The Better Governance Project

The better Governance Blog #3 - Part 1

10 Challenges of Working with Public Institutions in Low Income Contexts (part 1)

And how external actors can navigate them.

Jamie Smith, Executive Director.

We have known for some time now that the quality of a country’s public institutions matters a great deal to its development trajectory and the quality of life of its citizens. From addressing climate change to reducing poverty- there is barely a challenge that does not need a more effective and fair public sector.

That’s why it is estimated that up to a third of all development assistance is spent on providing different types of assistance to support improvements in how public institutions in low income countries work.

Working with public institutions, however, comes with a unique set of challenges that can make this work more difficult than other types of development cooperation.

This two part article identifies 10 of the most common challenges that we have seen in our work with public institutions and suggests some practical ways external actors – that is, donors or project implementers- can work around these obstacles.

1. People Turnover

Government positions are often allocated based on political negotiations. That means it is not uncommon for the most senior people in a public organisation – ministers, deputy ministers or executive directors – to change multiple times during a 3-4 year project. 

These new leaders usually want to make an impact and often have their own pet projects or opinions. They may have no prior knowledge in the sector and not feel comfortable making any of the decisions the project needs them to make. Most often the empty seat and transition time creates long delays in project implementation while people wait for decisions 

Staff changes are also frequent at the civil servant level. It is not uncommon for significant resources to be invested in one or two key project counterparts only for them to leave for better paid jobs elsewhere. Or the department that the project has been working with is suddenly merged into another. Again, the effect is the same – time and resources lost in all the turbulence. 

What can external actors do about it?


People turnover should not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever worked with public institutions in low resource contexts. It is amazing how often this is used as an excuse for failure on projects when we know it is an inevitable part of any project that works with the public sector. 

Once external actors have accepted that personnel change is highly likely, they can then put in place strategies to mitigate the risks when it does happen. External actors can, for example, take steps to broaden the number of people a project interacts with, to avoid reliance on one or two individuals.

Erin Mcdonnell at Notre Dame University has identified that some successful public organisations in low-resource contexts use a strategy she calls ‘built-in redundancy’- involving more people in a work task than is strictly efficient to minimise the consequences of absences that are inevitable in more insecure contexts. The same principle can be applied to development projects.   

To counteract the risks of political changes at the top, external actors need to be on their toes- meet quickly and early with any new leader and give them a chance to add their own unique imprint on the project. New leaders are always in demand so this requires great tenacity- passively waiting for an email reply will not work. Then once you meet, help the new leader to see how they can benefit from supporting the project- perhaps there is an upcoming launch of a new service, a conference or a photo op- get creative.  

Whenever possible, external actors should seize opportunities to ‘lock-in’ project changes for the longer-term, through changes to procedures, regulations, strategies or laws that cannot easily be changed by a new appointee. 

Part of the job of external actors is also to support the leaders to create an attractive workplace that is able to retain talented staff. This might be through training opportunities, putting motivated people together or simple things like improving computer equipment. Helping to recruit, retain and inspire a few motivated public servants can be the most important legacy a project has, as they will keep doing good work long after the project is over. 

2. Low Motivation

Every organisation will have a mix of motivated and unmotivated employees, but public organisations in low-resource contexts are particularly vulnerable to higher levels of disengaged, unmotivated or cynical staff. 

Why? Sometimes civil servants join public organisations with ambitions to change things but get worn down by politics, corruption or cynicism. In some countries, civil servants often have another ‘regular’ day job or side business and spend their time on that. And sometimes civil servants simply grow resentful of low salaries and the weak relationship between effort and reward.

This lack of motivation manifests itself in several ways. In some countries, civil servants simply don’t turn up to work, or only turn up for parts of the day. In other countries they may turn up but spend more time reading the newspaper than working. Sometimes civil servants demand that they are given a second salary by a donor (a salary ‘top-up’) to work on a development-funded project, even if the work is well within their job description. In other cases civil servants are happy to farm out their work to consultants to avoid struggling with issues themselves.  

What can external actors do about it? 


Low motivation is often the result of structural factors that may only be addressed at the central level, for example through changes to civil service career evaluation and progression, salary levels, or simpler things like basic rules for working hours and second jobs. Changing these things require long-term concerted efforts and reformers working on these issues deserve financial, technical and moral support from donors. At the very least, any external actor working with public institutions should be aware of the current civil service rules and reform efforts ongoing, if only to avoid mistakes like paying salary top-ups when these are not allowed. 

Even in the short to medium term there are still many things external actors can do to increase the motivation of the staff in the institution they are working with. Every organisation has people that are motivated by their organisation’s mission (people Dan Honig calls “mission-driven bureaucrats”) and it is a valuable exercise to identify as many of these people as possible- even if they are not working with the specific thing that your project is supposed to be doing. 

Teaming up the motivated people you find in the different parts of the organisation into a ‘cluster’ working together on a project is a powerful way of creating motivation momentum. Erin McDonnell and others have called this phenomenon ‘pockets of effectiveness’ – pockets of high performance in otherwise low performing organisations or sectors- and these pockets can multiply within and across public organisations. 

Finally, motivation in public institutions can be increased in two powerful ways. 

The first is to remind people of the organisation’s mission and impact. The beauty of working in the public sector is that every organisation has a potentially heroic mission– to protect the environment or keep children safe- and even the ones with less glamourous missions can be framed as heroic: the purpose of issuing driving licenses is to stop people dying in road accidents caused by bad drivers, for example.  

The second way is to take the civil servants out to “meet the victims” of a poor service. Seeing how real people suffer from the status quo – be it queuing for hours for a service or not having access to good textbooks – can be a powerful way to motivate people, especially if it is something that is within their power to improve, even in a small way. 

3. Lack of Infrastructure

Public institutions in low-resource contexts are often simply constrained by a lack of basic infrastructure to do their work. This could be anything from poor office conditions, lack of computers or access to the internet, or a lack infrastructure needed for service delivery: beit classrooms, healthcare facilities, roads or police cars. 

Aside from the obvious limitations of weak infrastructure, focussing on what is missing can also have the effect of creating a feeling of helplessness- that because we do not have enough money to build the optimum infrastructure (e.g. a new road), there is no point in trying to address the problem at all. 

What can external actors do about it? 


There will never be enough money to build or buy all the infrastructure you might need or want; this is true in any country. Donors should therefore encourage an important part of the art of development entrepreneurship: finding creative ways to make the best of what you have, and at the same time working to get the things you need. Instilling an attitude that things can be improved even without many resources can be a wonderful legacy of a good development project. 

In donor-funded assistance projects with public organisations it can be strategic to include some budget for infrastructure investments, no matter how small these might be. Small but visible changes can reinforce a feeling of momentum for change. There are of course risks to these types of investments: corrupted procurements, theft, accusations of favouritism to the parts of the organisation that have benefited, and insufficient budgets to maintain the original investment. These investments must therefore be accompanied with fair processes to select what is invested in, a plan for financing maintenance and robust procurement procedures. 

Another important contribution of external projects can be to support public leaders to make the domestic case for additional budget allocations – through for example training in national budget or capital investment selection processes, or gathering data and arguments to make a stronger case in budget negotiations.  

4. Mixed skill and education levels

In any public organisation you will find a range of staff skill and education levels, often with the highest educated people around the minister or in higher status ministries (e.g. Ministry of Finance) and people with lower education levels often doing the citizen facing work at the frontline. 

These skill disparities can create enormous challenges when it comes to implementing change projects- most modern ways of working require some form of interaction with IT systems and a good level of literacy. Mid and senior level managers may need basic skills in budgeting, English language, project planning and policy analysis to improve the way their organisation works. The challenge can seem overwhelming.   

The cost to up-skill large numbers of staff can quickly become significant, especially if they are located across a country. Some public organisations may have thousands of frontline staff and high levels of staff turnover.  

The costs and time required usually mean that development projects stop short of rolling out a change to front-line staff, and this is where projects often fail to embed new ways of working.  

What can external actors do about it? 


Even if your project does not have the time or resources to up-skill large numbers of people itself, putting in place a plan and mechanism to up-skill must be part of the work in the project, otherwise it risks not having any impact at all.  

There are a number of ways that widescale up-skilling can be done at a lower cost. The most obvious is to develop or strengthen an internal training department whose responsibility is to train frontline staff- and reduce the reliance on more expensive external consultants. This internal training department should also have responsibility to put in place the basic training requirements of each position in the organisation, and to embed these into promotion requirements. But be warned, these training departments are often woefully understaffed and under-resourced so some advocacy on their behalf will often be needed. 

Usually the biggest cost of training is the travel, hotel and per diem costs of people travelling to external training venues, and these costs can be minimised by the trainers travelling to the regions themselves and carrying out the training in government premises. This may not be as popular as travelling for training but must simply become a very clear part of each employees’ job. Dora Akunyili, in her extraordinary book about transforming the Nigerian National Agency for Food and Drug Administration, for example, describes how she introduced a basic computer literacy requirement for all her staff.  

Where training needs may require large time investments (e.g. improving English language or learning a programming language) donors can encourage the use of low-cost online options. Tools such as Coursera and Udemy can allow the internal training department to centrally coordinate online training, and savings can be made if licenses are shared between individuals.  

5. Competing loyalties and incentives

Arguably the most common and damaging heuristic that people use when thinking about the public sector in many countries is that of a corrupt machinery focussed on extracting money and giving friends and family jobs and contracts. This is usually a deeply unfair and unrepresentative picture- but newspapers rarely write stories about loyal civil servants diligently doing their jobs in an impartial way. 

One cannot ignore that corruption is a significant risk on development projects involving public institutions. The measures that have been put in place to stop corruption can themselves have equally damaging effects on projects, with, for example, absurd controls for small procurements delaying activities by months or years. 

Corruption happens because civil servants and politicians often have competing loyalties. They may be loyal to the mission of the organisation, but they may also be loyal to a leader, a political party, their family, friends, a private business or an ethnic group.  

These loyalties may not always align with the loyalty to the organisations mission, with the resulting loss of impartiality and favouritism in recruitments, procurements, licensing, policy decisions or the application of rules. Anyone who works in this sector will have seen this, we needn’t go into much more detail.  

The very existence of a development project also creates a new set of incentives that may run counter to the organisation’s mission. Development projects come with money, and some of this money may be given to civil servants – either illegally, through buying influence in a procurement process, or more legally – through access to salary top-ups, per diems and the rest. 

What can external actors do about it? 


Everyone working with public institutions needs to be clear-eyed about the existence of competing loyalties and must not be naïve. This should lead to a healthy (but not excessive) level of scepticism about different types of project decisions. But this scepticism should not drag the whole enterprise down too much. Corruption is an ever-present risk in most places, and, like any crime, will never entirely be eliminated.  

Donors are usually quite good at imposing different types of anti-corruption rules on their projects, but usually less good at promoting a culture of impartiality- and this should be the bigger goal. In practice this means talking about impartiality, taking small steps to promote organisational transparency and supporting the leaders to promote a culture of impartiality throughout their organisation.