The Better Governance Project

The better Governance Blog #3 - Part 2

10 Challenges of Working with Public Institutions in Low-income Contexts (part 2)

And how external actors can navigate them.

Jamie Smith, Executive Director.

This is the second part of a two part article identifying some of the most common challenges that external actors face when working with public institutions in low-resource contexts, and how external actors can navigate these.

6. Paper (form) over behaviour (function)

The problem: Addressing any public problem usually requires a combination of ‘paper’ and ‘behaviour’ changes. Paper changes might include a change to a law, by-law or regulation, a new policy or procedure, or a new strategy or action plan. Behaviour changes are changes in what civil servants actually do when they go to work every day, and how they do it.  

Both are important, but several observers have pointed to a tendency to prioritise form (paper) over function (behaviour) in low-resource contexts. In its worst manifestation, this means simply producing paper changes that look good to outsiders (a new law, a new strategy) without anything changing in the way a public organisation actually serves its citizens.  

This can create a gap between how public organisations are supposed to behave and how they actually behave with disastrous consequences for confidence in public institutions and the Rule of Law.  

Even at the smaller scale, addressing a public problem only through paper measures creates other problems. It can be used an excuse to package and push work to outside consultants. It can hold up all progress while project teams wait for a law to be passed. It can create a false sense of progress (“we now have an action plan!”) when nothing has or is likely to change.  

What can external actors do about it? 

Arguably the most important role of external actors is to draw attention to this risk and encourage balanced attention to paper and behaviour changes in the projects work on.  

In practice this may mean working with project partners to identify behavioural changes that can be pursued in parallel to working on the paper changes, and to encourage a focus on the actual implementation of paper changes after they are approved.  This might mean, for example, putting in place a mechanism for the Minister to visibly follow up on the implementation of an action plan every quarter.  

It might also mean looking at ways in which an ambitious, expensive or time-consuming change in the law can be done at a smaller scale at first. For example, if a law mandates the creation of a new Agency, but there is no budget or infrastructure for this, external actors could help partners identify how the seed activities of this Agency can be started at a smaller scale elsewhere. 

7. Difficulties in cooperating with other actors in a system

The problem: Many public problems supersede organisational boundaries and require cooperation between different public organisations, often in areas where mandates unclear.  

This type of cross-organisational cooperation is especially difficult when there is a lack of trust between different parts of the public sector, which is often the case in low-resource contexts. This lack of trust can derive from perceived competition over resources or competition between different political leaders in charge of these organisations. 

But there also may be more practical obstacles to cooperation, for example that civil servants are not used to initiating collaborations across organisational boundaries, that it is unclear who is responsible for something, or that there is some formal legal or technical obstacle to information sharing that makes collaboration more difficult.  

What can external actors do about it? 

The first step is to recognise that, since most public problems require cross-organisation collaboration, encouraging and facilitating different types of cooperation should be a central part of any externally-financed initiative.  

Often projects restrict themselves unnecessarily by strictly delineating project partners in the project design or budget. To overcome this, projects should identify early on which collaborations could be important and include space in the budget and workplan (e.g. a project component for new collaborations or emerging issues) to be able to work with different organisations, even if it is not clear what form this will take at the beginning of the project. 

To overcome issues of mistrust, opportunities can be found for person-to-person contact and trust building. This can come in many different and creative forms, including leadership programmes with participants from different organisations, cross-organisational working groups, working visits to learn about another organisation or social events.  

When it comes to legal or technical obstacles to sharing information, getting support from a decision maker from the centre of government is often needed- to provide guidance and sometimes direction to reluctant collaborators.  

Finally, external actors must practice what they preach: encouraging and facilitating collaborations between development projects. “Accidental enemies” is a term from systems thinking that describes how actors that have the same overall objective (e.g. increasing access to healthcare) can nonetheless become enemies because they see more incentives to compete rather than collaborate. External actors should therefore think about how they can increase trust and cooperation between development projects too. 

8. Fears about losing jobs

The problem: Although many civil servants complain about the low or average pay (“compared to what?” one should always ask), many are very worried about retaining their safe employment, especially if they are supporting many family members and do not think they would be able to find employment elsewhere.  

This fear can lead to a number of counter-productive behaviours.  

Civil servants may be extremely resistant to change, especially if it involves digitalisation, for fear that their role will no longer be needed. This can lead to the sabotage of projects or even IT hardware in efforts to prove that a change “will not work here.” 

It can also lead to a real reluctance to show initiative and make any ‘visible’ improvements, for fear that it will draw unwanted attention to someone, perhaps upsetting a more senior member of staff. They may also fear making a visible mistake and embarrassing a superior.  

The cumulative result of this is that, in some public organisations, the top priority becomes protecting jobs rather than the actual mission of the organisation. This then leads to inefficient structures and ways of working, or simply bloated organisations focussing on the wrong problems. 

What can external actors do about it? 

External actors do well to begin by showing empathy and understanding to the fragile nature of employment in many low-income countries – and that it is natural that civil servants fear losing their jobs when they have multiple dependants.  

With this understanding, donors can support change efforts that include a recognition of the concern about losing jobs and either include up-skilling to adapt to a new context (see point 3) or, if down-sizing is required, efforts to place people in new departments and positions.  

The people leading the change will also need support to persevere in the face of inevitable resistance, which can be provided through connections with people who have led similar changes in their (similar) organisations. This gives people confidence that change is possible.    

To reduce the risk of bloating, external actors can also encourage governments to institute regular ‘functional reviews’ of public organisations to review the mission, structure and resourcing of each institution. External actors should however be careful about beginning a project with a functional review, as this can immediately increase concerns about down-sizing and reduce project support before anything changes.  

9. Collecting rocks

The problem: ‘Collecting rocks’ is a term to describe a common phenomenon that anyone working with public sector change will be familiar with: that as soon someone decides to address problem X, others come along and tell them they also need to address problem Y and Z at the same time “otherwise there’s no point.” Or even worse, people will try to dilute a promising approach with a broader, usually impossible mission e.g. “there is no point doing X unless you first put a stop to corruption in the whole civil service.”  

It is called collecting rocks because the person leading the change gets so weighed down by all the rocks that they can’t achieve anything at all. And even if the person is able to keep other rocks out of their change project, constant reminders of the bigger problem can also weigh people down with feelings of hopelessness. 

What can external actors do about it? 

Rocks can come from donors and domestic actors alike, but usually the rocks are different. Donors are more likely to weigh down a change project with rocks of unrealistic expectations of what the project can achieve in addition to its central focus (e.g. broader integrity or human rights objectives). The first step for donors then is to be aware that adding more rocks can actually decrease the chances of anything improving at all. .

In response to the broader tendency to add more rocks to any aspiring change initiative, public leaders may need support to keep the rocks away through good communication with other stakeholders.    

One way to do this is to recognise that yes, there are many problems out there, and then remind people of Desmond Tutu’s famous quote that there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.  

Prioritisation of problems to work on is of course key. What makes this difficult for a public leader is when a problem is arguably more important to work on first, but it is outside of their mandate or not currently politically feasible.  Sometimes this needs spelling out: “we are working on that too, but that will take a long-time, and this is what we can do now to build up momentum.”   

10. Centralised decision making

The problem: In low-resource settings it is very common that the top person(s) in a ministry or agency wants to have detailed control of all operational decisions made by the ministry. This means the minister or top director is overwhelmed by the day-to-day (crisis) management of the organisationand the staff below do not feel empowered to make decisions themselves. This in turn can lead to ill-informed decision making as the top person cannot possibly stay on top of all the details, project delays whilst waiting for the decision of the top person, or the lack of time for any long-term strategic work. 

What can external actors do about it? 

Before starting a collaboration with a public organisation it is well worth getting to know the leadership style of the top person. If they have a highly centralised decision-making approach, it may be that coaching is needed to persuade the leader of the consequences of this centralisation and help them find a balance that they are comfortable with. The leaders that see centralisation as a problem can be supported to develop formal delegation of authority policies (and appropriate controls) to clarify who can decide what.  

It is also worth clarifying up front with the top person the areas in which the project contact point in the organisation – usually a project manager – is empowered to make decisions on. Here it can help to make a list of the types of decisions that the top person is comfortable delegating, and those which they want to have a final say on.  

Finally, the importance of keeping the top person in the loop throughout a project cannot be underestimated. If you fear that the project contact person is not always communicating enough with the top person themselves, it can be sensible to book a separate quarterly checkins with the top person to keep them in the loop on progress and challenges.    


Although most will agree that working with public institutions is critical to a country’s long-term development, the work presents a unique set of challenges that are typically not as problematic in other development projects. This can sometimes mean that donors try to avoid working with government actors in favour of working with civil society or the private sector actors. This is short-term thinking and a mistake: effective public institutions are essential to address any development challenge.  

By thinking through the unique challenges of working with public institutions, and planning ways around them, projects that work with making public institutions fairer and more effective have the potential for far greater impact on citizen’s lives than almost any other type of development project.