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No pain, no gain: Witnessing ingrained obstacles to public sector reform in Senegal

Thomas Dickinson's picture
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One of the great frustrations of top-down reform is that it rarely works out as planned.
In the 58 years since independence, Senegal has undertaken public administration reform 68 times—and on 14 occasions public administration quality was specifically targeted, according to a new study. On the donors’ side, the country saw 27 projects costing over $11 billion between 1998 and 2008 that included public sector institutional reform.

But despite all these efforts, the country’s ranking in the Worldwide Governance indicator scores has been slipping since 1996, and the country struggles with a lethargic public administration that is increasingly ill-equipped to handle the demands of modern public service delivery.
 
When we were asked to support the government of Senegal’s latest initiative to improve the delivery of key public services, we therefore suggested a change towards focusing on a bottom-up approach.
 
The project used the rapid results approach and presented a challenge: to streamline two key services within 100 days. More importantly, the Senegalese government was asked to do it on their own, using their own staff and resources. Two very different institutions were selected to foster learning within each service to contrast the outcome: a government line ministry (the Ministry of Urbanization), and a private sector service provider (the Sénégalaise des Eaux). The project worked out rather well (you can read more about it in other blog about this project here), and facilitated a surprisingly rich micro-analysis of the institutional culture, the unwritten rules and incentive structures that underpin Senegalese public administration and hold it back.
 
While the private-sector team breezed through the challenge, the public-sector team struggled with basic teamwork, planning, transparency, and information sharing. The private-sector group set up their team, crafted objectives, developed an implementation plan and launched a process audit within 48 hours of kick off. The ministry team, on the other hand, was unprepared for project-based work: Even the nomination of the team was fraught with tensions and internal negotiations. Goals were overly broad and too ambitious for the time allotted, and a diagnosis of the process was never produced. In fact, for reasons never elucidated, at midpoint, the entire process and team were suddenly transferred to another division within the ministry.
 
How to improve?
 
In seeking to improve processes, we had unwittingly created the conditions for a rare micro-analysis of the workings of Senegal’s public administration and the deep structural issues that hold it back.
 
Over the course of the 100-day pilot we witnessed the clear exhibition of practically the whole range of managerial and governance red flags: hierarchical and formal relations within the Ministry created an environment where staff were not empowered to take individual initiatives or address big picture questions; internal politics led to information retention and blackballing; and an extremely procedural, task-based and siloed work environment diminished the capacity for fluid communication and teamwork.
 
The weak authorizing environment slowed work not only at the bottom but also created bottlenecks in upper management.
 
Predictably, such an environment provided fertile ground for gatekeeping and for skewed incentive structures to take hold. The limited information available to bona fide applicants, the absence of “dashboards” to trace the progress of applications through the administration, and the apparently limited pressure placed upon individual administrators to systematically document and furnish information—all created a clear space for gatekeeping, something afterwards confirmed by an independent evaluation.
 
Public sector team gained most
 
Nevertheless, despite these challenges, the public-sector team resolved a series of thorny operational and financing constraints, and managed—in extremis—to pull off a convincing success: resources for transport and communication were unlocked and the team reset the Ministry’s dysfunctional internal mailing system, set up a process-monitoring system, and established a one-stop-shop working group to expedite technical reviews.
 
In fact, through its struggles, the public-sector team gained more from the exercise than the private sector team. While the work was chaotically undertaken behind closed doors, and required external support at the closing workshop to bring it all together at the eleventh hour, the public-sector team posted an impressive performance. While the private sector team applied the skills and professional tools it already had, the public-sector team grappled with an entirely new approach to work. The public-sector team acquired a new sense of their potential, marveling at the long hours they had willingly put in and the results they had achieved.
 
Therefore, if you wish to trigger change and increase effectiveness in the public sector, including the teams actually tasked with doing the work makes sense. This is in line with the approaches and tools that increasingly stress the importance of the quality of implementation as a critical driver of development outcomes.
 
The other lesson may be to never despair (too much) and to not forget that the more difficult the task, the more partners stand to learn and gain from your work. Succinctly put, it really is a case of no pain, no gain.

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