USC Price School of Public Policy

Public management expert shares lessons from World Bank’s civil service reform efforts

February 27, 2017

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By Matthew Kredell

The USC Price School of Public Policy’s Office of Global Engagement hosted international public management and governance expert Barbara Nunberg to discuss her work leading public administration reform at the World Bank, the constraints that inhibited their success, and ideas for how efforts could evolve to strengthen government functions across the developing world.

During her career at the World Bank, which spanned several senior posts, Nunberg gained extensive global experience engaging in civil service reform in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia over multiple decades. Most recently, she headed the World Bank’s Public Sector Reform program for East Asia and the Pacific.

Nunberg explained that civil service reform is about how human resources are managed in government through hiring, paying, promoting, providing incentives and disciplining career public officials in an effort to making government work as effectively as possible.

“I think that civil service reform, at least in the international development community and within the World Bank, has been kind of an underdog agenda,” Nunberg said. “It’s hard to say exactly why, but I think the sense is that maybe it hasn’t worked out so well. … I would argue if we looked around the world today, a capable professional civil service is intrinsic to the success of a lot of other policy objectives that perhaps have higher visibility on the international development to-do list.”

Complex process and projects

Barbara Nunberg with USC Price faculty Bill Resh, left, and Eric Heikkila (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)
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Civil service reforms attempted by the World Bank included cutting staff numbers and personnel expenditures, while raising and decompressing pay for the remaining staff, as well as instituting performance metrics for pay and promotion.

Results were at times disappointing, particularly in developing countries, with domestic stakeholders reversing the pay and employment rationalization, and formal merit reforms subverted by informal “neo-patrimonialism,” according to Nunberg, who is currently a visiting scholar at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Nunberg attested that aid could even do harm in some cases, as the projects could poach a country’s best and brightest civil servants. Donors wanted to see demonstrable results rather than invisible institutional development, and people leading the projects were often rewarded before seeing them through to completion.

“If you were at World Bank managing a project, you’re going to get rewarded by putting together that project, bringing it to the board, and then the perfect career move for you to make is to move on and not stick around to see that it is implemented correctly over a period of years, because that means your career has stalled,” Nunberg noted. “I think that also contributes to the lack of accountability for these institutional results over a longer period of time.”

Potential solutions

In order to do better at civil service reform in the future, Nunberg suggested developing and maintaining cross-national civil service data, leveraging new technologies, using the global workplace revolution to rethink stale civil service models, and to give countries a choice of reforms.

“I hope this can be understood as a narrative about how reflective practitioners can take lessons from our experience to try to climb up the steep learning curve of doing things better, particularly in this field where I think there’s still quite a lot to be learned,” Nunberg said.

The event took place in the classroom for USC Price Professor Eric Heikkila’s course on Comparative International Development, but was also open to the public.

“We have been looking at development challenges, and we’ve seen in many cases how it comes back to issues of leadership in the public sector and other sectors to foster development,” said Heikkila, director of USC Price’s Office of Global Engagement. “It’s wonderful for us to have someone from the front lines to share her experience.”

Serving as a discussant, USC Price Assistant Professor William Resh highlighted the critical role of civil service reform at the World Bank, noting that it comprises about one-sixth of all World Bank loans.

“That’s a lot of money going toward this institution building,” Resh said. “This discussion has been so valuable because evaluations of public management reform have been ambiguous or unconvincing at best when attempted. Public management reform has frequently been more of an act of faith than a piece of evidence-based policy making.”