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Society and communities

Improving the quality and professionalism of civil servants and strengthening democracy

Over the last two decades there have been numerous attempts to reform the civil service in the Western Balkans. Yet, despite this continuous investment and considerable progress, the quality of their implementation has lagged behind. As a consequence, political patronage, nepotism, corruption and low quality of public service delivery have remained widespread in public sector management. 

Despite continuous investment in civil service reform and professionalisation, implementation often lags behind in these countries.

Professionalising these roles and ensuring merit-based recruitment takes place is widely seen as a precondition for the consolidation of democracy, economic growth and the prevention of corruption in the public sector. It is also a precondition for accession to the European Union and for making European integration work effectively.

My work focuses on coming up with actionable insights that show how civil service management practice can be made more effective and to identify reform strategies to mitigate problems of implementation, political patronage and nepotism.

Since 2008 I have been conducting large-scale surveys of civil servants and personnel managers in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. The latter includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

The results of these surveys help identify strengths and weaknesses of civil service management at the level of countries, public sector organisations and groups of civil servants. For example, they allow us to see to what extent civil servants are recruited on the basis of personal or political connections rather than merit.

"I find it very exciting to be working alongside international organisations and partner organisations inside government, looking together at issues and then designing research with the aim of solving real-world problems."
Professor Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling

In addition, the surveys help us understand what interventions work. For instance, it has been possible to demonstrate that civil service entry examinations and the public announcement of job vacancies are associated with less political patronage (i.e. politicisation) and less nepotism in recruitmenti. Moreover, they help increase performance and integrity of the civil service.

When I first began to survey civil servants across public sector institutions in the late 2000s it was quite pioneering for the region. At that point many researchers and public sector managers expected that it would be impossible to make these surveys work, but we have.

Since then, I have conducted surveys in more than 20 countries, across four developing regions. Together with my close collaborators Professor Christian Schuster (University College London) and Dr Kim Sass Mikkelsen (Roskilde University), the largest survey so far was funded by the UK Department for International Development (now Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) and captured more than 23,000 observations from ten participating countries – the largest cross-country survey of public servants ever conductedii.

As an important part of our collaboration, Professor Schuster, Dr Mikkelsen and I have recently established the new Centre for People Analytics in Government (CPAG) with the mission to generate better evidence for better people management in government.

I have regularly worked together with Governments of many Western Balkan countries as well as the Regional School of Public Administration (ReSPA) and SIGMA/OECD (Support for the Improvement in Governance and Management, a joint initiative of the OECD and the EU), both of which are working to improve the quality of public administration in accession countries and the European neighbourhood.

This work has led to the publication of a number of major reports, which were subsequently used by these international organisations and by national governments in the Western Balkans to help reform and improve their civil service.iii

On a broader scale, the research and its impact is helping countries with their ambitions to become members of the European Union, insofar as civil service professionalisation is a condition for accession to the EU, which is regularly assessed by the European Commission in its annual progress reports and SIGMA/OECD’s monitoring reports.

I continue to work closely alongside the Regional School of Public Administration (ReSPA), which is funded by the EU and national governments to support public administration and regional cooperation in the Western Balkans. This collaboration has recently led to the completion of a self-assessment framework that assists policy-makers ‘how to make merit recruitment work’.

"We captured more than 23,000 observations from ten countries in four developing regions – the largest cross-country survey of public servants ever conducted."
Professor Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling

As member of the advisory council, I further support the WeBER initiative, a regional Western Balkan consortium that aims to enhance civil society engagement and monitoring of public administration reforms in line with the requirements of the EU accession process. The initiative has been funded by the EU and the Dutch government and has been coordinated and implemented by the Think for Europe Network (TEN). I am delighted to contribute to WeBER Talks, a series of podcasts that explore these issues.

I have also carried my survey research to other parts of the world. I conduct – together with my collaborators Professor Schuster and Dr Mikkelsen – a project on curbing corruption in the civil service in developing countries. The project is funded by the Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence Programme.

It uses civil services surveys as an ethics and integrity diagnostic and assesses the effectiveness of ethics trainings for public servants. In Nepal, the work is conducted for the Inland Revenue Department. In Bangladesh, it focuses on ethics and integrity in the police force.

I find it very exciting to be working alongside international organisations and partner organisations inside government in this way, looking together at issues and then designing research with the aim of solving real-world problems.

Professor Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling

Professor Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling is a Professor of Political Science in the School of Politics and International Relations 

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