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Towards “cognitively complex” problem?
solving: Six models of public service
McCourt, Willy1
Development Policy Review. Sep2018 Supplement S2, Vol. 36, pO748O768. 21p. 2 Charts.
Document Type:
Subject Terms:
*PROBLEM solving
*COGNITIVE learning
*MUNICIPAL services
*PUBLIC administration
New public management
public service reform
924110 Administration of Air and Water Resource and Solid Waste
Management Programs
925120 Administration of Urban Planning and Community and Rural
923120 Administration of Public Health Programs
913910 Other local, municipal and regional public administration
925110 Administration of Housing Programs
921190 Other General Government Support
Abstract: This article proposes “cognitively complex problem?solving”
as a refinement of the recent problem?solving approach to public service
reform, and as an addition to existing political and institutional
explanations for the frequent failure of reform. It substantiates the new
problem?solving model by identifying and selectively reviewing six
models of reform that have been practised in developing countries over
the past half?century: public administration, decentralization, pay and
employment reform, New Public Management, integrity and corruption
reforms and “bottom?up” reforms. A short case study of Myanmar is
presented to illustrate the problem?solving approach in practice.
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Author Affiliations:
1Global Development Institute, University of Manchester
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Towards “cognitively complex” problem?
solving: Six models of public service reform
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Abstract: This article proposes “cognitively complex problem?solving” as a refinement
of the recent problem?solving approach to public service reform, and as an addition to
existing political and institutional explanations for the frequent failure of reform. It
substantiates the new problem?solving model by identifying and selectively reviewing six
models of reform that have been practised in developing countries over the past half?
century: public administration, decentralization, pay and employment reform, New Public
Management, integrity and corruption reforms and “bottom?up” reforms. A short case
study of Myanmar is presented to illustrate the problem?solving approach in practice.
New public management; problem?solving; public service reform
When Apollo declared through his Oracle at Delphi that no one was wiser than Socrates,
what the god was trying to get across (at least according to Socrates himself, who
declined to take the compliment at face value) was that “The wisest of you men is he
who has realised, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless” (Plato, [
76] , p. 52). To say that what we know about public service reform is “worthless” would
be an exaggeration. But a confession of our relative ignorance may still be the beginning
of wisdom. It will be fruitful if it helps us to frame the problem that faces us in a way that
stimulates readers to propose approaches that stand a better chance of success than
the ones we have been following up to now. That is what this article tries to do.
The most robust evidence that we have of reform outcomes is in the form of World Bank
project evaluation reports. The Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) found that
that only 33% of the public service reform projects completed between 1980 and 1997
had been rated as satisfactory (World Bank, [ 101] ). When IEG revisited the topic nine
years later, public sector reform was rated joint eighth among the Bank’s twelve project
sectors in terms of project success, and its success rate had declined over the previous
five years more sharply than all but one of the other eleven sectors (World Bank, [ 105] ).
Reviewing overlapping evidence just before the first IEG evaluation, Nunberg ([ 70] )
also found that the success rate was lower than for Bank projects as a whole.
We should keep these negative findings in perspective. World Bank projects are a
skewed sample. The Bank operates predominantly in low? and middle?income countries
where reform is difficult. The Bank’s own finding that its civil service reform projects have
a poorer track record than other kinds of public service reform (such as public financial
reform) disappears when we allow for the fact that they are disproportionately located in
poor and unstable countries (Blum, [ 10] ). The Bank’s perspective when it evaluates its
projects is not necessarily the same as that of the beneficiaries or other stakeholders.
Moreover, failure is by no means the exclusive prerogative of civil service reform, or
even international development. Business start?ups in the US funded by venture capital
have a failure rate of anything from 25% to 75%. Public policy failures in the UK have
been common enough to provide the material for a substantial recent book by King and
Crewe ([ 47] ) (Gage, [ 32] ).
However, even if we amend “relatively poor” to “relatively not bad,” the outcomes have
not been good enough. Moreover, the “frequent failures” and the perception of public
service reform as “out of fashion or too difficult in practice” (World Bank, [ 105] , pp. xvi,
65)—as recently as 2010, an internal Bank paper carried the title Why do Bank?
supported public service reform efforts have such a poor track record?—are likely to
have a chilling effect on activity if not addressed.[ 1] In this article, we briefly review two
existing explanatory factors, politics and institutions, before proposing a third factor of
our own, cognitive complexity, which we illustrate through a discussion of alternative
models of public service reform.
While IEG’s remedial recommendations in 1999 were mainly technocratic and
piecemeal, by 2008, IEG was identifying “political feasibility” as a key factor. (Similarly,
political commitment to reform by client governments had pride of place in Nunberg’s
1997 review.) This emphasis on politics reflected the political economy studies of the
structural adjustment era, based on which the Bank’s 1998 Assessing Aid report
concluded that “Successful reform depends primarily on a country’s institutional and
political characteristics” (Campos & Esfahani, [ 16] ; Johnson & Wasty, [ 43] ; Nelson, [
67] ; World Bank, [ 100] , p. 53). The management of the Bank and the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) took the lesson to heart, with the Bank’s President at the time,
James Wolfensohn ([ 99] , p. 9), remarking that
It is clear to all of us that ownership is essential. Countries must be in the driver’s seat
and set the course. They must determine goals and the phasing, timing and sequencing
of programs.
After the dawning of that realization on the international development agencies in the
late 1990s, the decade of the 2000s could be called the decade of politics, with the
Swedish and UK governments, and the World Bank, all sponsoring studies of the politics
of reform (Dahl?Østergaard, Unsworth, Robinson, & Jensen, [ 22] ), and with one of the
largest US development consulting companies employing as many specialists in politics
as in public administration (Cooley, [ 20] ). The studies pointed to generic factors like
technical capacity, insulation from societal interests and building incentives for politicians
to embark on reform; and country?specific factors like the importance of public society
and the media (Duncan, Macmillan, & Simutanyi, [ 27] ; Robinson, [ 84] ).
The Assessing Aid report highlighted institutional as well as political characteristics, and
they are a second group of factors which affect the success of reform. Tanzania’s legal
framework for public staff management illustrates their subtle influence. The
Constitution, as well as primary and secondary legislation enacted over several decades,
give the President immense direct powers, with few procedural checks on how the
powers are exercised. For example, the Public Service Act, 2002 states that (any)
delegation to the Public Service Commission (PSC) “shall not preclude the President
from himself exercising any function which is the subject of any delegation or
authorization.” Further, “The President may remove any public servant from the service
of the Republic if the President considers it in the public interest to do so.”
An earlier Act states that “Whether the President validly performed any function
conferred on him … shall not be inquired into by or in any court.”[ 3]
As a consequence, Tanzania’s senior officials have little job security. One of them
remarked that “the President changes the top officers in the service in a similar way as
(sic) he changes attire.” Yet increasing their security, or restoring the independence of
the PSC, would require both a constitutional amendment and the revision or repeal of
many separate laws and procedures; and, they, in turn, would require “political
commitment” of the kind which we discussed in the previous section. (Bana & McCourt, [
4] )
Beyond politics and institutions
We have discussed politics and institutions quite briefly, not because they are minor
factors, but because they are quite well understood by now (which is not to say, of
course, that they have invariably translated into the practice of governments and
development agencies). However, they do not provide an exhaustive explanation for
reform outcomes. Organizations can succeed while others are failing within a single
political dispensation (Grindle, [ 38] ; Tendler, [ 90] ). Similar institutions, such as the
Commonwealth public service commissions which are responsible for appointing and,
sometimes, managing public staff, have had different outcomes in different countries
(McCourt, [ 53] , [ 54] ). If we now focus for the remainder of this article on another group
of factors, we do so in an additive spirit. We acknowledge the political and institutional
factors, but we suggest that they leave a significant explanatory residue.
What is the residue, and how should we deal with it? This article proposes a problem?
solving approach, viewing the different reform interventions as ways of dealing with the
problem situation as different national governments have defined it. “Problem situation”
is borrowed from Karl Popper ([ 78] , [ 79] ). Popper argues that at any given point in the
history of science there is an agenda which arises from problems which current theories
have created or failed to solve: “You pick up, and try to continue, a line of inquiry which
has the whole background of the earlier development of science behind it.” Similarly, it
seems to us that at any given point in the development of public administration in a
particular country, there is an agenda of problems which the previous experience of
reform has created, and which confronts the most perceptive national policy?makers and
other stakeholders (Fritz, Kaiser, & Levy, [ 31] ).
This article is not alone in adopting a problem?solving approach. It follows Fritz et al. ([
31] ), who applied it to political economy. Andrews ([ 1] ) has developed an alternative
and more elaborate problem?solving model in parallel with this article. This article
attempts to refine those approaches in one respect. Readers will be familiar with the
saying “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”[ 4] Identifying a
problem, or problem situation, is not an end in itself. We must propose a solution. And
when we do so, at least in the experience of this author, we tend to fall back on the tools
in our reform toolbox; all too often, reform problems do get treated as “nails.” In a
globalized world, most reform does not start from first principles, but from previous
reforms in other places (Dolowitz & Marsh, [ 26] ). In other words, the suggestion is that
public service reforms have sometimes failed because of the reformers’ cognitive
The notion of “cognitive complexity” is borrowed from psychology, where it is defined as
an aspect of a person’s cognitive functioning which at one end is defined by the use of
many constructs with many relationships to one another (complexity) and at the other
end by the use of few constructs with limited relationships to one another (simplicity)
(Cervone & Pervin, [ 17] ).
People with a large set of interpersonal constructs tend to have better social perception
skills than those with a relatively small set (Delia, O’Keefe, & O’Keefe, [ 23] ).
This psychological finding has been applied in organization studies, in work which
emphasizes the value in decision?making of a range of perspectives. A wide “information
range” makes it easier to spot problems and opportunities, or reframe problems that
have been intractable up to now (Bolman & Deal, [ 12] ; George, [ 34] ; Mitroff &
Emshoff, [ 65] ). It contributes to the “cognitive complexity” of reformers; their ability to
entertain a range of options and engage in what Weick ([ 95] ), drawing on Lévi?Strauss,
has called “bricolage” (Lévi?Strauss used this term to describe the characteristics of
“mythical thought” or “the science of the concrete” associated with so?called “primitive”
cultures, in contrast to modern technological thinking) rather than defaulting to a “best
practice” solution of the kind criticized by Grindle ([ 39] ), Rodrik ([ 85] ) and many others.
[ 5]
To be sure, cognitive complexity is not a sufficient condition for policy success, which
also entails such features as ethical understanding and some finesse in action
(Bartunek, Gordon, & Preszler Wethersby, [ 6] ; Denison, Hooijberg, & Quinn, [ 24] ).
However, it seems plausible to suggest that it is a necessary one.
In applying a “cognitively complex” approach to problem?solving, we cannot make
bricks without straw. If we are serious about respecting the specific priorities of
developing country policy?makers, and compensating for past cognitive deficiencies,
then we will need a variety of tools. We flesh out the approach by a selective review of
the experience of public service reform in developing countries.
“Reform” is necessarily a broad term. Public service reform has been defined as
“interventions that affect the organization, performance and working conditions of
employees paid from central, provincial or state government budgets” (Rao, [ 80] ). It can
be seen as policies implemented by public agencies with the intention of improving some
aspect of the functioning of that agency. In this article, it will be defined operationally as
the six reform “families” which are listed in Table .
Public Service Reform Problems and Models
Main Action Period
1. How can we put government on an “Weberian” public
Post?independence period in
orderly and efficient footing?
administration and
south Asia and sub?Saharan
2. How can we get government closer Decentralization
1970s to present
to the grassroots?
3. How can we make government
Pay and employment
1980s and 1990s
more affordable?
4. How can we make government
New Public Management 1990s to present
perform better and deliver on our key
5. How can we make government
Integrity and anti?
more honest?
corruption reforms
6. How can we make government
“Bottom?up” reforms
1990s to present
Late 1990s to present
more responsive to citizens?
In keeping with our problem?solving approach, the origin of reform is located in problems
which policy?makers pose to themselves, or which circumstances thrust upon them.[ 6]
Abstracting from the practice of developing country governments over recent decades,
six major problems are identified, and six families of reform are listed as attempted
This stance aligns us unequivocally with those who prioritize context over “best practice.”
We pay respect to successful reform models. But they must be understood in terms of
the environment in which they have arisen; or, in the language used in this paper, in
terms of the “problem situation” as particular policy?makers have perceived it. We reject
the tendency of some international reform brokers to treat reform models as “widgets”
(Joshi & Houtzager, [ 45] ) which can be transferred unaltered without regard to the
environments that they are transferred from and to. That point will be emphasized
throughout this article.
Emphasizing context means recognizing that “vice may be virtue uprooted,” in the words
of the Anglo?Welsh poet David Jones ([ 44] , p. 56). It is not appropriate to express a
preference for any of the approaches listed in Table , all of which are already normative
rather than descriptive (the list does not include perverse problems which have absorbed
some officials’ attention, such as how to make government a vehicle for rent?seeking or
patronage). I hope instead to provide enough detail for readers to decide what they have
to offer in terms of the “problem situation” in readers’ own countries or the countries with
which they are concerned.
Our simple problem?solving approach should not be taken literally. First, our models are
what Weber called “ideal types.” They are abstracted from reality for analysis. Likewise,
the periodization of the third column in the Table should be handled with a light touch.
Governments did not suddenly discover honesty in the 1990s, and particular
governments started pay and employment reform for the first time only in the 2000s
(Morocco) or even later (Serbia). However, there have been periods when particular
questions have dwelt on policy?makers’ minds. Public policy questions arise in the order
they do partly because external shocks like the oil price rises of the 1970s foist them on
policy?makers’ attention. But they also arise as reactions to the unintended
consequences of the previous generation of reforms (here again we follow Popper, for
whom managing unintended consequences was the essence of public policy).[ 7] The
bureaucratization that was the unintended consequence of Weberian public
administration created the need for decentralization. The expansion of state capacity had
the unintended consequence of creating a fiscal burden which pay and employment
reform was framed to relieve.
Context has a temporal as well as a spatial dimension. An administration’s “problem
situation” is dynamic. By solving one problem we always create another as an
unintended consequence.
Moreover, just as grouping public service reform approaches in terms of policy problems
provides a convenient structure for the article, so the periodization outlined in Table
gives us a convenient order in which to address the approaches.
There is insufficient space in this article to deal with all six of the approaches. We shall
discuss Approaches One, Four and Six in turn: Approaches Four and Six will be relevant
to the Myanmar case presented later in the article. (For Approach Two, see Evans ([ 29]
) and Turner & Hulme ([ 94] ); for Three, see McCourt ([ 52] ) and Lindauer & Nunberg
(Eds.) ([ 49] ); for Five, see Klitgaard ([ 48] ).)
We shall briefly address this familiar concept.
Bureaucracy and (neo)patrimonialism
The public administration model in developing countries is essentially the classic
Weberian model of bureaucracy harnessed to the needs of the developmental state. The
German sociologist Max Weber located its origins, for both the public and private
sectors, in the growth and complexity of the tasks of modern organizations; and also in
democratization, which created an expectation that citizens, and members of an
organization, would be treated equally. The main features of the model are:
A separation between politics and elected politicians on the one hand and administration
and appointed administrators on the other
Administration is continuous, predictable and rule?governed
Administrators are appointed on the basis of qualifications, and are trained professionals
There is a functional division of labour, and a hierarchy of tasks and people
Resources belong to the organization, not to the individuals who work in it
Public servants serve public rather than private interests (Minogue, )
There are partial exceptions, for example the socialist countries of East Asia such as Lao
PDR and Vietnam, which do not recognize the separation of administration and politics.
But in practical terms, administrations that follow the Weberian model—and almost all do
pay at least lip service—begin by putting in place a system of rules. Where staffing is
concerned, we can expect to find a compendium of posts, arranged in a hierarchy
according to rank, with statements of the duties expected of each post (in some
countries this is called a “scheme of service”). There will be clear guidelines about how
the posts should be advertised and filled, how pay grades are determined, and so on.
The rules and guidelines will be overseen by central agencies such as the finance
ministry and the public service commission or similar body. There will be similar rules for
the control of government spending, overseen by the relevant central body, such as a
procurement agency (Schick, [ 87] ).
Administration tends to be highly centralized: the model posits an unbroken hierarchical
chain from the top (in the capital) to the bottom (in the remotest outpost of government).
The tendency is to focus on inputs, in the sense of the efficient management of
resources rather than outputs in the sense of the goods and services that the resources
are used to produce, let alone outcomes in the sense of the social and economic results
that derive from the outputs.
Bureaucracy has a bad name in the popular imagination. However, a study
commissioned by the World Bank in the run?up to its 1997 World Development Report
found a close statistical connection between public bureaucracy and economic growth.
The study data suggested that merit?based recruitment was the most important
bureaucratic element, followed by promotion from within and career stability for public
servants (Evans & Rauch, [ 30] ). Further support for meritocracy came from a more
detailed study of personnel management in the Kyrgyz and Slovak republics and in
Romania. It highlighted the importance of sound administrative procedures underpinning
merit, very much as outlined here (World Bank, [ 103] ). So, we have recent evidence
that Weber’s century?old insight was basically sound: the bureaucratic model was indeed
the efficient successor to patrimonial regimes which had centred on the personal and
arbitrary power of an absolute ruler.
But there are a number of preconditions which may need to be in place for the model to
produce the results that Weber anticipated. Let us mention two. The first is a culture in
which rules are respected and followed. (This point has been emphasized by Schick. We
expand on it later in this article.)
A second condition is that the Weberian rules should not be undermined by patronage
pressures. Weber did not anticipate that bureaucracy and patrimonialism would become
fused in the hybrid of “neopatrimonialism,” where state resources are diverted for
patronage purposes such as securing support in an election. This neopatrimonial hybrid
is widespread, having been identified in modern times in places as far apart as Greece
and Chicago (Clapham, [ 18] ).
As the state developed, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be an attempt to use
its growing resources in the same way that “traditional” patrons used private resources:
to co?opt supporters and ensure their loyalty (McCourt, [ 54] ). But the neopatrimonial
twist was that patronage operated by a single, visible patron mutated into patronage
operated by political parties and other broad groupings, often organized on a national
scale. With many individuals implicated at different levels, this stubborn neopatrimonial
bush with its complex root system could be even harder to eradicate than its relatively
simple patrimonial predecessor. Much recent reform effort has been devoted, to the task
of eradication.
A distinctive feature of public administration in developing countries is that, unlike
industrialized countries, where capacity evolved gradually, developing countries have put
in place crash programmes of capacity?building following independence and, more
recently, armed conflict and state collapse. The programmes have centred on staff
training and development. The assumption is that public administration is deficient
because public administrators lack skills which can be readily imparted through training.
The “training and visit” system for agriculture extension workers was a typical example.
In the context of a fixed programme of field visits overseen by their supervisors,
extension workers received frequent one?day training sessions to impart the three or four
most important agricultural recommendations that they should pass on to farmers in the
following few weeks (Hulme, [ 41] ).
There is no doubt that capacity affects performance, as even politically orientated
studies such as the collection edited by Nelson ([ 67] ) recognize. But we have learnt that
capacity?building is a broad concept with a political dimension (Boesen & Therkildsen,[
11] ). Moreover, it is rarely effective in an organizational vacuum. For example, capacity?
building at the individual level usually takes place on training courses, away from the
workplace. Learning designs need to make a bridge from training to the “action
environment” of work—its organizational culture, management practices and
communication networks—in the form of action plans, supervisor involvement and post?
training review arrangements (Grindle & Hilderbrand, [ 40] ; McCourt & Sola, [ 59] ).
Elements of NPM
In terms of the periodization outlined in Table , NPM is the reform model which
succeeded the public administration model. Of course, there was continuity as well as
change in the succession. The OECD’s ([ 72] ) review of public management
developments, published at the high tide of NPM, includes initiatives to improve
management of human resources (HR), something that the Weberian model also
emphasizes in its own way. The essential change, however, was from the public
administration doctrine of regular, predictable and rule?governed behaviour to behaviour
that was driven by performance.
The public administration doctrine tends to assume that if a sound framework of rules is
put in place and public servants are persuaded to adhere, adequate performance will
follow. But the governments that went down the NPM road were setting their sights on
better performance, rather than adequate. Moreover, continuing pressure to restrain
public expenditure meant that better performance could be bought only up to a point,
and although the stimulus of competition was introduced (as we shall see), it became
clear that there were limits to its use, intrinsic or political as the case may be. Thus, the
application of management techniques became the formula deployed to square the circle
of government that worked better while costing no more (Pollitt, [ 77] ).
NPM in practice has been driven by four management imperatives: delegation,
performance, competition and responsiveness to clients.
We shall now discuss three of them: improving performance, developing competition and
providing responsive service.
Improving performance
The NPM approach to ensuring performance hinges on the formulation and
measurement of performance indicators. In the early days of NPM, such indicators
usually addressed the internal operations of individual agencies. In a typical example,
Denmark’s national library undertook to increase productivity by 10%, increase the
number of transactions by 2.5% annually and put purchases prior to 1979 on computer,
all by the end of 1996 (OECD, [ 72] ). Subsequently, the technology of monitoring
performance has grown sophisticated, with performance management indicators that are
outcome? rather

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