DPMN Bulletin: Volume X, Number 3, May 2003

The Challenges of Governance, Public Sector Reform and Public Administration in Africa: Some Research Issues

Guy C. Z. Mhone



This paper has benefited from contributions made at the workshop on "Building an African Governance and Public Administration Support and Research Agenda" held in Johannesburg on February 17, 2003 which discussed and earlier draft of this paper an addition to informing on the preparation of the present paper . Needless to say, to author remains responsible for the views expressed in this paper.

A. Introduction

Vilella, in his article entitled "Towards a theoretical coming together of administrative sciences" (Villela, 2001) contends that:

With regard to the field of public administration, after a long period of domination by the legal approach, we have experienced domination by the managerial approach. This conflict has had another negative consequence, which is the relative marginalization and putting aside of other scientific approaches to the administrative problem, such as historical, sociological and economic approaches. By forcing things somewhat, I believe that I can say that from a basic philosophical point of view, the legal approach had more of a tendency to be concerned with the overall system, whereas the managerial approach has had more of a tendency to be concerned with specificities.

Africa continues to be the need to recognize its interdisciplinarity and hence the need to be more creative about how it is studied and executed. Presumably, in Africa, we all want a ‘good public administration’. And as Villela notes, the responses to what constitutes good public administration are likely to be different depending on the disciplinary perspective of the respondent:

For a legal expert it is an administration that can guarantee decisions in respect of procedures and laws; for management expert, it is an administration that responds to technical criteria based on efficiency; for a historian, it is an administration which knows how to guarantee political stability during a given period; for a sociologist, it is an administration that represents and takes into account the needs of the different social classes… (Villela, 2001)

Given the current nature of debates pertaining to the role and status of government in Africa it is necessary to begin by defining the major concepts at stake. Governance and public administration can be understood narrowly such that the latter (public administration) refers to the manner in which central or federal, provincial or state, and local institutions with their procedural, legal, regulatory, financial, human resources and asset aspects are organized, institutionalized and managed with respect to regulatory, revenue extraction, spending and procurement functions, and the provision of such services as defence, social services, and economic infrastructure. Governance, in this respect, may refer to the manner in which this institutional apparatus performs its role in terms of efficiency and effectiveness with respect to its outputs and outcomes respectively.

The term ‘public sector’ would add to the foregoing institutional apparatus the various statutory bodies and parastatals. And finally, the notion of the state would encompass the public sector, the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Thus the notion of governance can be as broad as the notion of government or the state that one seeks to interrogate.

For purposes of this essay the notions of government or the state (which will be used interchangeably) are understood in the broad context to encompass central government (together with its various levels of decentralization), the executive branch, the legislature and the judiciary. To this broad notion of government or the state must apply a broader notion of governance, which relates to the interface between the state or government, and society. The latter (society) encompasses civil society, labour organizations, employer organizations, non-governmental organizations political parties and community organization as well as individual citizens and their families. In attempting to identify some of the main challenges confronting governance, public administration and public sector reform in Africa it is useful to begin with the challenges at the broadest levels and then proceeding down to the those pertaining to public administration.

B. Challenges of Governance at the State Societal Level

In Public Choices and Policy Change (1991), Grindle and Thomas propose a framework that, with a little adaptation is useful for understanding the complex issues at stake in discussing issues of governance, public administration and public sector reform. They identify three broad areas of concern, namely the Environmental context, Agenda-setting circumstances, and Policy characteristics:

Environmental context: this includes the external and domestic social and economic conditions as well as the institutional and organizational structure pertaining to the relationship among the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Within this context the manner in which ruling elites are produced and reproduced can also be mapped out to determine how they interpret and execute their roles and responsibilities. The role of elites needs to go beyond a crude class analysis to capture the various ways in which the elite may be differentiated for purposes of political analysis. Governance in this context relates to the manner in which ruling elites see themselves embedded in society and how they see themselves accountable to them. This is not only an attitudinal problem, but one of how mechanisms of participation, consultation and accountability are institutionalized in the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. The major challenge at this level concerns the degree to which adequate institutional and organizational structures exist to facilitate good and democratic governance in terms of relations between society and the state. Formally, such requirements are stipulated in the constitution and translated into various legal and statutory provisions. Substantively, such requirements relate to the manner in which good governance and democracy are actually practised in day-to-day activities. The Third Wave Huntington of democracy at is relates to Africa has yielded major advances in formal democratic provisions and practice, while day to day substantive practice has tended to be characterized by states reluc