Imagine you wanted to build the most effective bureaucracy possible. Where might you look for inspiration? According to Daniel Rogger, a researcher at the World Bank, one of the best sources has been on our movie and television screens for over five decades—James Bond.
“James Bond is probably the most famous civil servant of all time,” said Rogger. “His approach toward officialdom is rooted in a strong sense of autonomy, a high mission orientation, a vibrant approach to seeking out detailed information on a case-by-case basis, and a culture of strong professional relationships.”
At a Policy Research Talk delivered earlier this year, Rogger unveiled the findings of a growing body of research and data that are helping identify how developing countries can create a bureaucracy that aspires to these kinds of ideals. Most civil servants will never chase villains across the globe like James Bond, but bureaucracies can still be places with a similar mission-driven orientation to serve the public.
Over the course of his presentation, Rogger took his audience on a whirlwind tour of the cutting edge of what researchers both inside and beyond the walls of the World Bank have learned about what shapes the functioning of bureaucracies. His findings fell under three broad headings: economics, politics, and culture.
One of the points that Rogger repeatedly drove home is that bureaucrats, like everyone else, respond to incentives—just not the usual ones. Rather, the incentives that lead to high-performing bureaucracies are influenced by the specific nature of bureaucratic work. Civil servants often carry out ambiguous tasks in uncertain environments and must multi-task across many types of work. In one study of the Ghanaian civil service, Rogger and his co-authors found that nearly 30 different government organizations work on policy, 23 work on physical infrastructure, and 20 work on permits and regulation.
The consequence of ambiguity and multi-tasking is that pay-for-performance incentives tied to easily measurable targets are likely to backfire. In a recent study of project completion rates in the Nigerian civil service, Rogger and his co-author found that the introduction of performance incentives actually slowed down project delivery, and this effect was more pronounced for those projects with higher complexity and ambiguity—for example, building a dam or a borehole.
Similarly, a study of government procurement in Russia soon to be published by London School of Economics Professor Oriana Bandiera and co-authors found that the introduction of performance incentives actually increased the prices paid by the government in the long run. In contrast, greater autonomy for bureaucrats sustainably reduced prices.
Instead of performance incentives, Rogger recommended two other types of reward systems that have been proven to improve outcomes. First, rewarding high-performing civil servants with their choice of posting or work program has been shown to improve outcomes in a number of settings. For example, in India promising postings to more desirable locations led police to increase the number and accuracy of sobriety checks. A second type of reward is the quality of management: staff are more motivated when their managers are effective, so tracking managerial practices across divisions could have substantial impacts on service delivery.