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From Civil Service Reform to Capacity Development

Time (GMT +01) 16:00 17:30


Merilee Grindle, Edward S. Mason Professor of International Development, Center of International Development, Harvard University


Andrew Lawson, ODI


Karin Christiansen, ODI

Grindle began by saying when we talk about good governance (GG) we end up talking about virtually all aspects of public sector from institutions to decision making structures to administrative aspects of governance, from human resources to actual interface between citizens and officials.

Her presentation, which reviewed GG and suggested areas for further work, had 3 parts:

  1. GG is important

  2. GG agenda is too ambitious

  3. Suggest ways to make it more realistic

The GG agenda is important - citizens are better off under political systems that provide for security, stability, rule of law, efficiency, etc. - but there are questions around it. She emphasised the point that the GG agenda shouldn't be understood as the basis on which political and economic development are built i.e. GG is not necessary a precursor to/precondition for growth, poverty reduction, democracy - historical and current case studies demonstrate this is not the case.

She went on to say the GG agenda is deeply flawed as a guide to development. It is a long list that developing countries are told must be done before they can develop politically and economically. It is an overwhelming task compared to local capacity. For example:

  1. The number of governance reforms recommended in the 'World Development Reports' has increased dramatically from 45 in 1997 (when WDR highlighted states as agents of development) to 116 in 2003.

  2. The list of requirements that need to be implemented to achieve GG is unreasonably long for developing countries that have weak institutions, little capacity in terms of resources and human resources, governments with questionable legitimacy and flawed decision making processes and disenfranchised populations.

  3. Lists of requirements do not provide guidance about relative importance of different items or sequencing, or what is feasible.

She outlined what can be done to make the GG agenda more realistic. Rather than GG, Good Enough Governance allows parties to think about the minimum conditions important for the next steps for political and economic development. Not all government deficits need to be tackled at once. This raises questions about GG interventions, about how important they are and how they should be prioritised and made relevant to context. Which deficits should be tackled first?

She made suggestions about how to go about reducing the scope and size of the GG agenda:

  1. Become better students of history (eg the work of Ha Joon Chang). Civil service reform in US was introduced in 1883 but it took between 40-60 years before it could be said there was effective civil service system in US, partly because implementation of reform was part of an implicit bargain between politicians who wanted patronage and those technocrats who wanted a better civil service. We tend to compare our idealised notions of GG with what is actually happening on ground in developing countries.

  2. Ask the question 'good governance for what?' Need to question whether all GG interventions lead to a multiplicity of good outcomes. Civil service reform may make government more efficient but may not alleviate poverty. Need to think specifically about the goal and then the governance interventions to achieve it.

  3. Spend more time thinking about what is working. Gives us insight into factors that promote change and the underlying structures that assist this (citing work by J Tendler).

  4. Establish priorities. This is a political task that often outsiders may not have the capacity to influence. However, there are some things that can be done. DFID argues that it needs to start from 'where the country is'. This is a useful starting point for thinking about GG agenda. Priority might be (e.g., in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone) to provide basic physical security, or to increase legitimacy of government. Other countries (Burkina Faso, Honduras, etc) might already have institutional coherence so they can start thinking about expanding public services and tackling most development-adverse forms of corruption. Elsewhere (e.g., SA, India, Mexico) might undertake more difficult governance reforms e.g. transparent budgeting processes, risk mitigation systems etc.

Grindle said Dfid asked her, what would a practitioner in field do with 'good enough governance'? She said her answer to Dfid is to use a series of matrices that might be useful in particular instances to help narrow down agenda (see 'Good Enough Governance Revisited' paper for Dfid and Mick Moore's matrix on political systems and different characteristics, capacity, institutions etc. in different types of states). States differ significantly in terms of capacity and interests of political elites in taking on governance reforms.

She concluded with the following points:

  1. There is a need to reformulate the GG agenda to be more realistic and think about 'good enough governance'. This can be done through research, analysis of what it takes to have different kinds of reform initiatives, and country-specific assessments of how realistic certain types of change are in different circumstances and in different types of states.

  2. What can donors and outsiders do?
    Invest in more research and build analytic capacity in developing countries;
    a) Emphasise a reasonable agenda and expectations for what can be achieved on GG in short, medium and long term;
    b) Reward movement in the right direction with reasonable goals;
    c) Build capable civil society as a counterpart to capable government;
    d) Think about 'the demand side' of GG in terms of helping civil society to develop capacity and desire to be represented in policy process, to seek out information, and to hold government accountable.

Lawson said GEG is a powerful concept. It is useful and clearly changes the nature of the debate. In this series of meetings it is striking how different experts from different disciplines tend to define GG in different ways. Grindle brings us back down to earth by saying she thinks 'good enough governance' is a more useful starting point. He posed 2 questions: what could be wrong with it and where might it lead us that could be dangerous?

He outlined 2 potential problems:

  1. 'Good enough governance' is difficult to operationalise. It could end up in tautology if we're not careful - needs to be context specific. 

  2. There are problems in trying to persuade different donor agencies that they have little influence; that societies change because of internal processes of protest and demand, which are often driven by economic processes that donors have little control over.

He concluded, researchers should be careful that when they diagnose 'good enough governance' and try to operationalise it so that they don't end up with a 'blueprint' that might drive donors even more to think that they can promote change by using it. He asked if there wasn't a more inductive process where people examine what has happened in terms of historical change and look in a more general way at the types of things that should be promoted? For example, give access to information to people, though it is delinked to thinking about outcomes and encourage governments to share knowledge, network, to learn from each other.

The discussion raised the following:

  • There is a moral relativism in the 'good enough governance' discussion that is unsettling. Are there any absolute standards? Is undermining political rights acceptable if growth is good? Where are Grindle' s limits? Grindle replied all items on GG list can be justified, can be explained in terms of how good they are for development, for citizens etc. e.g. rights for women can be judged on basis of absolute standards but whether they are a step towards economic or political development is another type of question.

  • Was it right for H Benn to withdraw aid to Ethiopia after govt shot people in the street?

Grindle replied there was no clear answer.

  • The hierarchy presented for different forms of states. But are we really saying that because Afghanistan is a failed state it can guarantee security without other governance reforms further down hierarchy e.g. participation? Grindle replied that the hierarchy needs a lot more thinking and that she suspects the establishment of some kind of basic personal security might be prior to other types of government reforms, even if this is imposed in authoritarian or unjust ways.

  • The idea that discussions should start from where a country is. What if what works is a 'familial society', can you put other things such as fair system of personal security right before that's been tackled?

  • The role of donors. Donors pay civil service in some countries. Can they in these countries contract out of responsibility for government agenda, if they are paying for it?

  • In Sierra Leone people started off trying to everything and this is not feasible. Things that actually happened had political coalitions behind them. Politics is very important. Security and decentralisation were supported by national politicians and donors. However, there were different agendas/rationales for supporting each of these.

  • 'Good enough donor support' to the GG agenda in developing counties is more important than talking about GEG. How should the international community assist in improving GG. Key issues are minimum standards and prioritisation. Donor community not good at upholding minimum standards e.g. not implementing political conditionalities. There is a multitude of donors involved in each country and they have different priorities for GG. There is no mechanism to decide what gets real priority and governmentts may not have capacity or will to do this themselves, just anxious to take donor money. How can we try and do something about this?

  • What about governance issues in relation to developed countries e.g. issues around money laundering? Donors tend to overstate their hand regarding their influence. What is the role of private sector in development and growth? In Asia, private sector drove growth.

  • Three concepts picked up in this State Series that are controversial - minimum standards/thresholds, importance of context, and priorities. Perhaps the problem is that donors aren't good at combining these; but perhaps donors aren't actually that relevant. To operationalise GG how about not looking at central government but thinking about dynamics at local level, e.g. around right to information?

  • Service delivery - history shows that this has been fairly vertical/specific. Now afflicted with 'partnership' in which everyone is involved in everything else. Puts enormous burden on practitioners and partnering and stakeholder- consulting is not very effective. The question should be what is feasible in a given timeframe.

  • What is there about 'good enough governance' that will improve our ability to change people's lives? What happens at local level? Is a 'good enough governance' framework going to improve service delivery? What we suffer from in current models of governance is the inability to establish cause and effect. Grindle replied that we need to be realistic when we sent an agenda, to prioritize what is most important, and evaluate that in a local context as well as determine which intervention at which level. Lawson added the 'good enough governance' concept is useful in breaking down a complex agenda and making it manageable. We are not good at remembering what our own government should be doing. (e.g.arms sales). He accepted there are will be trade offs in minimum standards but if you don't accept certain minimum standards they will never be respected.

The chair commented that minimum standards can be opposed to the idea of 'direction of change'. There are questions about ends and means. Thinking should be in terms of decision-making trees rather than providing hierarchies according to state characteristics. There are tensions around whether there is too much aid or if it has too limited an effect


'From Civil Service Reform to Capacity Development' was the eighth meeting in the '(Re-)Building Developmental States: From Theory to Practice' series, which discussed good governance.