Public Sector Reforms in Africa

A State-of-the-Art

Joseph R.A. Ayee is currently a Professor and Independent Scholar. He was the Rector, MountCrest University College, Accra, Ghana until January 2014. He served as the first Emeka Anyaoku Visiting Professor of Commonwealth Studies, University of London from January to July 2013. He is the immediate past Deputy Vice Chancellor and Head, College of Humanities, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa from 2010- 2012. He also served as Head, Department of Political Science from 1995-2000 and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ghana, Legon from 2002-2009. He has published prodigiously in the fields of politics, public policy, governance, tax and development management in Africa especially Ghana. His current articles have appeared in the International Journal of Public Administration; The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs; and the Journal of Asian and African Studies. His research interests include tax administration, political economy of mining, leadership, public sector reforms and the developmental state in Africa. He holds a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is also a Fellow and Honorary Treasurer of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences (GAAS) as well as a Fellow of the Ghana Institute of Management (GIM).

Public sector reforms (PSRs)1 have emerged as a staple of development in the developing world including Africa. This is because effective and inclusive institutions are important for sustainable growth and poverty reduction and respond to the direct demands from citizens for better governance2. In the framework of the preparations of the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (Busan, 2011), an international coalition of governments and organizations agreed on principles and recommendations for promoting inclusive and effective institutions to deliver poverty reduction3. PSRs are typically introduced through projects supported by development agencies. These agencies have seen a steadily increasing portfolio of projects since the 1970s. For example, total lending volumes for such interventions in the World Bank grew from an average annual inflation-adjusted total of $1.8 billion during the 1990s to $2.7 billion in the 2000s (World Bank 2012, 2). Growth in the number of World Bank projects with PSRs content has been significant (going from 469 in the 1980s to 3,235 in the 2000s (Andrews 2013; Moloney 2009)). Similar patterns show that these reforms dominate project portfolios in other development organizations as well. PSRs are embedded in over half of the operations carried out by Britain’s Department for International Development between 2004 and 20104. They are also evident in over half of the Asian and African Development Banks’ project portfolios in the late 2000s5 having comprised less than ten percent of interventions prior to the 1990s6.
The pervasiveness of PSRs is further evidenced in the variety of affected countries. World Bank projects supporting these reforms can be identified in over 140 countries (Andrews 2013). Similar coverage is provided by agencies like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other bilateral entities, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and regional development banks. Countries promote reform agendas apart from these external influences too, which further clutters the public sector change discourse (Caiden and Sundaram 2004).
In spite of the pervasiveness of PSRs in the developing countries including Africa and the financial and policy support for strengthening public institutions since the 1990s, the OECD (2014: 5) Terms of Reference have lamented that “the record of development partners and developing countries in this endeavour is modest”. Some of the challenges identified to success include: (i) reform approaches have often paid insufficient attention to local political economy and context; (ii) ‘best practice’, technical solutions have been preferred to ‘best fit’ and more pragmatic fixes; (iii) insufficient spaces for recipient countries to learn from peers as compared to traditional development partners; and (iv) where efforts have been made to improve the use of research, evidence and other forms of knowledge to reform institutions, they have typically taken place between development partners, rather than with the significant involvement of developing country partners (World Bank 2008; OECD 2014).
Against this backdrop, this article based on a desk study reviews the literature on public sector reforms (PSRs) in Africa with the intent of not only contributing to or complementing the literature but also providing a “one-stop shop” on the subject of PSRs. The article is divided into three sections. Section one defines the reform and public sector reform. Section two discusses and themes and trends of PSRs which have been covered by the literature. Section three summarizes the findings and their implications for the literature.
The concept of reform defies clear-cut definition. Reform involves activities seeking to improve the public administration of the State, its roles and functions as well as the effectiveness and efficiency of its core public service institutions in a systemic and sustainable manner (Caiden 1978; 1978; 1980). The emphasis on systemic and sustainable is to underline that the desired reforms bring about enduring changes in the behaviour of public sector actors in the interests of better outcomes for citizens. When planned changes do not institutionalize new or modified behaviours and practices that lead to these better outcomes for citizens, the reforms do not qualify as systemic and sustainable (Sida, Irish Aid and UKAid 2013).
According to Caiden and Sundaram (2004) reform may be viewed as a series of three things: (i) a deliberate plan to change public bureaucracies; (ii) synonymous with innovation, which is the injection of new ideas and new people in a new combination of tasks and relationships into the policy and administrative process; and (iii) coping with the uncertainties and rapid changes taking place in the organizational environment.
In short, we may define reform as systematic changes in the administrative system, which are designed to lead to more efficient, effective and responsive administration. It has to do with the repositioning or re-profiling of an organization for effectiveness and efficiency (Caiden 1991a&b; 1999). Some of its core elements include changes to public bureaucracies; innovation; systemic and wide-ranging changes, and urgent coping with changes occurring in the administrative environment.
Public Sector Reform
Before we define public sector reform (PSR), it will be appropriate to define the term “public sector”. The public sector is usually seen as synonymous with the government. From that perspective, the public sector is made up mainly of government departments and agencies that are staffed by public servants. The public sector is divided into organizational units, each with a particular functional specialization and related set of responsibilities and authorities. Broadly, there are two major types of organizational units: central agencies and line departments usually referred to as ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs). There are also various types of specialized or executive agencies, and state-owned enterprises (Adamolekun 2011a; Ayee 2001; 2005).
Public sector reform (PSR) refers to strengthening the management of the public sector. In particular, it involves an effort to fix the problems of the public sector, such as (i) overextension – attempting to do too much with too few resources; (ii) poor organization; (iii) irrational decision-making processes; (iv) mismanagement of staff; (v) weak accountability; (vi) poorly designed public programmes; and (vii) poorly delivered public services (Schacter 2000; O’Neil 2007). A related term is public sector governance reform (PSGR), which is about systemic, and sustainable performance improvement in the public sector. It has been pointed out the importance of PSGR can be appreciated through the following specific improvements that could be anticipated from its successful design and implementation: improved service delivery; improved efficiency and value for money; increasing private sector involvement in public policy and service delivery; devolution of functions and finance to sub-national government; more effective machinery of government; enhanced government transparency and accountability; engagement of citizens in public service development and oversight; enhanced public sector leadership and professionalism; strengthened strategic management in government; management decentralization with associated accountability for ministries, departments and agencies (Batley and Larbi 2004; OECD 2008; Ayee 2010).

Studies on PSRs in Africa may be divided into nine distinct and yet overlapping thematic areas as follows: (i) theoretical issues; (ii) state capacity; (iii) rationale and drivers; (iv) three phases or waves; (v) features/elements  (vi) outcome; approaches to problems; approaches to capacity development; and (ix) country case studies. Before we go into these themes, it is instructive to note that there are five main aims of the PSRs: efficiency, manageability (and robustness), effectiveness, responsiveness, and honesty (and equity). Table 1 summarizes them and the different NPM reform initiatives, and New Governance tool examples are also classified in terms of each of the five aims.

Table 1: A Summary of the Literature on Public Sector Reform


PSRs in Africa have been largely a reflection of new thinking, which is grounded in a number of theories that have emerged over the years. They include the Weberian concept of bureaucracy (Weber 1968), New Institutional Economics (NIE), Public Choice Theory (PCT), New Public Management (NPM) and Governance. In principle, key reform measures in Africa, encapsulated in the banner of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), “agencification” (the creation of semi-autonomous executive agencies), decentralization, commercialization and privatization have their roots in these theories. Even though some progress has been made with respect to the PSRs, their limited success are attributable to the limitations and constraints of the theoretical approaches (AfDB 2005; Ayee 2005; Hyden 2005).

The literature on PSRs has tended to focus on state capacity because of the belief that an effective state depends on an effective public sector capable of spearheading socio-economic development and reducing poverty (Brautigam 1996; UNECA 2009). Developing state capacity means improving the capacity of the state to perform its functions effectively and efficiently. It also involves a reduced role of the state and facilitating an enabling environment for development. Specifically, it involves the state shifting its own expenditures away from consumption towards investment, refocusing its attention onto core public functions (macro- economic stability, law and order), liberalization, deregulation and providing strategic social services. In other words, it means what van de Walle (2003) called the “dynamics of state retrenchment”.
Some of the strategies used to improve state capacity include public sector reforms such as those carried out in the civil service, judiciary, the tax system, decentralization, privatization, deregulation, co-production and public-private partnerships. The outcomes of these strategies on the ability of the state to deliver have remained largely unsuccessful, limited and marginal (Olowu and Wunsch 2004; Levy 2004; Peterson 2011). This is because the strategies largely emphasize training, incentives, downsizing and institutional innovations, which Englebert (2000) described as “somewhat misguided”. In his words that seem fatalistic: It is doubtful whether African bureaucrats need additional training and more imported institutions. They are neither less competent nor less moral than civil servants elsewhere. Patterns of bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, delinquent rule of law, and the like answer to a political logic and are the consequences of the dichotomization between statehood and power in African non-legitimate states. It is hard to see how public sector management programmes address these deeper issues. They may provide temporary Band-Aids, but they are unlikely to bring about lasting improvements (Englebert, 2000: 180-181).

The public sector is pivotal both to the day-to-day operation of the state and to its ability to effectively manage development processes and provide universal public goods and services. Public administrators or servants are critical in their roles as gatekeepers, policy-makers, implementers and distributors. As intermediaries between politicians and the wider population, they are essential to ensuring the penetration of the state at the local level, to the allocation and distribution of resources and to the enforcement of rules (Migdal, 1988). In short, the public sector pays a vital role in national development and its relevance cannot be underestimated in Africa (Ayee 2012). This was re-echoed in the 1997 World Development Report that “an effective state is vital for the provision of goods and services – and the rules and institutions – that allow markets to flourish and the people to lead healthier, happier lives. Without it, sustainable development, both economic and social, is impossible” (World Bank 1997: 1). However, the public sector is generally perceived as an obstacle to development because it is plagued by poverty, corruption, inefficiency, poor management, low morale, neopatrimonialism and political instability (Olowu 1999; 2010; Owusu and Ohemeng 2012; Ayee 2005; 2008; Haque 2001). This has led to the rationale behind PSRs which entails the “redefinition of the role of the state” whereby the state only performs functions that should be at the level of the state while leaving the other functions to subnational governments and the private sector through the strategies of decentralization, commercialization and privatization and liquidation of state enterprises (Fiszbein 2000; AfDB 2005; World Bank 1997; Ayee 2012).
Public sector reforms were largely driven by economic reform, democratization and the search for administrative efficiency to improve the quality of goods and services delivered to the public (Adamolekun 2011b; Crook 2010). Notable examples include the “big bang” comprehensive state reforms in New Zealand from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, the radical transformation of administrative culture in the United Kingdom (1979-1998), the Government Performance and Results Act (1993) in the United States, the total quality management movements in several Southeastern Asian countries and the decentralized management initiative in several Latin American countries (AfDB 2005; Turner and Hulme 1997). These examples emphasized a reduced role of the state, effectiveness of public sector institutions in providing value for money services and seemingly market-oriented organizational mechanisms such as decentralization, privatization, commercialization, contracting out, deregulation, performance management, downsizing and pay reform to ensure and improve effective and efficient public service delivery (ECA 2003; World Bank 2008; United Nations 2010).
The literature has demarcated PSRs in Africa in three phases or waves. The first phase is called the quantitative or first generation reforms or structurally- oriented public service reforms, which started in the 1980s and ended in the early 1990s. The reforms emerged from the macroeconomic and fiscal reforms that were embedded in structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) sponsored by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They sought to make government affordable and lean through cost reduction and containment measures, especially by way of rationalizing the machinery of Government, divesting non-core operations, retrenching redundant staff, removing ghosts workers from the payroll, freezing employment and adopting measures to control the wage bill and other personnel- based expenditures (Braibant 1996; Nunberg 1997;  Lienert 1998; O’Neil 2007).
The results were mixed, and varied among countries for three reasons, namely, (i) the general lack of ownership of the reforms and commitment to its implementation by those involved, and little public support for the programme; political understanding and support for structural public sector reform programmes (PSRPs) remained narrow and difficult to sustain; and (iii) as public services continued to deteriorate or stagnate under the structural PSRPs, there was political and public pressureto focus on improving these services. That provided the drive for launching the next, new wave or facet of PSRP (Lienert and Modi 1997; Nunberg 1999; UNECA 2003; Antwi et. al. 2008; Ayee 2010).
The second phase is called qualitative second-generation Reforms the focus of which was on capacity building and began in the 1990s to early 2000. The key interventions included enhancing staff skills, improvement of management systems and structures, restoring incentives and improving pay and improving the work environment. It has been pointed out that the capacity-building-oriented PSRPs did not to have any perceptible impact on service delivery. In addition, the capacity building measures were in many instances piecemeal and fragmented. One singularly significant shortcoming was the conspicuous absence of effective pay and incentives reform, which remain critical to sustainable capacity building. Even in those African countries where major downsizing of the public service had taken place, there was limited progress in pay reform (Kaul 1996; 1997). The resources released from retrenchment were not enough to appreciably lift the low salaries of public servants. Consequently, morale and discipline in the public service remained low, and unethical conduct in ways of bribery and corruption were on the rise. In the circumstances, service delivery continued to deteriorate in most countries throughout the 1990s. Recognizing this trend is at the heart of the on-going initiatives to design the third wave PSRPs (Crook 2010; Bangura and Larbi 2006; Hope Sr, 2001).
The third phase is the third- generation reforms post- Washington consensus, whose focus is on service delivery improvements and started from the late 1990s to date. Besides the perceived inadequacies of the first and second waves of PSRPs, the added impetus for the reform programmes to focus on service delivery improvement which originated from six factors: (i) the need to demonstrate early results; (ii) public demands for transparency and accountability; the shift to market economies and private sector- led economic growth; (iv) influence of “new public management”; measureof decentralization to local governments, and corporatisation of public service delivery through establishment of executive agencies; (v) the need for PSRPs to support sector-wide approaches; and (vi) pursuit of an integrated systems approach (McCourt 2008; 2013; Ayee 2005; 2008).
Even though the third phase is ongoing, the evidence is that the reforms have not transformed the Africa’s public sector. This is because the sector continues to be saddled with corruption, inefficiency, poor management and implementation of public policies and programmes. This has led to the search for alternative approaches to address the problems of the public sector (Owusu and Ohemeng 2012). Some scholars have therefore called for a “developmental public service”, which is capable of helping a developmental state implement its policies and accomplish its goals (Johnson 1982; 1995; Wade 1990; Evans 1995). A developmental public service therefore embodies the capacities to perform effectively the regulatory, administrative, technical and extractive functions (Brautigam 1996; Owusu and Ohemeng 2012; Ayee 2013).

PSRs have focused on the following five features or elements. They are (i) the redefinition of the role of the state, which includes the principle of subsidiarity; efficiency measures such as improved financial and human resources systems to enhance public management performance; financial management that includes budget reforms, the introduction of the medium and expenditure framework (MTEF) and tax administration such as the creation of semi-autonomous revenue agencies; (iv) improved service delivery through surveysof service delivery, quality charters and programme evaluation; (v) enforcing accountability through internal and external control mechanisms such as internal audits, code of ethics, developing capacity of supreme audit agencies and improving the independence of the judiciary, legislative and civil society organizations (Owusu and Ohemeng 2012; Ayee 2012; Awortwi 2010; Antwi et. al. 2008; Olowu 2011; Adamolekun and Kiragu 2011). A new element has been introduced which some scholars have referred to as the “new public service, serving rather than steering” (Denhardt and Denhardt 2000).

There is evidence in the literature to show that the outcomes of public sector reform have been consistently disappointing (McCourt 2013). For instance, a World Bank internal paper (2010) carried the title: Why do Bank-supported public service reform efforts have such a poor track record? However, research also points to the existence of more successful reform experiences that do lead to more functional governments. In these instances, reforms facilitate the establishment of governments that solve problems and achieve the kind of functionality needed to produce public value; new public financial management systems actually foster better resource use, administrative reforms foster better service delivery, trade reforms generate higher volumes of trade, and so forth. These experiences could be called positive outliers; given that they produce results
that are better than the norm. ‘Positive deviance’ is another term that describes such experiences. The term has been used in various literatures but entered the development domain because of the work of Pascale, Sternin, and Sternin (2010). These authors argue that positive deviance is observable in every community or field, where some agents find better solutions to problems than their peers even though they have similar resources as their peers and face similar challenges and obstacles. Given such belief, the positive deviance approach has emerged as a way of identifying workable solutions to development’s toughest problems. It emphasizes the importance of learning from the positive deviants within the contexts where failure is more normal; and focuses especially on learning about the strategies adopted to find and fit effective solutions (Andrews 2013; Caulfield 2006).

The importance of this kind of learning cannot be overstated in the international development domain. This importance is reflected in a number of studies that have tried to promote such learning in the past decades. Many of these studies try to explain ‘pockets of productivity’ or ‘islands of excellence’ in government organizations in developing countries (Leonard 2010). These include studies like Grindle and Thomas (1991), Leonard (1991), Schneider (1991), Grindle (1997), Tendler (1997), Uphoff, Esman  and Krishna (1998), Heredia and Schneider (2002), Grindle (2004), Owusu (2006), Bebbington and McCourt (2007). These studies actually investigate different manifestations of what is being called “positive deviance” (Leonard 2010; Andrews 2013). Some focus on oddly successful organizations, others on successful policy interventions, and yet others on successful reforms themselves. In most cases the successes one sees emerged from some or other change process, however, so it is appropriate in all cases to ask how such change (or reform) came about and was consolidated to foster more effective government, where Leonard (2010) sees success as the improvement in state capability to sustainably generate public goods.
The literature has identified six major problems in public sector reform and approaches to deal with them in developing countries (see Table 2).
Table 2: Public Service Reform Problems and Approaches

Studies have shown that capacity development is one of the major challenges facing public sector reform in African countries. Some of the studies have either focused on interventions or initiatives to be implemented to develop capacity (Binkerhoff with Morgan 2010; OECD 2010; Morgan 2010; De Lange et. al. 2011) while others have been specific such as focusing on learning approaches (Andrews 2013; Van der Veen 2000; Keijzer 2013). For instance, Keijzer’s (2013) study focuses on the analysis and the comparison of different approaches to international peer review. It identifies lessons learned as well as new questions to guide efforts to promote different types of peer learning. Developing the capacity of government to administer, deliver and renew public services must be managed concurrently with reform. The reform deficit is most pronounced in settings with weak institutional capacity in African countries (World Bank 2008).

Several country case studies exist on PSRs in Africa. They are largely in the form of books and monographs that deal with the country context, the achievements and challenges faced in the implementation of PSRs. They include among others, the publications of Collins and Kaul (1995).  Mutahaba (1989; 1995); Therkildsen (2000); Mutahaba and Kiragu (2002); Olowu and Wunsch (2004); Rugumyamheto (2004); Levy and Kpundeh (2004); Owusu (2006); Omoyefa (2008); Olaopa (2009a; b); Dickovick and Wunsch (2014); Ayee (2010); Ayee (2012); Fatile and Adejuwon (2010); Owusu and Ohemeng (2012); Roll (2014); Booth and Golooba- Mutebi (2012); Lawanson and Adeoye (2013); Peterson (2011); Leonard (2010); Andrews (2013); Adamolekun (2011); Hyden (2010); Ohemeng and Anebo (2012); Karyeija (2012); Bunse and Fritz (2012); Booth (2012); Alford and O’Flynn (2012); Robinson (2013); and Sarr (2014). They covered topics such as civil service reform, decentralization, privatization, financial management and tax reform, legal, judicial and security reform, education and agriculture as well as water, sanitation and health reforms (service provision and delivery) including other public services. The studies concluded that even though there has been some progress with PSRs in African countries, there is more room for improvement.
In spite of the rather mixed results of PSRs in Africa, there are successful cases or “pockets of effectiveness” (Roll 2014). Peterson (2011), for instance, noted that even though successful public sector reform is rare in Africa, Ethiopia – a post-conflict country, was able to transform its public financial management (PFM) to international standards and now has the third best system in Africa that is managing the largest aid flows to the continent (Hedger and de Renzio, 2010). To Peterson (2011) the PFM reforms in Ethiopia succeeded because they were aligned with the four drivers of public sector reform: context, ownership, purpose, and strategy. PFM is a core function of the state and its sovereignty, and it is not an appropriate arena for foreign aid intervention— governments must fully own it, which was a key to the success of Ethiopia’s reform. He therefore cautioned that the “purpose of PFM reform should be building stable and sustainable “plateaus” of PFM that are appropriate to the local context, and they should not be about risky and irrelevant “summits” of international best practice. Plateaus, not summits, are needed in Africa. Finally, a strategy of reform has four tasks: recognize, improve, change, and sustain” (Peterson 2011: 205). In short, Ethiopia succeeded in its PFM reforms because it implemented a “recognize–improve–sustain” strategy to support the government policy of rapid decentralization.

This article set out to bring under one roof the most important thematic areas of PSRs in Africa, which have emerged over the years. It shows that PSRs have been pervasive and extensive in Africa in spite of their varying degrees of success, ranging from good, limited success and failure. A number of lessons have been reinforced by this state-of-the-art. First, reforms are increasingly shaped by the interplay of domestic and international factors. This implies that the role of these factors should be taken into account as they are likely going to affect the development of the reform paths for the future. Accordingly, reforms are neither a truly political, nor purely managerial exercise (Ohemeng and Anebo 2012). Second reforms are an instrument that political leaders use to further their political goals, and to tighten control over the state machine. Thus the need to see how this affects reforms, especially the setting up of a reform path, must be well examined if reforms are to be sustained. Understanding the political patterns of administrative reforms has important implications for strategies that affect the role of developmental states in developing countries. The reform experience suggests that if institutions indeed matter for development, we still do not have a firm institutional base to transform dysfunctional institutions. In a nutshell, reforms like any policy development should have a “path” as well as the “lock- in” for future reforms (Bunse and Fritz 2012).
Finally, PSRs have failed because of poor implementation and fault of too much technique and not being in touch—understanding the realities on the ground. The implementation deficit has been emphasized by Polidano (2001) and Pressman and Wildavsky (1984). The implementation of PSRs entails a complex institutional framework with stakeholders having differing interests and perspectives; and when perspectives differ so also is the measure of success. According to Pressman and Wildavsky (1984) when a policy or programme like PSR depends on several actors or stakeholders, the chances for successful implementation are sharply reduced.  Coordination is also problematic as some of the institutions engage in a turf war or silo mentality.
Even though the outcome or results of PSRs in Africa are not encouraging vis-à-vis their stated goals, there is no point to be pessimistic. One should rather be optimistic as the mistakes made and lessons learnt can be used as routes for future success!


1 The term “civil service reform” (CSR) is also commonly used. CSR is one element of PSR.

2 The report of the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda agreed that good governance and effective institutions are central for poverty reduction and should be included in a new universal framework.

3 Partnering to Strengthen and Support Effective States: Statement of Principles and Recommendations (2011)

4 Spending on governance accounted for about twenty percent of the Department for International Development’s (DFID) activities, whilst more than twenty percent of the spending focused on economicreforms that tended to involve interventions at the interface of the public and private sectors. Beyond this, DFID documents note that institutional reforms are common in sectoral engagements (like water supply and sanitation, health and education) by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (2011).

5 Asian Development Bank (2009; 2011); African Development Bank (2012).

6 Governance operations in the African Development Bank between 1967 and 2006 accountedfor 15 percent of all loans. Most took place after the mid-1990s (African Development Bank 2012).


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