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Project blog: Civil service reform and anti-corruption in developing countries: Tools and evidence from eight countries in four developing regions

January 2017 update: Civil Service Reform and Anti-Corruption in Developing Countries

Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling, Christian Schuster, Kim Sass Mikkelsen

The ‘Civil Service Reform and Anti-Corruption’ project examines the consequences of civil service management on the motivation of civil servants, public service orientation, performance, clientelism and corruption in public administration. It covers eleven countries from four developing regions. The core of the project consists of large-scale surveys of civil servants to assess their experience with human resources management and corruption in the context of their work. The survey has been fully implemented in Chile where it generated nearly 4,500 respondents. It has been adapted to local context and pre-tested with civil servants in the remaining countries and will be fielded in the first half of 2017. As such, the project is well on track to deliver the largest ever comparative survey of civil servants in the developing world and to deliver novel, actionable evidence to DFID and partner countries on the types of civil service management practices that can help to curb bureaucratic corruption and improve bureaucratic performance.

The overall objectives of the project have remained unchanged: in the first place, the project seeks to identify civil service management practices that help to improve the performance of civil servants and reduce corruption in public administration in developing countries. The project will provide new evidence through the surveys of civil servants and selected case studies to inform strategies and the implementation of civil service reform and anti-corruption initiatives in field research countries and by DfID. It has further become evident during the first year of research that the project will generate both general lessons, for instance, for DfID, and issue-specific insights that will help to support country-specific initiatives.

Second, the project will develop new tools for policy-makers to assess the effectiveness of civil service management practices. In many countries, staff surveys of civil servants will be implemented for the first time. Ideally, the collaboration with governments will lead to the periodical implementation of staff surveys in the civil service. This would be an excellent impact of the project! 

This project is one of eight British Academy-funded anti-corruption research projects, and you can see the main project page with full details of all awards and award holders here.

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September 2016 update: Civil Service Reform and Anti-Corruption in Developing Countries

The ‘Civil Service Reform and Anti-Corruption Project’ focuses on the relation between civil service management designs and practices, on the one hand, and performance, corruption and clientelism in central government ministries and agencies, on the other.

The project has been expanded to include nine countries from four developing regions. These are Nepal and Bangladesh from Asia; Malawi, Uganda, and Ghana from Africa; the Dominican Republic and Chile from Latin America; and Estonia and Kosovo from Eastern Europe. We further collaborate with colleagues in Brazil (Latin America), and Albania and Montenegro (Eastern Europe) to assess selected issues in the study of civil service reform and anti-corruption that will help to inform our project and allow us to generate actionable recommendations.

The project is well on track to deliver on its objectives. Since the beginning of the year, our focus has been on five key areas:

(i) Setting up the team of researchers and collaborators,

(ii) Completing country background studies on each country under study, and

(iii) Designing a questionnaire that will be used to survey public servants in each country.

(iv) Piloting the questionnaire with public servants

(v) Presenting the project design and background at various international conferences and workshops.

 1. Research Team

The project team currently includes fourteen researchers and collaborators. The members are:

United Kingdom (core team)

§ Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling, PI, University of Nottingham

§ Christian Schuster, Co-I, University College London

§ Kim Sass Mikkelsen, Research Associate, University of Southern Denmark.

Malawi

§ Brigitte Zimmermann, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ghana

§ Rachel Sigman, Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California, and

University of Gothenburg

Uganda

§ Adam Harris, University of Gothenburg

Bangladesh

§ Ahmed Shafiql Huque, McMaster University in Hamilton/Ontario

§ Taiabur Rahman, University of Dhaka

§ Kazi Maruful Islam, University of Dhaka

Nepal

§ Shreekrishna Shrestha, Tribhuvan University

Estonia

§ Tiina Randma-Liiv, Tallinn University of Technology

§ Cerlin Pesti, Tallinn University of Technology

Kosovo

§ Hamit Qeriqi, Public Administration Expert, Pristina

Chile

§ Boris de los Rios, Public Administration Expert, Santiago

 2. Country background studies

At this stage, the project has generated background studies for each country. Based on a research protocol that we designed in the spring, our country collaborators prepared country background studies that provide a detailed understanding of

§ Civil service reform and history

§ The formal-legal basis of civil service management

§ A qualitative assessment of civil service management practices

§ A preliminary assessment of problems of corruption and clientelism in the central government administration

It has become quickly apparent, for instance, that academic research and evaluations by international organisations have paid much more attention to country-level civil service reform programmes and strategies. By contrast, we still know much less about the effects of these programs on their intended outcomes, including lower corruption and clientelism. Moreover, the country studies demonstrate that management practices often differ dramatically ‘within’ countries from one public sector organisation to another. Our project will develop tools to measure these kinds of within-country differences – in most countries – for the first time ever.

 3. Survey of public servants

The country background studies are currently providing the basis for the adaptation of the survey instrument to each country. The survey of public servants is one of the central research instruments that will be developed and implemented in the context of this project. The design of the survey has significantly benefited from a short pilot study that we conducted in the Dominican Republic at the beginning of the year. The pilot study has already generated data that will lead to a publication and be relevant for the conclusions of the project.

 4. Conference presentations

In the spring and summer, we presented the project at a number of workshops and international conferences. Following the kick-off meeting at the British Academy in February, we presented the project at the

§ Annual Conference of the British Political Studies Association in Brighton, March 2016,

§ Annual Meeting of the European Political Science Association in Brussels, June 2016,

§ Inaugural Conference of the Nottingham Interdisciplinary Centre for Economic and Political Research (NICEP) in Nottingham, June 2016,

§ World Congress of the International Political Science Association in Poznan/Poland, July 2016,

§ Annual Conference of the British Development Studies Association in Oxford, September 2016.

In addition,

§ Christian Schuster (Co-I) presented the results of the pilot study at the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg, March 2016.

§ Kim Mikkelsen (Research Associate) presented a pilot study on the impact of codes of ethics on corruption at the World Congress of Political Science in Poznan, July 2016.

 5. Next steps

Survey implementation

The next phase of the project will focus on rolling out the survey across the countries under study.

Publications

We are planning to submit three articles for review to international journals by the end of the year, and we will continue producing blog posts and updates for the BA website. 

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Initial thoughts

Civil service reform is widely regarded as an important anti-corruption tool for transition and developing countries, which often experience high levels of political and bureaucratic corruption. The assumption among reformers, international aid and assistance organisations and academics is that civil servants who are well-qualified, well-paid and can look forward to a long-term career in the civil service perform better and are less likely to engage in corrupt behaviour.

In particular, merit recruitment is consistently associated with less corruption in the public sector. Civil servants who are recruited on the basis of competitive examinations and qualifications are usually better skilled and more likely to develop a public service ethos than political appointees who are less screened for skills and honesty and who are, on average, more dependent on their political masters. Indeed, bureaucracies, whose staff is recruited on the basis of merit, are expected to ‘check’ on (potentially corrupt) politicians and hence help to reduce both petty and grand corruption.

While the benefits of civil service reform in particular merit recruitment appear to be overwhelming, it remains a major challenge to make reforms work in practice. Research on civil service reform in Africa, South America and Eastern Europe suggests that the quality of implementation is one of the main obstacles to reform effectiveness.1 There are plenty of studies and reports that show how reforms lead to action programmes and the adoption and amendment of laws. Yet the implementation often lags behind, remains partial or is entirely ignored. As a result, the legal frameworks merely act as facades that are meant to please international donors and evaluators, while local practices of civil service management remain largely unchanged.

However, the challenge of implementation is often even more complex than simply following once adopted rules. Research that we have conducted on the quality of recruitment and selection procedures in Western Balkan states shows the importance of investing in the quality of implementation to improve the effectiveness of civil service reforms.2

Since the beginning of the Stabilisation and Association process with the European Union in the late 1990s Western Balkan states have continuously invested in civil service reforms. All countries in the region adopted civil service laws, which involved the establishment of merit recruitment procedures. Compared to many developing countries, merit procedures are also routinely followed in practice. Accordingly, job vacancies are publicly advertised, independent selection commissions are formed, written examinations are taken, personal interviews are conducted and rankings are prepared before candidates are selected for a post or entry to the civil service.

However, even if recruitment procedures are followed in practice, it is widely argued for the Western Balkans that merit rules have remained ineffective, as non-merit selection criteria such as political loyalty, ethnic, clan and family belonging are often more important than the qualification levels of candidates. The winners of job competition are often known before positions are formally opened. Examination questions are leaked to preferred candidates. And top ranked candidates are not necessarily offered a job in the civil service.

The problem of ineffective implementation is a major challenge for administrative reformers and for international aid and assistance organisations that promote the professionalisation of the civil service to improve bureaucratic performance and reduce corruption in the public sector. Three obstacles to effective implementation are particularly evident for the Western Balkans.

First, the capacity to implement the recruitment and selection procedure is often low. Members of selection commissions, for instance, tend to lack adequate expertise to manage the process. As a result, they are more vulnerable to external pressures and attempts to manipulate the recruitment process.

Similarly, the personnel departments of individual administrative organisations tend to lack the capacity to support recruitment processes. If separate departments exist at all, they have only a small number of staff that lack specialised expertise in human resources management. As a consequence, personnel departments are not able to play a more proactive role in the recruitment process. Rather, they merely act as observers that minute the process.

Second, even if civil service laws and relevant by-laws have been put in place, they often establish standards that are too low or incomplete. For instance, written examination systems are operated on a routinely basis across the Western Balkan states. However, thresholds for passing examinations are often low and the capacity of examination systems to screen qualifications for a career or a particular job in the civil service is hence modest. Moreover, personal interviews that form part of examination procedures are not clearly regulated, creating risks for the unequal treatment of candidates.

Third, in the Western Balkans there is only limited political support for the implementation of merit recruitment procedures. Politicians tend to lack knowledge of standards and procedures as well as the benefits of merit recruitment for the quality and performance of government.

The limited support and understanding applies to senior politicians in government and their political advisors who influence recruitment processes from the very top and often have a direct interest in their outcomes. Similarly, members of parliament, who should have an active role in monitoring the work of the executive, tend to show neither much knowledge nor interest in recruitment processes. As a consequence, politicians take advantage of opportunities to (informally) influence recruitment practices wherever they can and hence reinforce the ‘culture of favouritism’ that is so ubiquitous across public administration in the Western Balkans.

The evidence from the Western Balkans holds relevant lessons for administrative reformers and international donor organisations with interest in the relation between civil service reform and anti-corruption in other transition and developing countries. First, there is a need for monitoring and evaluation beyond the use of checklists in order to identify the ‘weak spots’ of civil service systems. Assessments should make the effort to examine the details of civil service designs and to uncover implementation practices.

Second, there is a need for a comprehensive approach to civil service reform that gives more attention to the quality of implementation. Efforts to develop the capacity of personnel departments and to improve the expertise of personnel managers, selection panellists and senior civil servants are likely to make civil service systems work better. Government politicians, senior political appointees and members of parliament should also be targeted by these kinds of expertise and capacity building initiatives.

With a focus on the quality of implementation it is also more plausible that the process of making civil service reforms in transition and developing countries work is likely to take time. It requires support and buy-in from local politicians, senior civil servants and other stakeholders inside and outside the state. Yet without efforts to improve the quality of implementation it will be difficult to turn civil service reform into an effective anti-corruption tool.

References

1 Andrews, M (2013) The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development: Changing Rules for Realistic Solutions. Cambridge: CUP.

2 Meyer-Sahling JH, Mikkelsen KS, Ahmetovic D, Ivanova M, Qeriqi H, Radevic R, Shundi A, Vlajkovic V (2016, forthcoming) Improving the Implementation of Merit Recruitment Procedures in the Western Balkans: Analysis and Recommendations. Danilovgrad: ReSPA Publications.

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