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From Ideas to Implementation: How to Improve Capacity for Better Public Leaders

One key element of good urban governance is institutional capacity. Local governments need to be well-equipped and well-trained in order to effectively implement green policies and programs. (Photo: Nico Borges / Flickr)

How do we make cities work for people? As a WRI Helms Fellow on Urban Governance and Sustainable Cities, Maria Antonia Tigre was tasked with answering this question. Through From ideas to implementation: making sustainable cities through governance here on TheCityFix, Maria will draw on her field research in two Brazilian cities—Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo—to explore the key governance gaps in urban planning, law, public policy, and institutions. Each part of the series will examine how reforms to urban governance can ensure that city-level decision making is transparent, inclusive, and accountable.


When I was in law school, roughly 80 percent of my classmates wanted to be in public service. While with good intentions, many of these individuals sought out public service primarily for its promise of a stable career and good salary—instead of an eagerness to serve the public. As I would learn years later, one of the main problems affecting institutional capacity in Brazil is the lack of vocation for public service.

Challenges Facing Institutional Capacity in Brazil

Public service is a demanding field with challenges on both the individual and institutional level. On the individual level, many public servants are simply not prepared for the responsibilities that the job thrusts upon them.  This is not the fault of the workers themselves, but is a problem with Brazil’s hiring and training process. Indeed, to become a public servant, citizens must prepare for and pass a standardized test that is too theoretical. As a result, once in office, many officials find it difficult to apply what they learned in training to the everyday demands of their jobs.

Furthermore, when these individuals make mistakes, it is often extremely difficult to hold them responsible for their actions. This is because many public servants are guaranteed stability for life once they pass the entrance exam; consequently, officials are fired only in the most egregious of cases.

On the institutional side, government personnel often face insufficient budgets and lack critical resources, such as computers and advanced technology. The combination of poor resources and a lack of internal communication means that the tools at government officials’ disposal are regularly subpar.

In order to address these issues, developing countries need improved institutional capacity. But how do we do create capable, better-equipped public officials?

Three Steps to Improving Institutional Capacity

Improving institutional capacity is challenging at best. At worst, it can require a shift of an entire system, enormous political will, or a lot of money and time. However, there are more expeditious steps available that address many of the problems associated with institutional capacity:

1)  Diversifying and Reprioritizing Funds: Unfortunately, many cities find themselves struggling to provide basic public services, as they face insufficient budgets and growing populations, which strain existing programs. Therefore, the first and perhaps most difficult solution is to seek out diverse funding sources.

  • One option is to decentralize basic services; for example, Brazil has had some success in privatizing electricity and airports. In addition, governments can cut spending on discretionary expenses that don’t require a change in law, like unnecessary social programs.
  • While governments are often suspicious of outside financial assistance, being transparent and consulting external sources is an effective way to receive feedback on budget changes. For example, reaching out to local university scholars, like New York City has, may be helpful in finding alternative ways to balance a budget.

2)  Internal Communication: Government officials often lack effective pathways for open communication. Establishing these connections is a twofold process:

  • Cities must ensure that dialogues between government officials, departments, and city stakeholders are taking place. Cross-pollination between teams is a highly effective way to optimize resources and avoid duplicated or contradictory work. This could be accomplished by hiring or designating staff to periodically communicate between departments and share information.
  • Knowledge and data should be systematically distributed and decentralized so that local governments can learn from one another. One way to achieve this is by systematizing information or creating open source data, like the Open Innovation Initiative.

3)  Training: While structural change can be difficult to do, implementing better training programs can be a quick and relatively easy way to bolster institutional capacity. For example, by attending training sessions developed by universities, public servants can learn about new technology and learn more effective ways to go about their daily tasks. Training has been proven essential to motivating employees and making sure they have the technical know-how to perform their jobs.

While building institutional capacity can require a lot of effort, having a well-trained and well-equipped staff is key for good governance. Indeed, sustainable cities are not just about combating pollution and greening public spaces, but also creating a local government that is self-sufficient and responsive to the needs of its people.

Improving Institutional Capacity is part four in our series From Ideas to Implementation. Click to read: part one here; part two; part three.

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