Comparative Policy Reforms

  • Colin KnoxEmail author
Living reference work entry



Quality of life is an approach to comparative policy reforms which emphasizes the impact that public services will have on improving the daily lives of people, typically in terms of better health, education, employment, environmental, and personal safety outcomes.

Introduction: Comparative Reforms to Date

In examining comparative policy reforms, the scope of this topic is defined by the author as reforms in developing countries. Many of the former Soviet Union states, for example, have sought to embrace a public sector reform agenda as part of a wider program of economic liberalization and transitioning to greater social development and prosperity. These countries have often looked to developed economies for comparative policy learning and “read-across” of ideas to their societies. This approach was encouraged by funding (donor) organizations, management consultants, and the mantra of new public management as a “one-size-fits all” global framework which could be easily adapted for developing countries. Existing research tells us that this approach has failed in developing countries and there is limited evidence on the impact of public management reforms in developed countries (Polidano 2001; Knox 2008; Pollitt 2013). An alternative pathway to public sector reform which is considered here is based on two key components: the need to move to an outcomes-focused approach, quite different from a preoccupation with structural/institutional reforms; and the adoption of peer-to-peer learning which helps to identify what exactly developing countries can learn from each other in a way which will increase the well-being of their citizens. The author uses three case study countries: Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan to illustrate the potential for comparative policy reforms and identify some of the conditions necessary to optimize peer-to-peer learning.

An Alternative Approach

The alternative approach, described here, to the global management model is predicated on the following important considerations for comparative policy reforms to be successful in developing countries:
  • Understanding context is critical to the success of public sector reforms, particularly in developing countries, given the different stages of their development (Andrews 2008).

  • Insufficient attention is paid to the implementation phase of public sector reforms.

  • There has been an overemphasis on institutional reforms which are necessary but insufficient in creating efficient and effective governance, including an improvement in public services (Brinkerhoff and Brinkerhoff 2015). In short, limited attention is paid to the impact of public sector reforms.

  • The influencing (or perhaps dominant) role which donors have played within developing countries in setting the course of a reform agenda, that has drawn largely on Western-style public management approaches, is now being challenged.

An alternative comparative policy reform framework is described here which is characterized by two features: the first is to consider the impact of reforms or interventions through an outcomes-based accountability approach – do they make a difference to the quality of people’s lives; and the second is to acknowledge the importance of context in attempting policy reforms through a model of peer-to-peer learning. This framework is illustrated using three case studies in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Underpinning Concepts: Quality of Life and Peer-to-Peer Learning

One of the most obvious problems in developing countries is that public services are often provider-led, top-down, and disjointed for citizens who receive them. The difficulty with complex multilevel governance structures is that ministries, regions, and local government work through separate functional mechanisms which offer citizens very fragmented public services, resulting in a lack of “joined-up” government. Yet citizens’ needs in health and social care, education, employment, etc. often straddle several public sector provider organizations. In short, the problem is one of top-down bureaucratic paternalism (“we know best”), which emphasizes processes and outputs but fails to focus on outcomes or the impact of public services on those who use them. While such criticisms could also be leveled at some developed countries, the legacy of centralized planning exacerbates the problem in former Soviet states.

By contrast, outcomes-based accountability is a conceptual approach to planning services and assessing their performance that focuses attention on the results or outcomes that the services intended to achieve (Friedman 2005; Pugh 2010; Boarini et al. 2014). The aim is to move organizations away from a focus on “efficiency” and “process” towards achieving better outcomes, the primary purpose of their organization and its officials. One way in which to operationalize an outcomes-based accountability approach is to use a “quality of life” framework where the ultimate outcome is to improve the quality of people’s lives. To do this requires a shift in the way in which public services are provided towards an outcomes-focused, multiagency approach offering better value for public money by asking the question: How do public services impact on the quality of people’s lives? Often this will depend on a range of social, economic, and environmental services which collectively go towards improving quality of life. What is important to highlight here is that these services will be context specific.

Acutely aware that previous global public management “solutions” have had limited or mixed success, one way to embed quality of life outcomes is through peer-to-peer learning between countries at similar stages of their development. This is where countries engage in exchanging and testing up-to-date knowledge which will build capacity, generate innovative solutions, and contribute to good practice in comparative policy reforms. This approach “avoids copying best practices of advanced economies and identifies best fitting and effective reforms which are appropriate for their country-specific context through engaging peers in discussions, so they use lessons learned at home and implement what works best for them” (Effective Institutions Platform 2016: 3). In the three case studies outlined here, peer-to-peer learning took place through a network of countries in the form of a regional hub which was established in 2013 by the UNDP with the support of the Kazakhstan government and is located in Astana. Some 25 countries and 5 international organizations participate in the regional hub which serves as a “multi level platform where participating countries are engaged in exchanging and testing up-to-date knowledge which will build capacity, generate innovative solutions, and contribute to global agendas on civil service excellence” (Regional Hub of Civil Service in Astana 2014).

Case Studies in Improving Quality of Life

To demonstrate improving quality of life through peer-to-peer learning, three case studies are considered here. Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan are at similar stages of development and provide case study examples to demonstrate an outcomes-based approach facilitated through peer-to-peer learning. In the most recent UNDP Human Development Index, for example, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan scored: 0.788, 0.754, and 0.751, respectively (where 1 = the most developed countries) (UNDP 2017). All three countries are semipresidential or presidential republics, gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and have been engaged in programs of policy reforms since then. Kazakhstan, for example, has witnessed a radical reduction in the number of political appointees and greater professionalization in its senior civil service. Georgia has been very successful in tackling corruption in the police, and Azerbaijan has seen the development of a number of successful e-government initiatives. To operationalize “quality of life,” a basket of comparable indicators are developed comprising those measures most likely to impact on people’s day-to-day lives. In other words, the outcomes-based framework is the starting point for this analysis adapted to suit the needs of the case study countries. It is, of course, the case that the indicators selected here are somewhat subjective in terms of the measures which constitute the quality of people’s lives in the three case study countries. Other researchers may select (slightly) different indicators to assess quality of life as a concept. However, three things are clear from adopting a quality of life framework. First, illustrating the use of this approach in practice will promote debate about moving towards outcomes-based accountability, rather than the routine focus on inputs, process, and outputs which has traditionally dominated how governments approach public service provision and reform. Second, “quality of life” as a concept has widened the debate about how governments are performing, well beyond the narrow confines of economic development, towards a bottom-up focus on whether the lives of their citizens are actually improving. Third, benchmarking countries (or indeed regions within countries) will allow for quality of life comparisons which will inevitably drive up performance and allow best practice to evolve and be shared in a context-specific way. In short, this approach promotes comparative policy reforms.

The indicators: The indicators selected to illustrate quality of life as a composite measure are set out in Table 1 below and represent those public services most likely to affect people’s day-to-day lives: education, health, employment, personal safety, the environment, water, and sanitation. The data were collected from a variety of secondary sources and represent the most up-to-date data available at the time of writing (March 2017). They are listed in no particular order of importance.
Table 1

Quality of life indicators: comparing the three countries

Indicators of quality of life




Happiness index (highest score the best)




GDP per capita (US $)




Homicide rate per 100,000 people




Burglary rate per 100,000




Assault rate per 100,000 people




Robbery rate per 100,000 people




Car theft per 100,000 people




Health expenditure as % of GDP




Government expenditure on health per capita (US$ per capita)




Healthy life expectancy (years)




Life expectancy (years)




Hospital beds per 1000 people




Poverty head count ratio as national poverty line (% of population)




Unemployment rate (% of total labor force)




GINI index (score of 0 = perfect equality)




Poverty headcount ratio at $5 a day (PPP)




Adult literacy rate




Public spending on education as % of GDP




Gross graduation ratio (tertiary education)




Out of school rate % (secondary schools)




CO2 emissions per capita (metric tons of carbon)




Improved sanitation (%)




Improved water supply (%)




Human development index (1 = most developed)




Corruption perceptions rank (lowest = very clean)




Civil liberties (1 = highest)




Even a cursory examination of these data indicates some interesting comparisons. Consider, for example, some of the large differences in crime rates across the three countries where Kazakhstan performs poorly. On the other hand, look at the large amount of government spending in Kazakhstan on per capita health care compared to Azerbaijan and Georgia. Consider also, Georgia’s performance in terms of corruption and civil liberties where they perform extremely well by comparison with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. And finally, note Azerbaijan’s GINI index score which shows greater income equality across the distribution of income or consumption expenditure than either Georgia or Kazakhstan. This kind of benchmarking exercise should therefore prompt questions about what good practice countries can share with each other in a peer-to-peer learning medium to ultimately raise the quality of life of their citizens as a collective. A higher order of analysis is also possible with these data. For example, an overall quality of life comparison across the three countries could be conducted using the statistical technique one-way between-groups analysis of variance. This would allow a quantitative response to the research question: “Is there a significant difference in the quality of life between citizens living in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan?” (based on the selected measures above).

These case studies suggest a number of prerequisites or conditions which will allow for the optimization of this comparative policy reforms approach, set out here in no order of importance:
  1. 1.

    Peer-to-peer learning between developing countries is likely to be most successful where there is proximity in their stages of development. There is little point in attempting peer learning when the countries involved are at such different stages of development that reciprocal learning is almost impossible.

  2. 2.

    Even though context is critical, is there sufficient commonality in these measures to achieve consensus on what constitutes “quality of life” in Central Asia and the Caucasus? Although the broad principles are likely to apply – quality of life in most places will be affected by education, health, and housing services – clearly, the baseline and expectations of progress will be different.

  3. 3.

    It is important that the data which comprise quality of life are robust, valid, and reliable to make the exercise credible. There is little point in devising a quality of life based index on spurious data just to make particular countries look good.

  4. 4.

    It should be recognized that external factors could impact on the quality of people’s lives which are outside the control of public service providers. Severe flooding or political unrest could be examples that may not have been predictable and yet it will impact significantly on the quality of people’s lives in the affected areas.

  5. 5.

    Critical to this whole process is the willingness of, and support for, interagency working. Where this does not exist, moving to a model which embraces outcomes-based accountability and quality of life indicators will be problematic. There needs to be the political will for this to happen, clearly signaled and enforced.

  6. 6.

    Finally, the response of officials working within public sectors organizations is critical to the success of this model. Street-level bureaucrats are well placed to implement these ideas fully or stymie the approach for their own career interests. Some officials may feel exposed if the data highlight poor performance in their countries or in particular public services and therefore try to discredit the model. Others will see it as a way to enhance their career ambitions and at the same time contribute to an improved quality of life for public service users.



The case study example set out above offers a framework for comparative policy reforms using the concept of “quality of life” used in three developing countries. The benefit of this approach is sharing of good practice across a wider network of countries on what they need to do in order to improve the quality of life of citizens in their respective countries. It also shifts countries into thinking about outcomes-based accountability rather than inputs and processes, so often the approach taken by governments (in developed and developing countries). In this example, there are no significant differences between the three case study countries, yet there are lessons to be learned. What, for example, can Kazakhstan learn from Georgia and Azerbaijan in terms of crime prevention? Should Georgia be investing more public funding in health care? Is secondary school attendance a problem in Azerbaijan that is feeding into a lower graduation rate in tertiary education, and what can it learn from Georgia and Kazakhstan in this regard? A quality of life framework provides the evidence that allows cross-country learning and ultimately improves the way governments approach the delivery of public services. It attempts to do this mindful of context and may represent a move away from a “one-size-fits-all” model associated with public management reforms which appeared to offer promise but has proved difficult to embed in developing countries. Encouraging an outcomes-based accountability approach, facilitated through peer-to-peer learning, could promote realistic improvements in comparative policy reforms at a pace of development consistent with the growth of emerging economies and mindful of their cultural, political, and historical contexts.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate School of Public PolicyNazarbayev UniversityAstanaRepublic of Kazakhstan
  2. 2.Ulster UniversityBelfastUK