Public sector reform in Papua New Guinea can be regarded as a case of poor policy practice. There has been no shortage of policy making. Many initiatives can be identified. Where the policies have come to grief has been in implementation. From a technical point of view we can identify a familiar list of problems. There has been little attention to policy analysis, specifically an anticipation of where policies could go wrong. For example, policies are announced when the capacity to implement them is obviously lacking or the financial ramifications are not worked through. Other technical deficiencies include poor definition of processes and responsibilities; inadequate supervision; lack of trained staff; slowness of bureaucratic action; constant turnover of managers; insufficient coordination; and infrastructure shortcomings.

While the technical explanations of policy failure have validity in delineating what the public sector lacks, it is in the political dimension of reform that we find the important root causes. As Caiden (1969, 8) advised, public sector reform is ‘transformation against resistance’. In Papua New Guinea the capacity to resist has been extremely strong. Sometimes it may be better described as the capacity to ignore, the exercise of power by doing nothing (Lukes 1974). The technical shortcomings occur because there is no concerted effort by the political elite to ensure that implementation of public sector reform conforms to the policy plans. Despite the numerous consultants’ reports and grand statements by prime ministers, there appears to have been remarkably little interest in following through on public sector reform. Leading officials have not monitored reforms, demanded regular updating, enforced accountability and supervised reform initiatives.

There are several reasons for this. In part it stems from the nature of Papua New Guinea politics, in which particularistic concerns of staying in office and of satisfying small groups of supporters have dominated political life. Parties do not have platforms or policies. Thus, Prime Minister Morauta’s attempts to engage in political engineering may have a more profound effect on public sector performance than repeated institutional strengthening programs. Secondly, crisis government is typical, and in such circumstances long-term public sector reform is simply not a priority. It is rather dull and does not attract votes. It thus becomes unattractive to own public sector reform. Ownership is sometimes forced upon unwilling political leadership by multilateral financial agencies, but in such circumstances, domestic commitment may be limited.

The third political aspect of public sector reform relates to control of public resources, the public service, and appointments in it. It is significant that the public service reforms that have been pushed through parliament have been of domestic origin and concerned with enhancing the power of the national political elite. They have secured control of appointments and subnational government while simultaneously allowing accountability to go into decline. When looked at from this viewpoint, public sector reform which produces good governance is actually a major threat to the political elite. While the system does not work for the majority of Papua New Guineans it may well work for many in the political elite.

One final and little-used explanation of the unreceptiveness of stakeholders in Papua New Guinea to reform measures concerns the organizational model which they use as a reference. It is a model of bureaucratic organizational structures and practices. This model has inherent dysfunctions such as an input orientation rather than a focus on results. Its colonial origins may also put it at odds with indigenous culture as Michael Somare observed before independence. But in Papua New Guinea the dysfunctionality has been greatly boosted by unplanned changes such as the politicization of appointments, the weak development of public accountability, the absence of evaluation, and low morale. The result is a severely deformed bureaucratic form of organization which bears little if any resemblance to the rationality of the Weberian ideal type. Its members are highly suspicious of change and anyway often lack the capacity to design and implement changes that would lead to performance improvement. The pursuit of political agendas has contributed to the bureaucracy’s incremental decay rendering it inappropriate for the tasks it is supposed to perform.

The quest for public sector reform will undoubtedly continue. In 2002 multilateral and bilateral agencies were pouring in money for this purpose and hopes were high. According to the ADB (2001), Papua New Guinea is ‘moving to a performance based public sector’. This may prove to have been an optimistic assertion. Previous predictions of reform success have often fallen short of expectation. Some rethinking of policies is essential, as is the capacity to learn the lessons of earlier failures. The learning is not simply a matter for Papua New Guinean officials but also for the international financial agencies which have been and still are so heavily involved in promoting public sector reform. There is also much room for popular involvement, not simply as presenting unrealistic wish lists of projects but in sharing information, participating in planning and assuming some responsibility for accountability. Seeking good practice in Papua New Guinea and how to replicate it is another underutilized strategy, as is good research on management matters. A continuing problem is that we still know very little about how organizations work in Papua New Guinea. But above all else there will need to be changes in the politics of public sector management if reforms are to be successful and the ADB’s promised ‘performance based public sector’ becomes a reality.