Comparative Civil Service Reforms in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Genevieve Enid MeyersEmail author
  • Christopher Andrew Clark
Living reference work entry



The civil service is the bureaucratic arm of government charged with the implementation of government policies and programs. Comparative civil service reform is an approach to the study and evaluation of efforts undertaken by diverse governments to systematically improve their bureaucratic and public sector operational performance.


Civil service reform is a challenging endeavor for developed and developing countries alike. Moreover, there is no consensus as to what makes some reforms succeed while others fail. Yet, reform of the administrative system is not new. Reform in the nineteenth century aimed at stamping out the spoils system, and establishing efficient, effective, and economic administrative systems. The twentieth century saw the focus shift to institution building, bureaucratization, nationalization, and an array of organizational and administrative capacity building efforts for national and economic development. In Sub-Saharan Africa, postindependence civil service reforms included indigenization of the bureaucracy and utilizing the civil service to spearhead the development agenda.

Contemporary civil service reform efforts in Sub-Sharan Africa are rooted in the 1980’s structural adjustment programs (SAPs) and are part of a wider New Public Management (NPM) movement geared toward reversing the traditional role of government by shrinking the size of the civil service, reducing both administrative and financial waste, and improving performance and productivity, accountability, service provision, and general capacity of the administrative system. Since the reforms of the early nineteenth century, it has been argued that administrative reform engenders cheaper and efficient government, facilitates the production of high-quality services, frees managers to manage, and enhances ethics and accountability in government (Caiden 1991; Pollit and Bouckaert 2000; Farazmand 2002). Yet, despite such accolades, governments seem to implement one reform after another, signifying that such efforts do not always attain their goals and objectives.

The civil service systems in Sub-Saharan Africa have a long history, dating as far back as the colonial period. Some of the problems that emerged during colonialism are still prevalent. In addition, the functions and structures of these systems have, over time, been shaped by historical, economic, political, and ideological factors. The civil service that was inherited from the colonial regime at independence by many of these countries was relatively small and focused primarily on the maintenance of law and order. Since the 1960s, when many of the countries attained independence, their administrative systems changed both in structure and function. Besides maintaining law and order, they became the avenue for gainful employment, policy making, and social and economic development. It should however be noted that historical, political, economic, and ideological factors manifest themselves differently in Sub-Saharan African countries. Therefore, the civil service systems in these diverse countries took, over time, differing paths and evolved differently. But what is civil service reform? Why do countries undertake it? How do the civil service reform efforts undertaken by countries in Sub-Saharan Africa compare? What have been the effects of such reforms? The following pages offer answers to these questions.

Perspectives on Civil Service Reform

Civil service reform has enjoyed great usage in public administration for quite some time. As such, it is defined differently. According to Caiden, civil service reform is a systemic improvement of the public sector functional performance. In his view, administrative reform aims at assessing government performance and predicting the general public’s expectations of government. He argues that civil service reforms are needed to adapt government to the constantly changing needs of society and to enable public administration to reshape society. Caiden aptly views the process of reform as “visionary, radical, political, risky, contrived, planned, artificial, opposed, time-consuming, problematic, elusive – and more” (1991:1). Indeed, administrative reform is a complex phenomenon whose results are not always predictable and one that is often viewed as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Civil service reform has been defined as “deliberate changes to the structures and processes of public sector organizations with the objective of getting them (in some sense) to run better” (Pollit and Bouckaert 2000:8). Reform efforts therefore serve multiple ends among them: reducing public expenditure, improving the quality of public services, and making government more efficient and effective. Haggard (1997) conceives of civil service reform as a process of rewriting the contract between elected politicians and bureaucratic officials. He views administrative reform as a political endeavor in terms of the political control of the bureaucracy and bureaucratic politics theory. His views are in stark contrast with Woodrow Wilson’s and Frank Goodnow’s call for a politics/administration dichotomy. Indeed, in many developing countries, reforms are engineered by politicians albeit with a huge external push from the international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB).

Although administrative reform is not a new phenomenon, contemporary reform efforts are quite different from those in the nineteenth century. The contemporary reform efforts are more international in character and exhibit more political salience. In the 1980s, the WB facilitated many developing countries to implement SAPs. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the SAPs menu included devaluation of the currency, liberalization of the economy, privatization, decentralization, and civil service reform. These programs came as a response to fiscal constraints, and the Bank’s primary concern was to reduce the size of the public service and the wage bill. In most countries, there have been attempts to reduce the role of the state in relation to the market, cut back the size of the civil service in both personnel numbers and expenditure, enhance accountability, and improve managerial efficiency.

Civil service reform can also be viewed from a governance perspective. The World Bank (1993) defines governance as the method through which power is exercised in the management of a country’s political, economic, and social resources for development. While the WB for a long time focused on economic stabilization and state reforms that overwhelmingly emphasized civil service retrenchment and privatization, the early 1990s saw a change of focus. It was realized that most of the crises in developing countries were of a governance nature. Hence, the contemporary adjustment package emphasizes issues like transparency, accountability, and judicial reform, issues that are believed to enhance good governance.

There are three major categories of good governance: systemic, political, and administrative. Systemic governance entails the distribution of both internal and external political and economic power. Political governance is attained when a state enjoys both legitimacy and authority derived from a democratic mandate. Administrative governance refers to efficiency, openness, accountability, and audited public service (World Bank (1993). In the context of most developing countries, good governance signifies a governmental framework that functions in a responsible, accountable, and transparent manner. This framework should also be based upon the principles of efficiency, legitimacy, and consensus. The civil service reform programs that have been implemented in Sub-Saharan are pursued under the broader pursuit of good governance. Civil service reform is geared toward righting bureaucratic wrongs and governance helps achieve that goal.

Civil service reform can also be viewed from the NPM perspective. Arguably viewed as a paradigm shift in public administration, NPM is a global reform movement that redefines the relationship between government and society. NPM calls for a move away from traditional public administration to what is commonly known as the “new managerialism,” “market-based public administration,” and “entrepreneurial government.” Spurred by citizen dissatisfaction with government performance, bureaucratic red tape, endemic fiscal problems, and seemingly successful restructuring in the private arena, calls for public sector reform, the abandonment of traditional public administration, and reinventing government became rampant. Initially espoused in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the USA, NPM is now a global phenomenon that calls on civil services to embrace ideas developed in the private sector to enhance effectiveness and efficiency, and adopt them in the public sector without adapting or changing them dramatically (Liegl 2001).

NPM emphasizes goals and results and gives private firms an exemplary role in public sector reform. Four focal areas are common to NPM reforms namely: restructuring and re-engineering of the internal administrative structures; the development of market-oriented strategies within the public sector; the emphasis of doing more with less; and the emphasis on mechanisms guaranteeing customer service. These four premises require the civil service to reform its culture, and be more flexible, innovative, problem solving, entrepreneurial, and results oriented as opposed to being rule-bound, process-oriented, and focused on inputs (Rosenbloom et al. 2015). NPM urges the civil service to abandon its obsession with procedure and bureaucratic red tape and instead focus on responding efficiently to customers and achieving results. In the 1990s, Sub-Saharan African countries started implementing many of the NPM prescriptions including privatization, contracting out services, decentralization, and introduction of performance measurement systems.

Civil Service Reforms in Sub-Saharan Africa

A wave of civil service reforms swept across many developing countries in the 1980s and reshaped the way public services are delivered, and the way public budgets are managed. In Sub-Saharan Africa, civil service reform efforts have been pursued with a mixture of great zeal and caution. Prior to colonialism, none of the African countries had any modern-day administrative or Weberian systems to boast of. However, the onset of colonialism brought with it western-style bureaucratic organizations to the colonies. The newly imposed administrative systems were mechanisms for control and subjugation rather than for serving the public interest and entrenching administrative ideals. As such, focus was placed on maintaining law and order, collecting taxes, and ensuring the colonial interests rather than training, developing, and creating viable administrative infrastructures manned by the African natives. The organization of the colonial administration was “highly hierarchical, inhibiting lower-level participation in decision making, and since it was in the service of the colonial masters, it was highly suppressive and did not respond to public demands” (Mutahaba et al. 1993:7).

The civil service and bureaucratic structures, principles, and values in Sub-Saharan African countries are rooted in the western bureaucratic systems. Correspondingly, the formal political institutions, principles, and processes that were introduced at independence were largely a duplication of the former colonial masters’ systems. The first reform efforts therefore emerged just prior to independence to prepare the indigenous people for self-rule. The attainment of independence generated immense development expectations and increased responsibilities that demanded changes in the administrative processes, culture, orientation, and capabilities. Sub-Saharan African countries sought to reorient their civil service systems to be responsive to the development needs of the people. As a result, the Africanization policy was introduced by which native Africans replaced the Europeans and other foreigners. A Nigerian offered justification for the Africanization policy thus:

The decision was taken by our leaders that the British officials should be replaced, not because they hated or distrusted them, but because they felt that political independence was a sham unless you had also a great measure of administrative independence. You just could not be politically independent and remain administratively dependent, over a long period, without misunderstanding and tensions arising between the expatriate administrator and his indigenous political master (Heady 2001:301).

Despite the Africanization program and numerous subsequent reforms, efficiency, effectiveness, accountability, and responsiveness were not attained. If anything, the efforts proved inappropriate and inadequate. The local cultural and sociopolitical factors exposed the western-derived administrative and political systems to tremendous challenges. Governments took on more than what they could handle, while a dismal economic and political performance made worse the already dire administrative conditions. As a result, the postindependence administrative systems of many African countries have been characterized by a bloated civil service, inadequate administrative capacity, limited financial and administrative resources, and a fragile political environment. The reform efforts articulated in the following pages were aimed at rectifying these problems. It can therefore be argued that Sub-Saharan Africa civil service systems were never complete replicas of their colonial masters’ native systems because postindependence civil service systems did not adhere to western Weberian bureaucratic ideals. Lacking the administration/politics dichotomy, patronage emerged. Public officials served their own interests and those of their kin rather than those of the public, and utilized public monies and equipment as personal property. Indeed, the quest for the current administrative reforms could be viewed as a chance at better adopting western administrative, bureaucratic, and political ideals.

Individually, the administrative systems in Sub-Saharan Africa have faced and have been shaped by differing circumstances. For instance, while Uganda’s and Nigeria’s administrative systems have been afflicted by many problematic colonial legacies and post-colonial failures common to most African countries, they have had a very deeply troubled and unique political and economic context that exacerbated the administrative pathologies. Both countries soon after independence were rocked by coups and counter coups resulting in immense political turmoil and economic collapse that derailed civil service performance. Tanzania, on the other hand, has not endured critical political strife and is considered one of the most stable nations in Africa. Instead, it is the country’s ideological and economic predicament that put a strain on the civil service system. Therefore, civil service reforms are peculiar to each country depending on the local context, priorities of politicians, and administrative elite. Nonetheless, most of the Sub-Saharan African countries the contemporary second and third wave reforms initiated since the 1980s and 1990s respectively, have been quite uniform. They have been implemented in the framework of the World Bank’s SAPs, and they have focused on four major issues: (1) reducing the size of the civil service, (2) pay reform, (3) enhancing capacity and performance of the civil service, and (4) improving ethics and accountability. The next section offers a comparative analysis of the implementation of these four major reform components.

Reducing the Size of the Civil Service

One of the major goals of civil service reform undertaken by Sub-Saharan countries has been to reduce the size of the service. Considered bloated and highly centralized, the IMF and WB were quick to point out that the countries’ fiscal problems would not be adequately addressed if the civil service wage bill was not reduced. Hence, reforms to reduce the cost of the civil service in general, and the wage bill in particular, were implemented in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and other countries. Such reforms included staff reduction (retrenchment); removal of “ghost workers”; halting new recruitments; encouraging early voluntary retirement; and devolving functions to the local government. One of the countries that has been hailed for implementing structural reforms to reduce the size of the civil service is Uganda. In 1990, Uganda’s civil service comprised of 38 ministries and employed approximately 320,000 people. But after rigorous rationalization of ministries, retrenchment, purging of ghost workers, and decentralization of roles and functions to the local level, the civil service ministries were reduced to 17 while the overall size fell to 165,000 by 2006 (Kyarimpa 2009).

The reduction of the civil service size was successful in other countries too. The Ghanaian civil service that employed approximately 131,000 civil servants in 1987 was reduced to 79,000 by 1997 (Haruna 2001). In Ghana, reducing the size of the civil service entailed not only eliminating ghost workers and freezing recruitment, but identifying redundant and underemployed personnel for proper reassignment as well. In Nigeria, the federal civil service that was comprised of approximately 30,000 employees at independence had enlarged to 273,392 in 1990 (Otobo 1999). With the removal of ghost workers, retrenchment, and decentralization, the federal civil service staff was significantly reduced. Other nations like Benin, Tanzania, Senegal, and South Africa made significant reductions to their civil service staff and reduced the share of the wage bill in budgetary expenditure. In Rwanda and South Africa, decentralization decongested the center.

The impetus for the reducing the size of the civil service was to generate budgetary relief by shrinking the civil service wage bill. Yet, the reduction of staff numbers did not necessarily lead to general reduced fiscal stress in many of the countries. In fact, only meager positive results were attained. In many cases, retrenchment targeted low-earning lower level staff thus producing only miniscule savings. In Nigeria, for instance, more than 70% of the federal civil service was composed of junior staff (Briggs 2007). In other cases, the retrenched staff found their way back into the civil service through the backdoor. Yet in some countries, the introduction and expansion of social services necessitated hiring more staff. A good example is Uganda, which introduced free primary education even as it was downsizing the civil service. Not surprisingly, the upsurge in the number of primary school children necessitated a significant increase in the number of teachers. It can therefore be asserted that determining the optimal size of the civil services in sub-Saharan Africa is still a major challenge. Moreover, rightsizing the civil service is not a panacea to performance deficit. To enhance civil service performance, the retained staff need to be well paid and offered a conducive working environment over time.

Enhancing Civil Service Pay

To attract and retain qualified staff, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have initiated many reforms aimed at enhancing the salaries and wages of their civil servants. At independence, many of these countries’ remuneration packages were high but by the mid-1970s, the average basic salary had reduced by 30–40% (Robinson 1990). A combination of factors led to this decline in remuneration. At the international level, the oil shocks and global recession of the 1970s did not spare African countries’ nascent economies. At the domestic level, many countries were experiencing political and social strife that exacerbated the economic depression. To cope with the turmoil and deteriorating civil service pay, many governments resorted to alternate forms of payment like stipends and in-kind benefits. In many cases, such systems were riddled with patronage and corruption. Not surprisingly, as the wages eroded and became highly compressed and working conditions degenerated, so did the morale and morals of the bureaucrats. Many fled their countries and went abroad seeking greener pastures while others resorted to unethical behaviors like embezzlement of public funds and misuse of public office.

The contemporary civil service reforms have therefore aimed at not only enhancing civil service pay, but attracting and retaining well trained and skilled personnel as well. The reforms have taken various forms. Governments have attempted to pay what came to be commonly known as a “minimum living wage” (MLW) (Uganda, Ghana, Tanzania). Others attempted to rationalize the pay and grading system (Ghana, Uganda) and enhanced the decompression ratio of the pay structure (Ghana, Uganda), while others formulated altogether a new incentive policy framework (Rwanda, South Africa). Some countries eliminated allowances and monetized non-cash benefits (Kenya, Uganda). Yet, some countries have not made major changes. Salary differentials between the highest and lowest among civil servants have not changed drastically in Benin, Burkina Faso and Senegal. In Uganda, salaries were increased by 43% across board in 1992, basic pay increased by 85% in 1993, and in 1994 a 37% wage bill increase was legislated (Kyarimpa 2009). While salaries of the Ugandan civil servants were initially significantly raised (for instance, a primary school teacher that earned US$4.00 in 1990 was earning US$ 70.00 in 1996), the wage bill was still only 1.2% of GDP and among the lowest in Africa (Langseth and Mugaju 1996) and not conducive to retaining a skilled workforce. Moreover, by 2000, pay reform had stagnated as political will and focus waned.

In many Sub-Saharan countries, salary increases have been offered via new pay policies, private sector benchmarking, formation of independent agencies, and by use of selective pay increases to those with critical skills. South Africa’s New Incentive Policy Framework links pay increases to performance and has generated a positive impact. Performance-related pay has been attempted in Nigeria and Ghana but has so far failed to take root as performance evaluation designs remain inconsistent (Cooper-Enchia 2008). To date, major pay disparity exists among career civil servants, political appointees, and those that work in independent agencies in many countries. In some cases, the gains made in the early phases of reform have been reversed or they have stagnated. In Benin, performance-related pay was heavily resisted by workers’ unions, while in countries where pay reform depended largely on external support and savings from downsizing the service, continuity and consistence have proved difficult. Pay reforms in Ghana, Uganda, and Tanzania have stagnated or have been replaced by selective pay increases.

Ultimately, pay reform has proved to be a political issue as it is an economic one. In countries where the political leadership enjoys legitimacy, pay reform has tended to remain on track. Botswana, Seychelles, and to some extent South Africa are good examples. In countries where the political stability and legitimacy are tenuous, pay policies tend to be based on political calculations that reinforce regime survival. Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda fit this scenario although the first two are tending towards stable political pluralism. To attract the best and brightest and to retain high-skilled workers, governments in Sub-Saharan Africa must have political stability and viable private economies to ensure a broader revenue base. So far, many countries have not reached this threshold.

Enhancing Civil Service Capacity and Performance

Civil service capacity to perform and deliver public services has historically been poor in Sub-Saharan Africa. During colonial rule, the domestic public interest was ignored as colonial governments focused on extraction of resources. After independence, lacking a viable private sector, many governments assumed the role of provider of goods and services. But when political instability and economic depression ensued, the capacity of governments to adequately respond to public demands weakened and civil service performance plummeted. The reforms implemented in the 1990s were supposed to develop the capacity of the civil services to become efficient, effective, and responsive. Various programs were introduced, among them training and infrastructure development; performance improvement plans; client service charters; results oriented management (ROM); and information communication technology. In some countries, capacity development institutions and units to implement the civil service reform were formulated.

Training is important for continuous improvement and sustenance of competencies. Countries passed policy documents detailing training needs and goals. In South Africa, the White Paper on Public Service Training and Education of 1997 provided the framework for training and capacity building, while in Ghana it was the Civil Service Act of 1993. Uganda and Tanzania issued elaborate training policies. Various countries offered training in various areas including: leadership, customer care, information communication technology, records management, open performance review appraisal systems, and results-oriented management. In Uganda and Tanzania, civil service training colleges were established to offer training and refresher courses to civil servants.

Performance improvement programs have also been widely utilized. In 1995, Ghana launched the Ghana Civil Service Performance Improvement Programme (GCSPIP) to develop the capacity of the civil service to deliver efficient, economic, and customer-focused services. The program required ministries, departments, and agencies to formulate performance improvement plans that indicated service delivery standards, and performance agreements, and to establish a civil service complaints system. Program officials provided oversight visits and offered regular review meetings with relevant personnel. Modest success was achieved. While service delivery standards were formulated and performance agreements effected, they lacked consistent funding for implementation. Alas, the same scenario can be found in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. In South Africa, client service charters and citizen satisfaction surveys are utilized under the Batho Pele (People First) principles within the framework of the Public Administration Management Bill. Enhanced citizen involvement in the assessment of service delivery has led to improved civil service performance and responsiveness.

Overall, capacity building efforts have had success in training and professional development through performance improvement courses. Without adequate funding, performance measurement tools have not been adequately implemented. A more holistic and multidimensional form of capacity building that includes value systems and beliefs, institutional and resource factors, and integrates ethics and public interest values in the frameworks might go a long way in producing capable public servants. Equally significant, adequate funding is critical for the effective application of performance enhancement and measurement tools.

Improving Ethics and Accountability

Civil service reform programs in Sub-Saharan Africa focused on ethics and accountability because the two values are vital to efficient and effective service delivery. Because of the socioeconomic and political difficulties many of these countries endured soon after independence, civil services had a paucity of effective accountability mechanisms. Others had institutionalized corruption – Nigeria and Uganda are good examples. To curb unethical conduct, countries initiated many programs among them establishment of Ombudsman – Inspector General of Government (Uganda); Ethics and Integrity Departments (Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda); and Anti-corruption Bureaus and Agencies (Botswana, Ghana, Tanzania). Other initiatives include the formulation of Leadership Codes and Codes of Conduct (Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa).

Many of the anti-corruption agencies have regulatory, investigative, enforcement, prevention, and educational mandates. The Ghanaian Economic and Organized Crime Office, formed in 2010 (it replaced the Ghanaian Serious Fraud Office (SFO)), performs such mandates. The office, which has successfully prosecuted some high-profile cases, has so far managed to retain some degree of independence from elected officials, including the nation’s executive (Transparency International 2010). In Tanzania, the Prevention of Corruption Bureau has prosecuted cases including one involving a government cabinet member (Kyarimpa 2009).

The implementation of Leadership Codes has generated varied results. In Tanzania, President Mkapa took the lead in declaring his assets. This sent the right message to government officials. Yet, enforcement is still a challenge especially because noncompliance is not met with serious ramifications. In Uganda, the office of the Inspector General of Government that is supposed to enforce the Leadership Code has been found to be ineffective and devoid of capacity to monitor and enforce the Code (Larbi 2007). In other countries like Malawi and Zambia, codes and anticorruption laws have not been consistently implemented because of inadequate funding. It should be noted that lack of funding and lack of personnel to adequately implement anticorruption measures plague almost all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It can be asserted that despite efforts to enhance the ethical stance of civil servants, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa remain encumbered with high and low-level corruption and abuse of office. In South Africa, former president Jacob Zuma was embroiled in numerous corruption scandals until he was finally forced out of office. Mugabe of Zimbabwe met the same fate in 2017 after his regime was accused of gross corruption that destroyed the economy. Perhaps not surprisingly, many African countries consistently rank poorly in the Transparency Perception index and other corruption measurement tools.


The discussion presented shows that countries in Sub-Sharan Africa have engaged in numerous reform programs to make their civil service systems lean, efficient, effective, and accountable. Because African civil service systems are rooted in the colonial systems of administration and some of the problems being faced are part of the colonial legacy, the challenges met by the postindependence governments have been numerous and very difficult. This is partly why initial postindependence administrative reform faltered. Yet postindependence governments too assume the blame for administrative dysfunction. To revamp their failing civil service systems, most nations turned to the IMF and WB for support. This entry contextualized the civil service reforms in governance and NPM movements and showed that the IMF and WB played a major role in the formulation and implementation of various reforms.

A comparative assessment of the reforms undertaken by different countries illustrates how differing contexts generate diverse results. Modest success has been registered in civil service size reduction, although like in other countries, the optimal size is not agreed upon. Pay reform generated improvement in remuneration, but African civil servants still earn salaries that are below a living wage. Much work needs to be done to build capacity and enhance ethics and accountability. It can be concluded that civil service reforms are context-specific and must be implemented with that in mind. Financial resources and qualified personnel to implement the reforms are key to success. Finally, political will and political stability are important for sustenance and continuity of the reform programs.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Genevieve Enid Meyers
    • 1
    Email author
  • Christopher Andrew Clark
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political Science, College of Liberal Arts and EducationUniversity of Detroit MercyDetroitUSA