The Political Economy of Successful Governance Reforms

Lessons of Design and Implementation


There is growing recognition that public sector governance (PSG) reform is critical to efforts to strengthen state capacity and enable it to perform its core functions. A decade of experience has shown that technocratic approaches to civil service reform, public management and anti-corruption are limited in their scope and effectiveness. The implementation of PSG reforms can be thwarted by a lack of attention to their political feasibility and inadequate recognition of the importance of incentives for reform.

There is a need to improve understanding of what works in PSG reforms by drawing lessons from the design and implementation of governance reforms designed to promote structural changes in state institutions and the pattern of incentives that shape the behaviour of state actors.

Institutions are defined as sets of rules (formally codified or informally constituted on the basis of kinship, ethnicity or personal ties) that shape the roles, behaviours and expectations of actors. Informal institutions can undermine formal incentive and accountability systems and prevent mobilisation on the basis of shared interests rather than sectional loyalties, and thus have a profound influence on the outcomes of governance reforms.

Aims and objectives

This research project focused on reform implementation in different political and institutional settings by examining experience of civil service reform, public financial management (fiscal management and tax administration), anti-corruption, and innovations in service delivery in Brazil, India and Uganda.

The case studies focus on the more successful initiatives pursued by the three governments from the late 1990s. Two sets of reforms focus on changes in tax policy and administration, in the form of tax reform and the Fiscal Responsibility Law in Brazil and the creation of the Uganda Revenue Authority. Civil service reform and anti-corruption agencies form the basis for two further case studies in Uganda. Innovations in service delivery are the focus of four case studies in two south Indian states: improvements to water supply through reforms to Metro Water in Hyderabad and the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) program in Andhra Pradesh, and municipal reforms through the Bangalore Agenda Task Force and the Bhoomi scheme for computerising land records in Karnataka.


The methods used in the field research in each country consisted of interviews with officials in government departments and specialised agencies, donor representatives and civil society organisations, along with a review of government and donor documentation, project reports and evaluations.


The research found that successful implementation of public sector governance reform depends on high-level political commitment, strong technical capacity, and incremental approaches with the potential for cumulative impact over an extended time frame. Domestically driven reform agendas with cumulative impact over an extended time frame are central to sustainable outcomes. Explicit attention to the political feasibility of reform, helping to identify and build incentives for reform, and working with reform-oriented politicians and bureaucrats is a fruitful approach for donor agencies to pursue. This highlights the value of modest financial outlays which have the potential for scaling-up over time, supported by flexible lending instruments that respond to new opportunities for reform and build on incremental progress.

Project details

start date
2 February 2004
end date
2 February 2005


Supported by
World Bank Group

Recent work

Working Paper

The Political Economy of Governance Reforms in Uganda

IDS discussion papers;386

This paper presents three cases of successful governance reforms in Uganda, highlighting the political and institutional factors that explain the different trajectories of implementation, as well as features they share in common.

1 January 2006