Magdy Martínez-Solimán: Statement delivered at Political Settlements and Public Service Performance

Apr 12, 2016

Good morning, distinguished guests. It gives me great pleasure to speak at this Conference, which seeks to remind us that public service is a crucial component of development. The Sustainable Development Goals cannot be implemented without a State that is a development activist. And for that the State requires a motivated, professional, dedicated and honest civil service.

With its role as SDGs Advisor, UNDP has a formidable task ahead across the agenda, with a specific focus on Goal 16, which is to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies. One of our important levers is the Global Centre for Public Service Excellence, which gathers evidence on what works. Some of the Centre’s main aims are to promote better appreciation of the key roles that the public service plays in both the developing and developed worlds, and question assumptions where the evidence suggests that there is a case for re-examining development practice. By acting as UNDP’s catalyst for new thinking and action on public service excellence, the Centre supports effective reform, stronger evidence, and South-South collaboration. We embrace the universality of the Agenda 2030. Civil Service Excellence is unquestionably a universal quest.

This Centre is co-funded by the government of Singapore and UNDP. Its location in Singapore is fortuitous, for in pursuing the Centre’s mission, it is guided by the state-building aspect of the Singapore Story, namely how the late founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his contemporaries in leadership positions in politics and administration, built the legitimacy of the state from 1965 onwards.

During the first Phase of the Centre, between 2012 and 2015, four relatively neglected but critical themes for development were identified from the ‘Singapore Story’ of public service success, mainly leadership, motivation, foresight and innovation.  Their importance held up well to closer scrutiny. Phase 1 also confirmed that public service is key to development. Yet how or why an impartial, ethical, fair and meritocratic public service comes about and how it can be promoted and fostered remains perhaps the biggest puzzle holding up international development, now articulated in the SDGs.

Now in its second phase, the Centre aims to make a tangible difference by helping UNDP and our partner countries in:

1.    Building citizens’ trust in public service as fair and impartial.
2.    Fostering better appreciation of the key roles that the public service plays in every   developing country for achieving development.
3.    Acting as a source for new thinking and action on public service excellence,
4.    Supporting Networks for effective reform, stronger evidence, and South-South collaboration.
5.    The Centre has chosen themes and lessons from the ‘Singapore Story’ for public service in developing countries: i) public service motivation, by fostering ‘New Public Passion’, which is the Centre’s new approach to intrinsic motivation, or a sense of calling; ii) visionary leadership through an effective political-administrative interface; iii) strategic foresight, by focusing on its importance for empowerment and resilience; and iv) innovation, focused on strengthening trust.
6.    We question assumptions where the evidence suggests there is a case for re-examining development practice; and
7.    And formally, we contribute to global research priorities on improving public service.
Foresight and Strategic Long-Term Planning

One of these priorities is foresight, the innovative evolution of strategic long-term planning: dreaming the future and making it happen.

Government units are increasingly using foresight to make sense of complexity and interdependency of a multitude of factors, where policy decisions to address one issue can have unexpected or even negative ripple effects in seemingly unrelated areas. ‘Foresight’ refers to approaches that systematically map and test out the potential policies against alternative versions of the future and in the face of almost constant change. It is useful for thinking through some of the potential challenges and roadblocks that might hinder today’s policies from being effective delivery vehicles for a country’s best possible future. Some modern trends that are affecting policy operating environments include disruptive technologies, rising social entrepreneurship, shifting centres of economic power, rapid urbanisation, resource scarcity, and changing demographics.

Institutionalising foresight in government enables: 1) better adaptation and resilience; 2) increased participation for shaping the future, if the process is opened to multiple stakeholders; and 3) greater national empowerment, for countries to take control of their individual destinies. Singapore is a good example that highlights the importance of foresight for development. As early as 1979, Dr S. Rajaratnam, the country’s then Minister for Foreign Affairs, argued that ‘futures thinking’ was essential for the city-state’s long-term prospects. He said:

“There are practical men who maintain that such speculations are a waste of time and they have no bearing at all on solutions to immediate day-to-day problems. This may have been so in earlier periods of history when changes were few … only a future-oriented society can cope with the problems of the 21st century.”

Foresight methodologies can empower developing countries to take command of their own future. By re-examining the past, rethinking the present and reimagining the future, the idea of a better tomorrow turns into a powerful tool, as well as guide for making it happen.  Developing visions or national development plans through the use of foresight methodologies can provide this much-needed guiding light or symbol of hope for developing countries that are stuck in a rut and are looking for an ‘anywhere but here’ solution.

The future-looking and forward-thinking nature of foresight also complements the cultivation of institutional capacity for resilience, agility and responsiveness. Whereas strategic planning has traditionally focused on robustness (which all too often leads to rigidity), foresight favours resilience, which is about early detection and fast recovery. If resilience is about building better boats to face the uncontrollable and volatile tides of change, then foresight are the tools and materials we can use to build those better boats.

The Centre has been very active in conducting foresightXchange workshops in a number of countries and regions. The foresightXchange is our series of bespoke strategic and social foresight events, highly adaptable to different contexts and fit for various purposes. You might think of these workshops as boat building demonstrations or apprenticeships for decision- and policy-makers, if you will. We first piloted the format in Tonga in 2014 with a citizen-focused national visioning exercise followed by a retreat with Cabinet and CEOs to present the approach and outcomes. The foresightXchange was subsequently adapted in Rwanda on three key development issues identified by the Government (urbanisation, rural development and special development), in Kazakhstan to address ‘Shaping the Future Civil Servant’, and most recently at a gathering of 12 African countries to discuss the need for inclusive visioning, resilient planning and public innovation for development in the region. We have also conducted foresightxchanges in Maldives, Mauritius and in the Pacific region with 7 other Pacific Island countries.

While the contents of these workshops have been vastly diverse, the foresightXchange has been a common, useful platform to give decision-makers and policy planners the opportunity to explore new ways of strategic thinking, using strategic foresight as well as equipping them with some innovative tools and methodologies for planning and policy design that will make implementation more resilient and adaptive to change, and enable them to respond more effectively to emerging challenges.


This brings me to motivation, the electricity that powers the engines of change. In many developing countries, visions of the future are plentiful, and planning for ‘black swan’ events may already be taking place at some level. But with a lack of credibility, they have failed to inspire, guide and provide public officials with the constructive sense of national purpose needed to achieve development goals.

The public service is the backbone of development in any country. Yet in government agencies across the world, this backbone has become increasingly weakened by failing morale over the last two or three decades. The evidence is deeply worrying that a demoralised and demotivated public service at the national level in many countries, developing and developed, represents an unrecognised crisis facing the SDGs. This has various origins.  

•    The first of these was ideological – an assertion, repeated often enough that it became accepted as a truism, that the public service was inherently incompetent, indolent and unresponsive by its very nature – rather than, if those characteristics were true, it was because political leaders allowed this, including through cronyism, nepotism and politicization.

•    The second was intellectual – a ‘Catch-22’ conundrum in that Public Choice theory posited the idea that the public service was inherently self-serving and needed to be constrained; while New Public Management propagated the exact opposite view, that public service was inherently apathetic and needed to be incentivised into being effective.

•    The third was commercial – big opportunities for consultants and business were created by the belief of running government more like a business, outsourcing services and promoting public-private partnerships.

•    The fourth cause was political – that blaming the public service for failure offered a tempting scapegoat for politicians to deflect criticism of their own inadequate leadership and direction, and for their ineptitude at managing senior civil servants. A big mistake, as Director of GCPSE, Max Everest-Phillips just said, since poor civil service drags with it the notion of leadership failure.

•    The fifth cause was financial – that pay levels in professional posts in the public service lagged so far behind those of the private sector that either many high-skilled vacancies could not be filled or special pay arrangements were required.

•    The sixth cause was institutional – that there was enough truth in some imagery of obstructive public service unions and unhelpful ‘street level bureaucrats’ to drown out the  much more positive images of devotion to public good, such as was famously demonstrated by the unstinting self-sacrifice of officers of the New York fire department and other first responders on 9/11. A story that repeats itself almost every day in every country with unsung feats of heroism or, more simply, of selfless dedication to others: the cop, the nurse, the teacher, the officer of the armed forces, the judge, the rural development engineer, the ranger and many others.

•    And the seventh cause was organisational – that both elected leaders and senior administrators benefitted from creating an almost endless ‘permanent revolution’ of ceaseless reforms and reorganisation of the public service.  Despite the mounting evidence over the years that many reforms achieved almost no lasting improvements but greatly demoralised staff, the temptation to appear to be shaking up supposedly lazy and incompetent bureaucrats was all too great. Media have also been pondering, superficially, to such cosmetic reforms.

Political Settlements and Governance Challenges

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve spoken so far about the importance of public institutions that are capable not only of recovering from changes, but anticipating, adapting and responding quickly and effectively to them. Institutional resilience is about designing—and redesigning—organisations and systems to better absorb disruption, operate under a wider variety of conditions, and shift more fluidly from one circumstance to the next while maintaining their core purpose, improving their performance and attracting and retaining talent in their ranks. While continuous disruptive change in an unprecedented complex environment requires evermore sophisticated policy responses, the officials responsible for tackling these challenges on behalf of citizens and state are increasingly disenchanted. In the Middle East, for example, the disconnect between the expectations of public service capacities to manage a context of ever growing complexity, including how to deliver in the middle or in the vicinity of armed conflict and the delivery itself, has revolved around chronic disruptions due in large part to ethnic, ideological and territorial disputes. This meeting will analyse the interface between political settlements and public service performance. Let me make five suggestions on this interface.

1.    Civil Service is a settlement itself -> meritocratic for effectiveness, necessarily sourced in all strata of society to reflect the people it serves.

2.    Civil Service implements most settlements, through provision of services, public goods, quality of life, impartiality and fairness.

3.    Civil Service is essential to the delivery of a complex development agenda like SDGs, which implies a balance between economic growth, sustainability and social protection.

4.    Such an agenda is only achievable with a highly motivated, top-performing civil service.

5.    And, the most challenging parts of the agenda, which have to do with rights, means of implementation, trade-offs or integration, and governance, are the essence of which political settlements are made.

I would like to end where I started, establishing the causal relationship between a good political settlement, excellence in the public service, and chances to implement satisfactorily an ambitious agenda such as the SDGs. We will need to mainstream its breadth into national development planning and budgeting. We will need to diagnose the accelerations that trigger multiple development wins. And we will have to define which new policies are needed to fix old problems with innovation, a new brand of policy entrepreneurship, as the concept note of this conference creatively suggests. This is what the MAPS strategy of the UN Development System is about. Mainstreaming, Acceleration and Policy Support to the SDGs.

Public Service Performance is, ultimately, a measure of political leadership, wisdom of budget investments, and a mirror in which each society can compare itself with its neighbours and with its past. Reasonable political settlements need to include consensus on vision, a model of activist developmental State that opens avenues to vibrant private initiative, and a stellar performance of a public service committed to sustainable development.       

Thank you for your attention.