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Five key lessons on effective governance reform from SPARC Nigeria

Eldis editor Alan Stanley was invited to Abuja recently to attend the State Partnership for Accountability, Responsiveness and Capability (SPARC) end-of-programme learning event. Based on what he heard he highlights five key lessons from the programme on effective governance reform. 

Back in 2013, after some brief meetings and correspondence via email, Eldis began a content partnership with the State Partnership for Accountability, Responsiveness and Capability (SPARC). The programme, an initiative of the Nigerian and UK Governments which started back in 2008, recently drew to a close with a high-profile learning event titled “Expanding Horizons” held in Abuja. Over the few years of our engagement with SPARC what really stood out for me was their approach to documenting and sharing learning within the programme and their commitment to sharing that learning as widely as they could beyond the core group of stakeholders they work with. I was really pleased, therefore, to get an invitation to take part in the learning event, to speak to those involved and to find out more about their work.

Dr. Joe Abah, Director General, Bureau of Public Service Reforms, presenting on “Swimming Against the Tide: Lessons from Public Service Reforms in Developing Countries” at Expanding Horizons 2016.  Credit: SPARC 2016



Dr. Joe Abah, Director General, Bureau of Public Service Reforms, presenting on “Swimming Against the Tide: Lessons from Public Service Reforms in Developing Countries” at Expanding Horizons 2016.Photo Credit: SPARC 2016

Margarita Aswani, the Senior Knowledge Management Advisor for the programme, summarised how and why they have emphasised learning in such an embedded way across the programme.

“The objective of SPARC has been to improve governance and reduce poverty in Nigeria. The programme supported governance reforms in 10 of Nigeria's 36 states: Anambra, Enugu, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Lagos, Niger, Yobe and Zamfara. To underpin work in states, SPARC also supported a number of federal agencies that incentivise governance reform at state level. During the seven years of the programme, Nigerian partners and SPARC generated a wealth of information and knowledge, set up many processes and procedures to improve governance, and developed a range of tools for working effectively and efficiently. 

But in reforming governance, the nuts and bolts of how and why reforms take place are often forgotten. From the start, SPARC recognised the value of documenting the experiences, challenges, setbacks, triumphs and lessons learned, and emphasised sharing information on how states tackle change, each in their own way, influencing wider change and inspiring a public service ‘performance culture’ in Nigeria.”

The Expanding Horizons learning event was an extension of this approach and brought together influential government and development partners from state and federal levels, academics and knowledge leaders to collaborate and reshape Nigeria's future. The goal of the event was to expose participants to critical tools and resources from development partners who work to support governance reform in Nigeria, to interact with global institutions who have been successfully sharing knowledge around reforms, and to have an opportunity to network and interact with federal and state level colleagues currently pursuing reforms in their various capacities. 

Among the notable reforms we heard about were:

  • Budgets are more realistic

  • State Development Plans and Medium-Term Sector Strategies better reflect policy priorities and are linked to annual budgets

  • Locally devised strategies improve collection of revenues due

  • Rising demand for statistics and evidence-based policies

  • Government processes are more gender sensitive

From an external perspective what I found particularly interesting concerned the broader lessons that can be taken from the programme and the discussion around the extent to which these are transferable and can be applied in other contexts. Dr Joe Abah, the Director General of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms in Nigeria, and formerly the National Programme Manager for SPARC, gave a thoughtful presentation that highlighted a number of these lessons that included.

  • Copying models blindly from elsewhere does not work - reforms tailored to the local context have a better chance of success

  • Ignoring the politics and taking a purely technocratic approach is a sure way to fail

  • Even in the most difficult institutional environments, exceptional, well-performing government organisations exist

  • Sudden and drastic downsizing of government institutions has not worked but gradual approaches to reducing size and cost have worked

  • Monitoring public sector performance is difficult but rewarding - evaluating results helps to connect with the public
View the full presentation here...

What’s great about SPARC is that, as a programme, it is not only able to distil this learning but, through their Resource Centre, can provide access to a broad range of reports, reviews, manuals and toolkits to support decision-makers and practitioners to apply those lessons. The learning event saw the launch of the final 2016 version of the Resource Centre which adds more than 150 new resources, bringing the total to over 600 in all. Each resource has been through a robust quality check and includes a brief summary to allow readers to quickly decide whether or not a resource is of interest.

Related Resources


Browse the online SPARC Resource Centre

Explore what SPARC considers to be key resources for governance in Nigeria. You can simply start searching by keyword or be guided by their section headings to explore a particular subject that interests you.

View all the presentations from the Expanding Horizons learning event

All presentations and other materials from the SPARC hosted end-of-programme learning event, “Expanding Horizons,” are available via their website.


View the SPARC profile on Eldis

View the Eldis profile for the SPARC programme and browse more than 150 reports, reviews and toolkits from the Resource Centre that have been shared on Eldis.

Eldis Governance Resource Guide

Browse the Eldis collection of more than 7000 documents on democratic governance, fragile states, institutional development, justice, good governance, public sector & service delivery and urban governance.

Our top five SPARC Resource Centre documents on Eldis

Guide to developing medium-term sector strategies
State Partnership for Accountability, Responsiveness and Capability 2012
This guide is a tool that has been produced to help state public servants who are involved in developing strategies. The guide is intended to be used, in the first instance, in discussions with senior state civil servants to introduce...
Knowledge management strategic plan
State Partnership for Accountability, Responsiveness and Capability 2012
The SPARC Knowledge Management Strategic Plan sets out the approach to knowledge management in SPARC. It includes a communication strategy to support knowledge management. This is the third revision of the plan. The strategy de...
Knowledge management toolkit for communities of practice
State Partnership for Accountability, Responsiveness and Capability 2010
This SPARC Knowledge Management Toolkit briefly describes the knowledge management cycle and how it can provide a working framework for communities of practice – people with common concerns or problems – to extract and sha...
Overview of Kaduna State economy 2002–2008
State Partnership for Accountability, Responsiveness and Capability 2010
This report presents the state gross domestic product (SGDP) for Kaduna State at current and real prices 2002–2008. Making decisions in an open, liberal, market economy requires quality information. In Nigeria, the quality of da...
Mandate mapping shows the way to better governance
State Partnership for Accountability, Responsiveness and Capability 2011
The improvement of governance is one of SPARC's primary aims in its support for Nigeria to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). A fundamental of good governance is that the responsibilities and structures of key ministries...
Banner image credit: SPARC 2016. One of the participants at Expanding Horizons 2016 examining SPARC learning tools on display.


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