems, so let’s pick small, manageable problems that we can work on with countries.”

The World Bank’s new approach maintains:

  • Reform matters and is best seen as a problem-solving task.
  • Reform is difficult because knowledge is weak and political economy is spotty.
  • The development community has less knowledge than it thinks on public sector management, but more than it uses.
  • The Bank is a distinctively strong player, spending $4-5 billion a year on reform.
  • The Bank is committed to doing better, knowing better, and integrating better.
  • Working with the Bank starts with defining the functional problem to be solved.

Participants queried why so many reforms begin with the assumption of public service downsizing. Some commented on the dangers of cloning rather than adapting public sector management reforms in developing settings.

Closer to home, there were concerns about cutting through the rhetoric of politicization and branding that accompanies government distrust and targeting of the public service.

One unknown in this new approach concerns the role of leadership and public service behaviour in reform. Perhaps practitioners and academics can join the discussion about how leadership can be developed and harnessed to support problem solving in public sector management reform?

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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