How context matters – a tale of two education bureaucracies

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A common conceit among visionary politicians and ambitious technocrats  is that their actions are decisive in shaping what outcomes are, or are not, achieved – they are the heroes (or villains) of the saga. But attention must also be paid to the role of context:

  • How does political and institutional context influence the quality of public education bureaucracies?
  • What are the limits of top-down bureaucratic approaches to improving learning outcomes?
  • How can participatory approaches help improve learning outcomes – both as a complement to bureaucracy, and as a partial substitute in contexts where bureaucracy is weak?

This post explores these questions by contrasting the education bureaucracies of South Africa’s  Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces; a companion post contrasts the Western Cape and Kenya. [Both posts build on the findings of a new book, co-authored/edited with colleagues from the University of Cape Town,  The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of two South African Provinces,  published this month by Oxford University Press and available here, by agreement with OUP, for free download.]

The message of the two posts is paradoxical. Unsurprisingly,  the results confirm that having a good quality bureaucracy (which the Western Cape does) is an important asset. But, as the Eastern Cape experience underscores, context constrains the potential for strengthening bureaucracies. Further, it turns out that the ‘evocation of agency’ – of commitment of a wide variety of stakeholders to engage in ways which support learning –  can at least partially offset (and even, as the discussion of Kenya will show,  over-ride) bureaucratic weakness. Narrow pre-occupations with ‘fixing’ bureaucracies can distract attention from other, potentially more fruitful pathways towards improving learning outcomes.

Measured by both managerial quality and learning outcomes,the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) strongly outperforms its counterpart, the Eastern Cape Department of Education (ECDOE):

  • In 2012, South Africa’s national Presidency’s  Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation undertook Management  Performance Assessment Tests (MPATs) of public organizations and departments at both national and provincial-level. The MPATs used an assessment scale of Level 1 (lowest) to Level 4 (highest) for thirty-one key performance indicators.  Of the nine provincial education departments, the WCED received far and away the highest rating,  with 45 percent of all indicators rated at Level 4. The Eastern Cape rated lowest, with only 24 percent at Level 3 or above.
  • In a 2007 assessment of Grade 6 mathematics capabilities conducted by the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ), the Western Cape was the highest scorer among South Africa’s provinces with a median score was 566 points. The Eastern Cape’s score of 454 was the second lowest in the country. Econometric analysis of the SACMEQ results (in chapter 6 of the book) found that the performance differences remained robust even  after  a variety of  factors (including socio-economic circumstances,  teacher skills and experience, and parental participation at the school level) are controlled for.
  • South Africa participated in 2003, 2011 and 2015 in the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) global standardized assessment of 8th & 9th grade performance. In 2003 the Western Cape was  the best performer among South Africa’s provinces, scoring 410 points. (The overall South African average was 285 points.) However, over the subsequent twelve years the Western Cape score declined modestly, to 391 points in 2015 (the second best provincial score) – even as the overall South African average rose to 368 points. (The Eastern Cape’s TIMSS score rose from 250 in 2003 to 346 in 2015.)

“Success”, it sometimes is said “has many fathers, while failure is an orphan”.  By contrast, Marx’s dictum reminds us that people “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”  Indeed, the economic, social, political and institutional contexts of the two provinces are vastly different –  with large consequences for how their bureaucracies function.

The Western Cape emerges as an unusually propitious setting for bureaucratic functioning vis-à-vis  four well-known causal mechanisms which link context and bureaucratic quality.  The Eastern Cape context, by contrast,  poses a perfect storm of obstacles to the emergence developmentally-oriented bureaucratic capability.

  • Causal mechanism #1: social class influences the effectiveness of citizens’ demands on bureaucrats and politicians for decent public services – with middle class citizens generally better positioned than their low-income counterparts to exercise voice in response to poor quality services, and mismanagement and corruption more broadly.

The Western Cape is the more affluent province, with a per capita income about three times that of the Eastern Cape.  As of 2014, 70 percent of the Eastern Cape’s population was ‘chronically poor’ (with an additional 15 percent highly vulnerable to falling into poverty). In the Western Cape, by contrast, only 25 percent of the population is ‘chronically poor’ (and an additional 35 percent ‘vulnerable’. The ‘middle class’ and above accounts for 40 percent of the Western Cape population; the comparable share in the Eastern Cape is 15 percent.

  • Causal mechanism #2: citizens will be better positioned to exert demand-side pressure for decent public services in settings where elections are competitive than in those where politicians can take the support (or acquiescence) of citizens for granted, independent of how well they govern.

 Elections have been much more strongly contested in the Western Cape than in the Eastern Cape. Over the course of the first two decades of democracy, it has had seven different governing political parties and coalitions.  How a party governed while in power – whether it was perceived to use public resources well or for more narrowly personal and political purposes – mattered for its electoral prospects going forward. By contrast, in the Eastern Cape, the African National Congress has been electorally dominant. In 1994 it won 84 percent of the vote in the province; this percentage declined subsequently, but as of 2015 had not fallen below 70 percent.  As chapters 4, 5 and 7 of the book detail, the differences between the two provinces in electoral competitiveness are rooted in part in demography, and in part in history.

  • Causal mechanism #3: Whether politicians focus their efforts to win political support on patronage and clientelism or on commitments to provide quality public services depends on whether voters will find the latter credible – which in turn is influenced by inherited institutional legacies.

The Western Cape inherited a bureaucracy which could straightforwardly respond to the relatively strong effective demand of citizens for services. (See chapter 4 of the book, co-authored with Robert Cameron, for details.) During the apartheid era, alongside ‘white’ political and bureaucratic structures, the apartheid government had established a parallel ‘parliament’ and bureaucracy, the (‘coloured’) House of Representatives (HoR).   The ‘white’ civil service and the HoR bureaucracy together were responsible for the provision of services (including education services) to the large majority of the Western Cape population.  Both South Africa’s ‘white’ public service and the HoR bureaucracy were steeped in traditional public administration, albeit with an apartheid bent. In the decades since the dawn of democracy, the Western Cape has diligently implemented a variety of performance management initiatives – some homegrown, others devised at national level.

In the Eastern Cape, by contrast,  so-called ‘bantustans’ comprised the crucial institutional legacy from apartheid.  Two-thirds of the Eastern Cape’s total 2015 population of 6.9 million people reside in areas which formerly had been part of either the Transkei or Ciskei bantustans (both nominally independent, but recognised as such only by the apartheid South African government). The two bantustans had been organised along personalised, patronage lines.   As chapter 5 of the book details, these patronage patterns carried forward into the workings of the Eastern Cape province.

Weakness of the Eastern Cape bureaucracy at the outset of the democratic era meant that, even under the best of circumstances, persuading citizens that promises to provide decent services would be credible would be an uphill challenge. But the circumstances prevailing in the province were especially unpropitious.

  • Causal mechanism #4: The extent of intra-elite contestation within a governing party matters for the quality of service provision – high contestation weakens the party’s ability to govern the poliical-bureaucratic interface.

In the wake of the dissolution of the Transkei and Ciskei bantustans, a large majority of their political and bureaucratic elites (and also many ordinary citizens) joined the ANC – not out of conviction, but as members of convenience. Further, the (non-bantustan) Eastern Cape ANC was itself hardly an ideologically unified party.  The result was that the Eastern Cape ANC was less a disciplined, programmatically-oriented political organization than an overall umbrella beneath which inter-elite contestation was endemic with (as chapter 5 details) continual turnover of top provincial and bureaucratic leaders.  This continuing contestation afforded the ANC’s provincial leadership neither the authority nor the longer time horizon needed to translate electoral dominance into a commitment to better service provision.

The above  is not intended to imply that there is no scope for provincial-level leaders (both political and technocratic) to improve education bureaucracies. But it does imply that these individual efforts can be supported by (or confounded by) context:

  • In the Western Cape, the four causal mechanisms were mutually-reinforcing in a way which underpinned a high-level equilibrium of a capable bureaucracy. Political leaders could build on these strengths – or, conversely, create pressures for their corrosion – but over the short-to-medium-term their impact, for good or ill, has been on the margin.
  • In the Eastern Cape, by contrast, mutually-reinforcing causal mechanisms locked-in a low-level equilibrium. In such contexts, in the absence of far-reaching political change, technocratic tinkering to improve bureaucratic performance is unlikely to gain traction. Indeed, the province provides striking evidence for this last conclusion. In March 2011 national government intervened, and temporarily took over administration of the ECDoE. But this did not stem the crisis. Provincial politics trumped the efforts of national-level technocrats. After a few years, intervention was scaled back, having had only a limited impact.

Insofar as context sets the bounds of reform, the implications for improving learning outcomes in settings where  bureaucracy is weak  might seem bleak. But is bureaucracy destiny? Or might there be ways of achieving gains which are not dependent on prior improvements in bureaucratic capabilities? This brings us to Kenya – a focus of the next post in this series.

You can also follow me on Twitter @brianlevy387

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One response

  1. Pingback: Process compliance versus the evocation of agency – some lessons from Kenya « WORKING WITH THE GRAIN: Integrating governance and growth

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