Speech at the Opening Ceremony of the 5th Annual Meeting of China Society for Public Sector Reform and the Seminar on Government Responsibility System

11 May 2013

Speech by Ms. Renata Lok-Dessallien, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative
At Zhengzhou, Henan Province

Honourable President Huang Wenping,
Honourable Vice Governor Li Ke,
Distinguished Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen,

A very good morning to all of you. It is a great pleasure and an honour to join you at the 5th Annual Meeting of the China Society for Public Sector Reform and this Seminar on government responsibility systems. I would like to extend my special thanks to the China Society for Public Sector Reform for inviting UNDP to this important event and to the Henan Provincial authorities for their very warm welcome and hospitality in this beautiful and historical venue and city.

Since the 4th Annual Meeting of this Society in Nanjing last year, there have been some very important developments in government reform in China. The 18th Party Congress stressed the need for further government reform, underscoring in depth transformation of government functions by separating government administration from the management of enterprises, state assets, public institutions and social organisations. This reinforces China’s latest round of government reforms that has focused on decentralisation, transformation of government functions, supra-Ministerial reform, departmental accountability system, and classification of administrative levels and administrative divisions. In March this year, the 2nd plenary session of the 18th Party Congress unveiled a new plan for further delegation of power to the market, to society and to local government, and to reduce government involvement in certain local issues. Over 600 administrative approval items concerning over 30 central ministries or departments will be delegated. China is also striving to build an efficient and law-based government with a clear division of power and labour, especially between policy-making, implementation and supervisory functions, and well-defined responsibilities. The comprehensive road map on government reform is very rich in detail and precise in its targets.

Our discussion today on the government responsibility system is therefore very timely. None of the above mentioned reforms are possible without an internal responsibility system that streamlines the relationships and functions between different departments and different layers of government, and clarifies roles and expected results. As China embarks on its current transition from a predominantly export oriented to a consumption based economy, and as the Chinese society becomes more educated and complex with many new social needs and demands, the importance of an effective government responsibility system cannot be overstated.  It is vital to keeping the economy and the society dynamic and resilient.   

Through my work in other countries, I have seen that an efficient and law-based government with clear division of powers and labour, and well-defined responsibilities is vital to economic development and social progress. Unfortunately, it is often difficult for governments’ to keep up with the fast pace of change in their societies.  Despite reasonably good governance reform plans, many governments are often outpaced by economic and social problems and demands.  Serious gaps often emerge between people’s aspirations and expectations and government performance. This constitutes a major obstacle to national development and can even lead to social unrest.

So how can governments keep pace with such rapid changes so as to continue to meet society’s requirements?  More specifically, how can a government develop a robust responsibility system that achieves this aim?  Many things are required for this, so I will highlight just a few.    

First, I think there needs to be a good balance between the articulation of the vision at the top and the space for innovation and contextual specificity at lower levels.  The central government needs to explain what it means by “government responsibility system” in general enough terms to allow for local specificity, but clear enough so that everyone can understand and can move to the same direction.  The central government needs to convey the spirit and essence of the reforms – clarifying what problems the reforms will solve and what the end objectives and results are sought.  The central government also needs to set parameters and red lines for the reforms, and they need indicate the big deadlines.  This is important at the onset of the reforms so ensure that the reform efforts at lower levels are in tune with the vision and that energies are not wasted.  Lower levels of government then need to internalise the vision and strategy and concretise them within the parameters given.  Ideally, there is a lot of iteration between the top and bottom throughout the reform process to ensure a good link between the visiton/strategy and the reality on the ground.  So it is dynamic process:  top down and bottom up.  China knows this well as China has been implementing reforms organically in this way for many, many years.  But every time there is a new wave of reform, there is a need to calibrate this balance carefully, to watch it carefully over time and make adjustments as needed along the path of reform.  During my stay in China, I have noticed that sometimes the central government, in its efforts to provide space for a broad diversity of different local situation, and in its efforts to stimulate a culture of local level innovation and problem solving, sometimes it does not provide enough clarify on the vision and parameters of the reform strategy from the beginning.  Emphasis is placed more on “crossing the stream by feeling the stones”.  While this is very pragmatic and very necessary in such a large country as China containing such diversity, I still think that perhaps greater clarity from the top at the onset of reforms would bring beneficial results.

Second, a government responsibility system requires a clear and optimal allocation of functions.  China’s leaders have stated that they wish to move toward a smaller government, focusing its functions primarily on policy, facilitative roles, supervisory functions and regulation, allocating other functions to private sector and social organisations.  It also wants to devolve power from higher to lower levels of government.  This is absolutely necessary in such a large country as China with a rapidly changing society.  This aspect of the reform means changing mindsets and moving from an idea of comprehensive government to a whole other idea of a small, specialised government.  We are all human and we know how hard it is to change our habits of thinking and behaving.  So for a whole government to change its way of thinking and behaving is a daunting task.  The natural tendency will be to try to retain as much power and as many functions as possible.  Because it is painful, it is best if this is done as quickly as possible.  Other reforms can take time to develop, but this one should probably be bold and brief in duration.  

Once decisions have been reached on functional reallocations, they will need to be formalised (probably through legal instruments) and then operationalised through a system of performance accountability. This is my third point.  Government departments and the people that work in them need systems that keep them accountable for the results of their work. Currently, these systems are too personalised and they need to be institutionalised.  This requires clear job descriptions and terms of reference linked up to the big departmental goals and objectives.  It requires clear annual work plans that spell out the results on which performance will be assessed. And it requires clear performance indicators against which individual and departmental results can be assessed.  Each of these tools is important and one reinforces the other in a logical sequence.  But while they are all important, perhaps the single most important one is the individual performance indicators.  Only this triggers the significant behavioural change required by a major public administration reform effort to produce a responsible government system.  These performance indicators should be formal and fully understood by all, so they trigger the desired performance by units and individuals.  

Fourth, a responsive government and a good government responsibility system is easier to achieve when government processes are more open and democratic. Perhaps in the past, when China was less developed and the society was less complex, this was not so pressing.  But as the country has developed, it is becoming more and more necessary both on the supply side and on the demand side of governance.  On the supply side, the government side, opening up more to the public can produce invaluable ideas and solutions that might not normally emerge from within the government.  It can stimulate innovative thinking and solutions.  It can also help cut through red tape and excessive bureaucratic culture.  Sometimes, it can even constrain certain types of abuse of power and corruption.  And it can build understanding and positive public opinion of government, and even trust. From the demand side, society’s side, involvement in government decisions not only opens constructive, creative avenues for people to engage with government which are appreciated, it also helps people understand different groups’ points of view on public issues, to follow deliberative processes more carefully and understand why government takes certain decisions.  This can help build their faith in government.  In addition, this kind of engagement with the public allows society to let off steam. The importance of such steam valves cannot be overstated.  They are essential for all large, complex societies such as China.  China has piloted a large number of approaches to engage and consult with the public and invite feedback on a large board of government activity.  So there is an impressive body of experience to draw on for scaling up.    This will go a long way toward breathing new vitality, creativity and resilience into the government.

Fifthly, today’s problems rarely fall into neat sectoral categorizations.  They are often big, complex, and cross-sectoral in nature and require big, coherent, cross-sectoral responses from government. But ministries and departments are largely organised along sectoral lines and it is often difficult for them to work together to find and implement coherent, cross-sectoral solutions to society’s challenges. The latest supra-ministry reforms have addressed some of these challenges which is heartening, but no amount of structural reform can address the totality of this challenge. Governments around the world, not only in China, are struggling with this. The natural tendency is to push these coordination challenges upward.  While coordination will always remain a principle preoccupation of top government organs, it is also necessary for greater coordination at all levels. Some governments are therefore introducing new, and flexible methods of facilitating inter-departmental work, new performance results frameworks that are inter-departmental, and some are changing the incentive structure to reward cadres who reach out beyond their departments to involve other relevant parts of the government.  As China embarks on its 7th round of government reform, it will be important to also look for ways of cutting across the silo tendencies of ministries and departments so as to ensure complex challenges are addressed holistically, at different levels of the system.   

In China, as in other countries, building a good public administration is a long and sometimes painful task. Great achievements have been made by China during the previous six rounds of government reform over three decades. China’s long journey of experimentation and innovation in public sector reform is deeply impressive by any standard.  But the road ahead is still long and will not be easy. It is made even more challenging by the fact that as citizens become more educated, they become more demanding of their government and develop a stronger desire to participate, make suggestions and be heard.  The rapid rise of China’s middle and upper class is a wonderful achievement, but it will place ever more demands on public service delivery. The best way to respond positively to this will be to open up to a more consultative government style, to specialise government functions and delegate functions to lowers of government, the private sector and social organisations, and to develop a rigorous accountability framework, with an emphasis on results oriented performance assessment, with clear indicators of success.  And the more the performance assessment system can factor in the public’s opinion of the results, the more robust the system will be.  This will also help develop a more client orientation and service orientation attitude in the government.

I hope these few reflections on some of the challenges ahead will be useful in some way.  As mentioned, they are areas that many, many governments around the world are working toward and some of their experience may be helpful for China to consider.  I am very cognisant of the fact in China, change is happening at a much faster pace than in many other parts of the globe.  So you are all handling multiple reforms simultaneously on different levels, which makes the introductions of new changes to the basic systems of government a very delicate process.  It is all the more delicate as many of the changes require big shifts in institutional culture and mindsets and those are the hardest changes to make.  And all these changes must be carefully articulated together in a coherent package where the different reform strands positively reinforce each other for the best results. We are very impressed by the new leadership and new government’s determination to carry out the next round of bold government reform to enhance the government responsibility system, reduce corruption and modernise the bureaucracy in line with growing expectations by the public. We have every reason to believe that with your extensive reform experience, your collective wisdom and your bold determination, this new round of government reform will be successful.

For more than half a century, the United Nations Development Programme has been providing support for public administration and civil service reform to over 100 Countries around the world.  Here in China, UNDP has provided technical support and sharing international experience at the request of our Chinese partners, the State Commission Office for Public Sector Reform and the China Society for Public Sector Reform, for over 2 decades. UNDP is deeply honoured to further assist China in building an effective government responsibility system and fulfilling other targets in the 7th round of government reform. We fully understand that China’s circumstances are unique and that China must find its own distinct way forward. So the cross-country, international experience that UNDP brings is merely food for thought.  
Once again, I’d like to thank the China Society for Public Sector Reform and the Henan Provincial authorities for inviting UNDP to today’s seminar. Permit me to take this opportunity to express our sincere gratitude to our counterparts for their excellent partnership, their outstanding support and their highly valued friendship. I am sure you all share my expectations of great success from this seminar, and I look forward to further fruitful collaborations such as this in the future.

Thank you very much!