Reading a working paper by the Washington based Center for Global Development, titled ‘Escaping capability traps through Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)’ made me think of the continued investment of the Ethiopian government to improve good governance in public service delivery, and the little return it brought in terms of sustained improvement in the sector.

Good governance is a dismal performance in the Ethiopian public sector. Very recently, there was a live broadcast on Ethiopian Television focused on a study report on good governance in the Ethiopian public sector. The report highlighted that the absence of good governance is prevalent in all sectors and regions without any variation. The report further indicated that the problem seems systemic rather than episodic to some sectors, regions, or circumstances. All top officials of the regime including the prime minister seemed to be in agreement with the findings of the report. The top officials suggested that the problem is testing the survival and continuity of the ongoing development endeavors and agreed that the survival of the regime is at stake when and if the problems continue unabated. The officials were in further agreement that it is necessary to implement both long-term plans to address the root causes and short-term interventions to provide some immediate respite in response to the growing frustration with the governance failures. The long-term solution was identified as ‘institution building’ and short-term interventions as ‘massive mobilization to create awareness and provide quick fixes’ to the ongoing problems.

The Ethiopian government has been engaged in several reform programs to improve the delivery of services within the public sector. A reform program under the title ‘civil service reform program’ was launched in 2003 and ran for three years. Not long after that a new reform program titled, ‘Business Process Reengineering,’ was launched and ran for three consecutive years; later on additional reform programs attempting to introduce ‘Balanced Record Card’, ‘Kaizen,’ were introduced and ran for some time. Unfortunately, whatever achievement the reform programs have gained, it is agreed that they couldn’t address the problems of good governance. The reason for their failure to achieve sustained improvements in governance seems to be because they were merely isomorphic mimicry-that is, government institutions pretended to reform by changing how they looked rather than how they delivered actual services in a sustainable way.

The main problem in the inefficiency of public service delivery is that the performance of institutions and their leaders is measured against agenda-conformity rather than enhanced functionality, a trap that closes the path for improved performance. Lower level officials tend to puppet higher level officials through agenda conformity and improved performance gets closed. Institutions focus on looking like successful organizations; leaders seek organizational survival, continued budgets and rents by complying with external standards of legitimacy instead of encouraging new ideas, products and solutions, while front line workers choose routine compliances at their best on customers, clients, and citizens they serve. Bill boards standing at the gates of each public office articulating the vision, mission, and values of the organization and a diagram of work processes and responsibilities of each office are the only remaining indicators for the expensive public service programs while there is almost none related to the sustained improved performance of the offices.

All three major civil service reform programs were exclusively top-down. The problems of the public service were framed by the former Civil Service Commission and later Ministry of Civil Service and the packages for addressing the problems were prepared at national level. Officials from different levels of government and public enterprise were given training on the intended reform agenda and the contents of its package. Required from them was not any innovative solution to address the problems of their institution, but merely implementation of the designed package. The diverse nature of the problems was not appreciated and provided a single definition.

Business Process Reengineering, one of the major reform projects the government ran during the last ten years, for example, had little to do with improving the quality of higher education at the time. Academic administration that places the highest value for academic excellence; educators who have the interest and time to constantly work to update their scholarship; and the sufficient availability of high-quality academic resources are the key things that affect the overall quality of an educational system. Academic administrators selected for their agenda-conformity, and educators who have little understanding of academic freedom can’t deliver anything better. No matter how you reengineer the delivery of education, the educators continue to feel that their services are not properly appreciated by the public sector. They will continue to fail to share the obvious, leave alone to diligently work to improve the standard, through rigorous research. I had the feeling that reform to improve governance in Ethiopia requires a different approach. Top-down solutions run in the mode of a ‘campaign’ do not deliver results. The approach suggested in the PDIA paper might be a worth trying.

The paper highlights the ‘capability traps’ found in developing countries despite the fact that governments remain engaged in developmental rhetoric and continue to receive developmental resources. It suggests a new approach: the Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), which is based on four principles, each of which stands in sharp contrast to the standard approaches. First, PDIA focuses on solving locally nominated and defined problems in performance (as opposed to transplanting preconceived and packaged ‘best practice’ solutions). Second, it seeks to create an authorizing environment for decision-making that encourages positive deviance and experimentation (as opposed to designing projects and programs and then requiring agents to implement them exactly as designed). Third, it embeds this experimentation in tight feedback loops that facilitate rapid experimental learning (as opposed to enduring long lag times in learning from ex-post ‘evaluation’). Fourth, it actively engages a wide array of agents to ensure that reform is viable, legitimate, relevant, and supportable (as opposed to a narrow set of external experts promoting the top-down diffusion of innovation).


The article highlights the main challenges to reform programs in developing nations and is worth reading. Anyone interested to read the article can access it following this link.

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One Response to The quest for good governance in the Ethiopian public sector

  1. Lameck says:

    Resourceful article. Most countries have been caught in the same problem . We are limited in achieving pre-set goals and we care less about ‘more efficiency and creativity’ In other ways, we are more goals oriented , and not only goals but pre-defined goals. even our creativity is based on limited goals adhering to rules and bureaucracy. A lot to learn from this piece of writing .

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