No. 39



30 Years of Public Management Reforms: Has there Been a Pattern?

05 June 2019


RiTo No. 39, 2019

Lessons for the World Bank?

This is the section I have added to the original academic paper1

I would suggest a number of ‘lessons’ which could be drawn from the foregoing analysis:

  1. Big models, such as NPM or ‘good governance’ or ‘partnership working’, often do not take one very far. The art of reform lies in their adaptation (often very extensive) to fit local contexts. And anyway, these models are seldom entirely well-defined or consistent in themselves. Applying the big models or even standardized techniques (benchmarking, business process re-engineering, lean) in a formulaic, tick-box manner can be highly counterproductive.
  2. To take the first point further, the whole idea that there is one model or set of principles that can or should be applied everywhere is suspect. As many scholars and some practitioners have been observing for decades, there is no ‘one best way’. The whole exercise of reform should begin with a careful diagnosis of the local situation, not with the proclamation of a model (or technique) which is to be applied, top down. ‘No prescription without careful diagnosis’ is not a bad motto for reformers.
  3. Another, related point is that task differences really do matter. A market-type mechanism may work quite well when applied to refuse collection but not when applied to hospital care. Sectoral and task differences are important, and reformers should be wary of situations where their advisory team lacks substantial expertise in the particular tasks and activities that are the targets for reform.
  4. PMR is always political as well as managerial/organizational. Any prescription or diagnosis which does not take into account the ‘way politics works around here’ is inadequate and incomplete. Some kernel of active support from among the political elite is usually indispensable.
  5. PMR is usually saturated with vested interests, including those of the consultants/advisors, and the existing public service staff. To conceptualise it as a purely technical exercise would be naive.
  6. Successful PMR is frequently an iterative exercise, over considerable periods of time. Reformers must adapt and also take advantage of ‘windows of opportunity’. This implies a locally knowledgable presence over time, not a one-shot ‘quick fix’ by visiting consultants.
  7. It does work sometimes! But, as indicated at the outset, humility is not a bad starting point.

1 Pollitt, C. (2011). 30 Years of Public Management Reforms: Has There Been a Pattern? A Background Paper for the World Bank Consultation Exercise. –