Political settlements and public service performance
Effective public institutions are vital for the successful delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2030. A conference hosted by the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence in partnership with DLP and the Centre for Public Impact, asked what role politics and political settlements play in the development of institutional capacity.
The theme of the conference (12-14 April 2016 in Singapore) was Political Settlements and Public Service Performance. The event combined a discussion of theory and insights from research with case studies and an impact lab to help participants identify opportunities to “work with the grain” and find practical solutions for reforming public services to deliver development outcomes. Among the speakers were Verena Fritz, Mushtaq Khan, Brian Levy, DLP's Alina Rocha Menocal, and Michael Woolcock.
The roles and responsibilities of politicians and bureaucrats constantly bump into each other in the grey zones of governance. A bureaucracy is by its very nature invested with influence, susceptible to political contestation and with vested interests of its own. ‘Power’ and ‘politics’ do not necessarily undermine public sector performance, and technical competence is not the sole basis of ‘capability’.
In a session on politics and public service performance, DLP’s Senior Research Fellow Alina Rocha Menocal discussed what bearing political settlements have on the development and fostering of an inclusive civil service, which in turn organises service delivery.
She noted that when state elites have used group-based exclusion as a rallying mechanism in the shaping of identity, this has led to biased processes of state formation and nation-building founded on exclusionary political settlements. This in turn has done much to foment violent conflict.
Yet the available evidence seems to suggest that political settlements grounded on inclusive nation-building projects – or, as Benedict Anderson would put it, an “imagined community” – can transcend more narrowly defined identities even where elites largely maintain control of political processes.
Further, a state can be inclusive without being broadly responsive to citizens’ needs, and it can also be broadly responsive without being inclusive. So while Lebanon, for instance, has a highly inclusive political system in terms of process, with all the most influential groups represented and each in charge of certain areas of the public machinery of the state, it has nonetheless become paralysed and unable to perform basic functions at an aggregated level. Singapore, however, is an example of a state that is highly responsive in ways that are broad and inclusive, though it is far less inclusive in terms of processes.
This suggests that while a political settlement may be considered narrow and elite-focused, it may still be able to produce distributional outcomes that are more inclusive and that build efficient and responsive public institutions.
Many of the speakers' presentations are now available on the conference web page. A summary report will also be produced.