Successful policy transfer and public sector reform in developing countries

Ugyel and DaugbjergLhawang Ugyel and Carsten Daugbjerg

The scope and intensity of policy transfer—defined as the process in which policies and institutions from one time and/or place are used in another time and/or place—has increased in the last two decades. An area where extensive policy transfer occurs is public sector reform. In particular, developing countries frequently draw heavily on New Public Management (NPM) practices originally designed for Western democracies. Perceived as best practices, NPM-related reforms influenced the good governance agenda for most developing countries in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They were based on market-like characteristics such as performance management systems and citizens’ charters. Developing countries have found these reforms irresistible, as they face a huge need to grow their economies and shrink their governments. Amidst the expansion of the practice of policy transfer, early studies assumed that a key to successful transfer was the transfer of policy models in their entirety. However, recent research – including our own article in Policy & Politics – suggests that local adaption is essential for success.   

The introduction and implementation of the Position Classification System (PCS) in Bhutan in 2006, a developing country in South Asia, illustrates a case study in which a developing country has maintained control over the transfer of public sector reforms. The PCS is a set of administrative arrangements that combines various public sector reforms, including components of NPM. The main motivations for introducing the PCS were internally driven. It sought to address some of the inherent weaknesses of the previous administrative system. Another motivation behind the desire to transfer the PCS from abroad was the influence of new management ideas and changes that were taking place globally and within the country. An evaluation of the PCS conducted in 2011reported that the overall perception of the reforms was that they had been successful.

Based on the evaluation of the PCS as being successful, the analysis of the introduction and implementation of the PCS in Bhutan highlights two conditions that are key to enabling domestic control of the policy transfer process. The first is a strong internal motivation for engaging in policy transfer, and the second is the establishment or adaption of institutions to manage processes of policy transfer. The central domestic institution governing the formulation and implementation of the PCS was the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) and its secretariat which has functioned as the central personnel agency for all civil servants in Bhutan since its establishment in the early 1980s. The RCSC Secretariat, as the coordinating agency, was centrally positioned in the network consisting of the PCS sub-committees, PCS representatives from the agencies, stakeholders (the Bhutanese civil servants placed in various ministries and agencies), and international advisors/consultants. The RCSC enabled domestic transfer agents to remain at the centre of the process managing relationships with the other actors in the network. Thus, the interaction and formulation of the policy transfer were controlled by domestic transfer agents which allowed them to control the outcomes of the PCS reforms. From a policy transfer perspective, the focus on institutions can contribute to improving our understanding of the transfer process, particularly in developing countries. When these conditions apply, a developing country can engage in effective voluntary policy transfer while retaining control of the process.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Ugyel, Lhawang; Daugbjerg, Carsten (2020) ‘Successful policy transfer and public sector reform in developing countries’ , Policy & Politics, DOI:

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