What are the limitations of working with the grain?

direction_signsWhen does a call to ‘work with the grain’  violate foundational ethical commitments? Governance reversals globally have given new urgency to this question; it has recently been posed  both in Oxfam’s blog and in the London School of Economics Public Authority  blog series. The new year seems like a good time to share my views, in the form of five guideposts.

When I wrote Working with the Grain (WWG) in the early  2010s,  my intent was to provide a road map for pragmatism. At the time, it was plausible to think that, haltingly and unevenly, the arc of the moral universe was bending towards justice.   But five years later there’s no avoiding the rise of polarization, ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism.  In such a time, a call to engage pragmatically with power might seem hollow – or worse. What, then, is to be done?

  • Guidepost #1: Distinguish between critical junctures and the (generally long) intervals between them.

This guidepost follows directly from the logic of  ‘political settlements’. As per Mushtaq Khan, a political settlement prevails where  “the distribution of benefits supported  by its institutions is consistent with the distribution of power in society – and the economic and political outcome of these institutions is sustainable over time.  Approaches to engagement at critical junctures are thus qualitatively different from those in a time of stability.  In writing WWG, my  principal focus was on the latter. Hence:

  • Guidepost #2: During periods of stability, anchor reform efforts within an understanding of the political and institutional incentives and constraints which prevail in a particular context.

WWG aimed to identify a variety of distinct contexts, each comprising a distinctive platform for development, with   distinctive incentives for the participants, distinctive constraints and risks, and distinctive frontier challenges.  Directing attention to  these  incentives and constraints was intended to  provide a platform for identifying specific ‘good fit’ policy actions which are both worthwhile and feasible, given country-specific institutional realities.

Working along these lines  is very different from ‘going with the flow’ —  it is a call to work creatively within  the broader prevailing policy, institutional and political realities. Thus:

  • Guidepost #3: A ‘with the grain’ approach need not be timidly incremental – its aim is to encourage  reflection as to the merits of a spectrum of context-specific entry points for achieving specific policy, sectoral and institutional goals.

As illustrated by the figure below (taken from WWG), in working to address some specific reform challenge there is a  spectrum of options. At one end are narrowly incremental options, aligned with the existing space for reform; at the other end is the option of engaging with stakeholders to expand the space for reform.  At every level of decision-making, reformers (in government, civil society, or the donor community) must clarify how to position their engagement along this spectrum. While during periods of political stability,  room for maneuver generally is likely to be limited vis-à-vis reforms of a country’s core governance arrangements, at more micro-levels the scope to be pro-active in working to ease constraints potentially is larger along both trajectories.



Adapt design to align                              Expand reform space                                                          with existing reform space                                                      __________________________________________

But how to proceed when the broader political and institutional environment is itself in question?  In a 2017 review of Duncan Green’s important book, How Change Happens, I distinguished between the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of reform. The  ‘how’ task  was,  as Duncan put it, to learn to “dance with the system”. But pre-occupation with the ‘how’, with pragmatic responses to very specific problems, ceded to ideologues of both the right and the left  the terrain of  broader discourse as to public purpose. In consequence:

“we lost sight of the dynamics of power – specifically of the power of political parties to mobilize on the basis of ideas and incentives which we easily dismissed as reactionary. In so doing, we ceded the terrain of contestation over the largest political prize of all — control over state institutions – to actors and ideas which  we presumed had been consigned to the dustbin of history. ….And then, one bleak morning after another, we awoke to discover that the terrain had shifted radically, that control over state institutions was shifting, and that our hard-won incremental gains risked being washed away by tidal waves of reaction…..Today’s times require heightened attention to the vision towards which change efforts are directed; we need a new balance between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’”. Hence:

  • Guidepost #4: Context –  time as well as place —   shapes whether or not a ‘with the grain’ approach is a useful way forward.

In some times and places, reform might focus most effectively on modest incremental changes; in others, there might be scope for expanding the range of stakeholders engaged in specific reform efforts; in yet others, fundamental questions as to the way forward may be on the agenda.  This is what (as of 2019)  I mean by ‘working with the grain’. No one size fits all.

This brings me to the ‘what’ of reform.  At critical junctures, when foundational political and institutional challenges are in play, there are obvious limitations to with-the-grain incrementalism.  But even at these junctures,  the spirit of WWG  has a distinctive implication (one to which I remain strongly committed) – it redirects  attention away from polarized debates about fanciful ends towards pragmatic exploration of what Albert Hirschman termed ‘a passion for the possible’. This is especially relevant for efforts to transform governance.

Over the long-run,  good governance may indeed be a destination to which, as countries develop, their  governance systems converge. But the  ability to describe the characteristics of effective states – of well-functioning public sectors, of a robust rule-of-law —  does not  conjure them into existence out of thin air. Best practices approaches   assume that all policies and institutions are potentially move-able, and can be aligned to fit some pre-specified blueprint. But they cannot. The empirical evidence (which I laid out here and  here) signals unequivocally the failure  over the past quarter-century of efforts to leapfrog by re-engineering.  Indeed, as I explored in depth in a review of Bill Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts,  scholars underscore that historically the  process of strengthening the rule of law played out over many centuries; it was long, messy and circuitous, fraught with violence, and variable in its outcome. Hence:

  • Guidepost #5: Avoid fanciful counterfactuals of what is possible -the evolution of ‘foundational’ institutions from personalized to impersonal is a slow, cumulative process. 

It is easy (and seductive) to preach Manichean visions of perfection and evil; if one has no real interest in governing effectively then there is no reason to exercise restraint. But, as history teaches us,  the consequences can be  the opposite of  the initial good intentions.  (This last caution applies with particular force to outsiders to a particular country context seeking to support improvements in governance, who do not have to live with the consequences of their efforts.  They could usefully work harder to embrace the precautionary principle of ‘first, do no harm’.)

In bringing the pragmatic spirit of WWG to the challenge of the ‘what’, the task is to communicate two superficially contradictory ideas at the same time: that embracing a vision of inclusion and stewardship in a thriving society offers a pathway to a fulfilling life – and that the quest to realize that vision will be challenging, fraught with obstacles. As I put it in an earlier piece:

Vision, process and strategy can become a mutually reinforcing pathway of democratic development. An inclusive vision brings the promise of dignity to center stage;  an inclusive process is one that systematically affirms that dignity; and an inclusive strategy  offers ample opportunity for the practice of ‘active citizenship’ for engagement among equals. In its essence, what democracy offers – and authoritarian alternatives do not – is an invitation to citizens to work to shape their own lives and to participate peacefully in the shaping of their societies, according to their distinctive visions of freedom and justice.  This journey is a challenging one – with much democratic ‘messiness’, and corresponding disappointment along the way. But no matter how challenging the journey, once the invitation to engage has been embraced, the personal dignity it offers cannot be taken away. This invitation, not empty guarantees of success,  is at the core of the democratic vision — its inspiration, its source of sustainability.”

All for learning – addressing South Africa’s education crisis

brianlevyEduPart3-1600x991“Madness”, Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “is doing the same thing again and again, and expecting a different result”. This is a not-unreasonable description of the discourse of how to improve South Africa’s education system (and systems in many other countries, too). Study after study gets conducted; many show, in one carefully controlled setting or another, how  this-or-that intervention demonstrably improves learning outcomes. Then comes the inevitable corollary proposal: “Fix the bureaucracy – and have it scale up the ‘this-or-that’ intervention – and the learning crisis will be over”.

Change doesn’t happen that way. As the 2018 World Development Report Learning to Realize Education’s Promise highlights brilliantly, the above approach confuses the proximate and underlying causes of poor learning outcomes. Of course the proximate causes matter – but they can only be addressed if the underlying governance conditions are at least ‘good enough’. As I explore in a three-part policy-oriented series written for South Africa’s Daily Maverick, ‘fixing the bureaucracy’ is not a prescription for addressing governance weakness; it, too, confuses, proximate and underlying cause. What is called for is a more far-reaching effort to evoke agency across a broad range of stakeholders – both at school-level, and more broadly. Here are links to each of the three articles in the series:  #1: What’s a good bureaucracy worth: the case of the Western Cape;  #2: Schools can work – even when bureaucracies don’t;  #3: It takes active citizenry to get good schools. 

For all of the neglect in South Africa of participatory approaches  along the lines of those highlighted in the articles, such approaches have deep roots in South Africa’s liberation struggle, and are echoed in the call for ‘active citizenship’ in South Africa’s 2012  National Development Plan:

Active citizenship requires inspirational leadership at all levels of society…..Leadership does not refer to one person, or even a tight collective of people. It applies in every aspect of life…..To build an inclusive nation the country needs to find ways to promote a positive cycle, where an effective state, inspirational leadership across all levels of society,  and active citizens reinforce and strengthen each other.”

Addressing  the challenges of South Africa’s education system  requires more than a technocratic and managerial fix. What is called for is  a  re-framing of the reigning idea of how development happens – engaging with perceptions of interests, and reigning ideas,  in a way which brings to centre stage the opportunity and responsibility of citizens to take on an active role. [This is true not only for the education sector but more broadly, as I explore HERE and HERE, for a ‘new deal’ for South Africa, capable of moving beyond the current political political distemper towards a renewal of hope.]  A top-down vision of ‘education for all’ is insufficient. What now is called for is  ‘all for education’.

Anti-corruption – reaping the whirlwind, navigating the terrain

tornado_with_lightningCrusades can over-reach – and anti-corruption crusades are no exception. The news offers an ongoing flow of whiplash-inducing examples. Here are two:  the news of the near-landslide plurality (just short of an absolute majority) of votes won in  Brazil’s presidential election by  right-wing, anti-constitutional populist Jair Bolsonaro (with his campaign fueled, in part, by backlash in the wake of the country’s massive ‘car wash’ corruption scandal); and the news from South Africa of the resignation of the country’s  widely respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, who stood up bravely against former president Jacob Zuma when it really mattered (refusing, for example, to sign onto a likely ruinous nuclear power deal negotiated by Zuma with his friend Vladimir Putin) – but who it turned out had also cosied up some with the notorious Gupta family.

How can we navigate this fraught terrain?

For the past half-dozen years, subsequent to leaving the World Bank, (where I had spent some years as head of its GAC – an unlovely acronym for “governance and anti-corruption” – secretariat), I have been writing about the dilemmas posed by the fight against corruption. Here, distilled from these writings, are seven guideposts which I have found helpful:

1: Ask ‘why’ – and work to separate the necessary from the venal.  A 2015 piece,  “puzzling over anti-corruption”, explored the distinctions between personalized, discretionary behaviors which are part of the institutional logic of stability, and those which are a manifestation of greed run rampant.   In thinking this through,  I have been influenced by the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Douglass North.  In the piece linked above, I lay out the logic. I’ll surface the issue here with an anecdote:

A few years ago, I began asking colleagues within the development community how one might tell the difference between those political and bureaucratic leaders who were doing what was necessary to achieve developmental goals in settings where formal institutions were weak – and those who had crossed over to the ‘dark side’ of impunity and predation. It took many months before I finally came across a colleague who (based on his many years of experience in an African country which had experienced both types of leadership) provided a compelling answer.  “It’s easy”, he said. “In the former case, the informal rules of the game are clear, and the leaders play by them. In the latter, the rules are not clear – and, whatever, they might be, they do not apply to the leaders themselves”.

2: Call things by their true name. Not all acts of corruption are equal; there is a continuum.  At the far end of that continuum lie predatory kleptocracy and institutional breakdown. I explored this continuum in a piece published in The Conversation in mid-2017, as South Africa’s descent into state capture seemed to accelerate. As I put it in that piece:  “the tension between rule-boundedness and patronage is a game of inches, one which plays out incrementally over the medium term. But at the far end of the continuum lie predatory kleptocracy and institutional breakdown. If the forces currently struggling to protect South Africa’s imperfect, but functional institutions were to lose to predatory kleptocracy, then watch out below.”

(As another uncomfortably contemporary, and perhaps controversial example, I find unavoidable the question of where the United States currently finds itself in the continuum between disagreements over policies, law-breaking corruption, and state capture.)

3: Wield a scalpel, not an axe. There’s no shortage of corruption in Indonesia – yet, paradoxically (as I summarized in this piece), the country’s anti-corruption agency, the KPK, has a remarkable track-record of taking on powerful players.  A key source of its strength is its focus. It functions as a ‘tripwire’ against impunity. The number of cases it takes on each year are few, and carefully chosen. It discomfits the powerful. It enjoys widespread support across the country – indeed civil society support has been key to its resilience.

4: Evoke individual ethics. As I put it in the 2015 ‘puzzling’ piece:  “always and everywhere, behaving ethically is surely crucial to meet the most important test of all — the ‘look oneself in the mirror every morning’ test. The question for activists is not whether we should model ethical behavior — an obvious “yes” —  but what are the pros and cons of an anti-corruption ‘framing’”

5: Avoid sanctimonious ‘maximalism’ . This, as I explored in a piece on aid agencies and anti-corruption linked here, is the trap in which many aid agencies found themselves. For organizations such as the World Bank to have ‘zero tolerance’ against corruption by their staff is necessary. To turn this into a crusade against all corruption everywhere is to take on the impossible – and in the process to debase the meaning of words.

6: Lead with results and hope, rather than anger.  This, it seems to me is vital, if societies are to thrive rather than (as in our current moment of political distemper) descend into bitterness and recrimination. Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development makes a similar point in his evocatively-titled recent book, Results not receipts: counting the right things in aid and corruption.  As I argued a few years ago in a piece which appeared  in Foreign Policy: “Political and economic elites are rarely willing to give up their special privileges in settings where they enjoy enormous power. Practitioners could more usefully focus on achieving concrete results via ‘islands of effectiveness’  rather than on across-the-board overhauls – building coalitions with stakeholders, focusing on outcomes.” (See this link for  more on the analytical underpinnings of an ‘islands of effectiveness’ approach.)

7: Beware of crocodile tears. Over the years, I have become wary of the ulterior motives of crusaders whose crusades end up delegitimizing the public domain. Are those crusades genuine efforts to improve how things work, or is delegitimizing the public domain the point – crocodile, rather than real tears as they expose how things go wrong? (In this, as per here and here, I have been sensitized by the US political discourse of recent years.)

What’s a good education bureaucracy worth? The case of the Western Cape

What’s a good education bureaucracy worth? One common explanation for the poor performance of South Africa’s schools is that ‘it’s the bureaucracy’s fault’. Indeed, South Africa’s public bureaucracies get lots of things wrong. But as UCT research explored in depth, a narrow preoccupation with bureaucratic effectiveness may be directing attention away from some especially promising responses to the country’s current challenges – in education, and more broadly.  (This piece, the first of a three-part series,  originally appeared in South Africa’s online platform,  the Daily Maverick, on October 2nd, 2018.)

Take the example of the Western Cape Education Department (WCED), a major focus of the research. As education bureaucracies go, the WCED is strong. Evidence of its strength comes from a surprising source – the office of the Presidency, during the Jacob Zuma era. In 2012, the Presidency’s Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation undertook management performance assessment tests of public organisations and departments at both national and provincial-level. Of the nine provincial education departments, the WCED received far and away the highest rating; Gauteng, was second highest. The Eastern Cape (a focus of an earlier piece in the Daily Maverick and of Part II of this series) rated lowest.

The roots of the WCED’s organisational capabilities run deep. Unlike many provinces which were required to integrate dysfunctional and underfunded education systems from apartheid-era bantustans, the principal challenge in the Western Cape was to incorporate the better-funded and not-appallingly run bureaucracy which managed “coloured” schools under the authority of the “coloured” House of Representatives.

In the first 15 years of democracy, the WCED was diligent in implementing a variety of performance management initiatives – a Development Appraisal System, Whole School Evaluations, an Integrated Quality Management System – championed by the national-level department of education. And when the Democratic Alliance won electoral control of the province in 2009, it added a variety of initiatives of its own.

Indeed, the WCED does many things well. These include: managing financial resources; providing decent school infrastructure; assuring timely availability of textbooks and other inputs; assigning personnel to where they are needed; and monitoring performance. The centrepiece of its ‘war room’, a unit located in the head office of the department, is a sophisticated online platform, which includes:

  • an individual learner tracking system, which tracked the progress and performance of individual learners throughout their time within the WCED;

  • online School Improvement Plans for each of the 1,500 schools in the system. The SIPs incorporate in an integrated, streamlined fashion the results of the individual learner tracking exercises; the results of whole school evaluations; the results of assessments introduced by the WCED in the early 2000s; and academic performance plans for each school;

  • school-level budget and staffing planning and execution tools— monitoring for each school across the system whether and how budgets are being spent, and including tools for ordering and tracking supplies most notably textbooks; and

  • school improvement monitoring, undertaken quarterly, with a specific focus on under-performing schools.

Sadly, though, as the results of two sets of standardised tests reveal, when it comes to fostering learning, a well-oiled machine is not enough. The Western Cape was indeed the highest scorer among South Africa’s provinces in a 2007 assessment of Grade 6 mathematics capabilities conducted by the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ). However, its SACMEQ score was below both Mauritius and Kenya’s Central Region. This under-performance persisted even after taking into account a variety of other factors (including socio-economic circumstances, and teacher skills and experience). Strikingly, the Kenyan system achieved its superior results (for reasons I explored here) with only one-fourth the level of resources per learner.

In the global standardised Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessments, as of 2003 the Western Cape (with an average score of 414) was, again, the best performer among South Africa’s provinces (the overall South African average was 285 points). However, over the subsequent twelve years the Western Cape score declined modestly – even as the overall South African average rose to 368 points. A key reason for the Western Cape’s decline was, to be sure, an influx of learners from the much poorer Eastern Cape region of the country. But Gauteng also had to absorb a major influx, and its score rose throughout the period, to reach 408 points in 2015.

The finding that having a decent bureaucracy is not enough to fix schooling may come as a surprise to South Africans, but it turns out to be a common pattern worldwide.

The World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise suggests that one reason why so many countries become trapped in endless cycles of bureaucratic reforms which lead nowhere is a failure to distinguish between the “coherence” of reforms and whether or not they are aligned towards learning. “Process compliance” becomes an end in itself, rather than a means of supporting learning. The result, as Harvard University’s Lant Pritchett puts it, is a pattern of:

“… bureaucratic management in which the accountability of teachers and principals is basically for enrolments and the operation of ‘schooling’…. While there might be some vague reference to children actually acquiring needed competencies…. process compliance is, in and of itself and with no reference to outcomes, completely adequate for discharging accountability.”

What are the missing ingredients? As a variety of classic analyses of “street-level bureaucracies” (see hereherehere and here) have explored in depth, giving more authority to the service provision front-line potentially might improve performance through three governance-related channels:

  • A motivational channel — school-level flexibility provides an opportunity for internal leaders to motivate teams effectively, and nurture an environment of continuing learning.

  • An informational channel — creating scope to draw on local-level information, of a kind which is not observable by bureaucratic hierarchies, as to what happens inside schools.

  • An accountability channel – enabling local stakeholders to hold everyone in the school accountable for making their best effort.

To be sure, shifting responsibility to the school-level in ways which support learning can be challenging – but, as Part II of this series will explore in depth, it can make a large difference, including in low-income communities.

The experience of the WCED is thus something of a cautionary tale. Sustained efforts over many years have made for a well-functioning bureaucracy . But this turns out to be insufficient to bring sustained improvement in learning outcomes.

As Part III will lay out, rather than an endless pre-occupation with bureaucracies and with assigning blame, what can transform education is a shift away from narrowly top-down approaches towards a more inclusive, participatory vision which brings to centre stage the evocation of “agency” – of a renewed sense among multiple stakeholders at multiple levels that constructive action can make a difference. Or, as President Ramaphosa put it in his February 2018 State of the National address, what we need is a spirit of “thuma mina”, of “send me”.

Here’s a link to the original in the Daily Maverick:  https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-10-02-whats-a-good-education-bureaucracy-worth-the-case-of-the-western-cape/

Kenya – a SACMEQ outlier

kenya educ graph

Graph prepared by Luis Crouch for Chapter 2, “The transformation of South Africa’s System of Basic Education” in Brian Levy, Robert Cameron, Ursula Hoadley and Vinothan Naidoo (eds.) The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of Two South African Provinces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) – available, by agreement with OUP’s open access policy,  for free download via this link.

Process compliance versus the evocation of agency

hugh masakelaBureaucracies make convenient scapegoats when they get things wrong. But it turns out that they also can disappoint even when they do well those things which they are well-suited to do. The difference between having a well-oiled machine and achieving a sought-for development outcome emerges especially vividly through a comparison of South Africa’s Western Cape Education Department (the WCED) and Kenya’s educational system.

[A companion post uses a comparison between the WCED and the Eastern Cape Department of Education to explore how divergent provincial-level political, economic and institutional contexts affected performance of the two bureaucracies. 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.]

Kenya generally outperformed the Western Cape.  In 2007 assessments of Grade 6 mathematics capabilities conducted by the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ). The  Western Cape’s median score was 560 points (well above the South African median of 483 points); the score for the poorer 25th percentile was 496 points. Kenya’s median score nationwide was 557 points, with a score of 509 points at the 25th percentile. For Kenya’s Nairobi district (the best direct comparator with the Western Cape), the median score was 585, and the score at the 25th percentile 535 points.

Kenya achieved these superior results notwithstanding higher levels of poverty,  average per pupil expenditures which were one fifth of South Africa’s, a cadre of teachers who were no better trained, and (when compared with the Western Cape) a relatively messy bureaucracy.  Indeed, as the graph linked here (from chapter 2 in the book) shows, once socio-economic influences on educational outcomes are taken into account, as of 2007  Kenya  stood  out  as far and away the most over-achieving of the countries participating in SACMEQ.

Governance differences help account for these divergent learning outcomes. The WCED is a classic example of a bureaucracy pre-occupied with top-down management and process compliance. Kenya, by contrast, has numerous bureaucratic shortcomings – but (at least through to 2007) these were more than offset by an approach to education sector governance which gave priority, over many decades, to the evocation of agency. kenya educ graph

The WCED undertakes efficiently and effectively many important tasks expected of public education systems, including managing  financial re sources, providing decent school infrastructure,  assuring timely availability of textbooks and other inputs,  assigning personnel to where they are needed,  and tracking performance.  (Chapter 4 of the book provides details.)  Each of these are  activities where the production process is standardized, and monitorability of processes, outputs and outcomes is straightforward – precisely the types of tasks  which,   for reasons explored here and here, bureaucracies are well-positioned to do well.  Of course, the obverse can also apply: there exists a class of activities  where production is more heterogenous and monitorability is more difficult – and thus which inherently are more challenging for public bureaucracies.

In the best of all possible worlds, a public education system would be able to do all things well. The 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise,  highlights Finland and Shanghai, China as good examples.  However, as the WDR explores in depth, these examples are rarities. Far more common are education systems which are coherent around narrow conceptions of process compliance (or incoherent, or coherent in the provision of patronage)– but which are not well-aligned with those school-based tasks  for which much more responsiveness to hyper-level context is called for.

As a  variety of classic analyses of ‘street-level bureaucracies’ (see here, here, here and here) have explored in depth,  giving more authority to the service provision front-line  potentially can improve performance through three governance-related channels:

  • A motivational channel — with school-level flexibility  providing an opportunity for internal leaders to motivate teams effectively, and nurture an environment of continuing learning on the part of staff as well as students.
  • An informational channel —  creating scope to draw on local-level information, of a kind which is not observable by bureaucratic hierarchies, as to  what happens inside schools.
  • An accountability channel – enabling developmentally-oriented local stakeholders (including professionally committed teaching staff) to hold school staff accountable for making their best effort. (This requires that developmentally-oriented stakeholders indeed have sufficient influence to be able to ‘trump’ predatory actors seeking to capture school-level resources for private purposes – an issue I explore in an earlier book.)

The limits of narrowly top-down approaches to improving learning outcomes become evident in the school-level case studies in chapters 8 and 9 of the book.  Take, for example,  two schools in the Western Cape which initially were good performers. In both,  top-down leadership by the principal was key to success, with consistent support from the WCED helpful in buttressing these principals’ authority. However, notwithstanding a formal governance framework which assigned significant authority to school governing bodies (SGBs) in which parents were the majority,  both principals left  little scope for participation by SGBs or by the broader community; school-level decision processes were hollowed out.  In both schools, when it came time for the successful principal to retire and a successor to be chosen, the seemingly formidable strengths of the WCED’s bureaucratic hierarchy ended up being trumped by machinations involving low-level bureaucrats, senior school-level staff, and parents more interested in capturing control of resources than improving educational outcomes.  Indeed, in both schools, within a few years after the departure of the ‘successful’ principal, performance collapsed.

In stark contrast to the Western Cape experience, here is how  Dr. Ben Piper, a seasoned educational specialist, and long-term resident in Nairobi, describes school-community dynamics in rural Kenya:

 “What one sees in rural Kenya is an expectation for kids to learn and be able to have basic skills….Exam results from a test conducted nationwide at the end of elementary school  are posted in every school and over time so that trends can be seen. Head teachers are held accountable for those results to the extent of being paraded around the community if they did well,  or literally banned from school and kicked out of the community if they did badly.”

The roots of active civic engagement in the education sector run deep in the foundational ideas which shaped modern Kenya: in a decades-long effort to resist the British colonial influence; in the vision of the country’s liberation struggle leader and first president, Jomo Kenyatta, of an educated population as a central manifestation what it means to be a proud independent nation; in the inclusion of education as top priority in the country’s first national plan; and in an abiding commitment in the first decade of the country’s independence to Harambee – “self-help” – as the pathway to development.

Already in the 1920s, a young Jomo Kenyatta had emerged, in the context of a vibrant ‘independent schools’ movement,  as a powerful advocate for better quality education for Africans, within a framework of cultural nationalism. Upon returning to Kenya in the latter 1940s (after fifteen years living in Europe) to take up leadership of the Kenya African Union (later the ruling party KANU), he became director and principal of the Kenya African Teachers College,  run by the independent schools movement. When Kenyatta became the first president of independent Kenya in 1963 (after being released from jail in 1952, following nine years of imprisonment),  he  offered a vision of an independent Kenya imbued with Harambee  (“let us pull together”);  the country adopted the term as its official national motto. As Heinz Fischer described, engagement with education held pride of place within the Harambee movement:

“Harambee was not just a political slogan, a rallying point, or an idea looking for an occasion to manifest itself. For education in particular, Harambee had a meaning all of its own; it was a very influential reality, especially in the area of secondary education… Politicians, concerned with their public image and their re-electability, yielded to public demands for more education… Available funds were running short… The demand and pressure for more schools continued to grow. In this spiral of conflict between demand and ability to supply, Kenyatta’s call for Harambee—let’s pull together—seemed to contain the answer.”

It is perhaps necessary to state the obvious: I am not arguing that having a well-managed education bureaucracy is a bad thing. As the comparison of the Western and Eastern Cape in the companion piece shows, learning outcomes are better when a bureaucracy functions well than when it functions badly. But the Kenyan experience points to a further dimension – the role of the  ‘evocation of agency’,  of a sense among multiple stakeholders at all levels (including teachers, parents, communities, public officials) that their actions can make a difference.

To improve learning outcomes, and  taking inspiration from Kenya,  perhaps what now is called for now is  active citizenship –   not only a narrow preoccupation with bureaucratically-driven “education for all”, but an effort to mobilize society more broadly around an expansive vision, a vision  of “all for education”.  Surprisingly, notwithstanding the country’s penchant for top-down solutions, South Africa’s National Development Plan, released in 2012,  includes this rallying cry:

 “Active citizenship requires inspirational leadership at all levels of society…..Leadership does not refer to one person, or even a tight collective of people. It applies in every aspect of life…..To build an inclusive nation the country needs to find ways to promote a positive cycle, where an effective state, inspirational leadership across all levels of society,  and active citizens reinforce and strengthen each other.”

In his  February 2018 state of the nation speech, delivered within weeks of becoming South Africa’s President, drawing on the spirit of the NDP, and of a classic song by the late, great South African jazz trumpeter, Hugh Masakela, issued a call for Thuma Mina (“send  me”).  Indeed, perhaps in many countries struggling with a loss of trust,  active citizenship can be an important antidote to the political distemper of our times – not only in education but across a wide range of arenas for public and civic action.

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

On hope, inclusion and Hirschman’s tunnel effect

 540458614-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel-work-clothing-safety-suit-train-tunnelHope, as always, is the crucial ingredient if we are to get beyond this populist moment in a way which avoids a deepening downward spiral. And to understand hope’s ebbs and flows there’s no better place to begin than with  the great development economist Albert Hirschman.  While Hirschman was writing about the loss of hope and rise of authoritarianism that swept through Latin America from the late 1960s onward, his insights have extraordinary contemporary relevance.

In particular, his notion of a “tunnel effect” is a powerfully evocative way of  understanding how societies’ responses to inequality change over time by focusing on the interaction between economics and psychology —  how economic policy and practice interact with a society’s narratives about itself.  Here’s how he puts it:

“Suppose I run into a serious traffic jam in a two-lane tunnel. After a while the cars in the other lane begin to move. Naturally, my spirits lift considerably…. Even though I still sit still, I feel much better off than before because of the expectation that I shall soon be on the move. But suppose that expectation is disappointed….. This tolerance for inequality is like a credit that falls due at a certain date.  It is extended in the expectation that eventually the disparities will narrow again. If this does not occur, there is bound to be trouble and, perhaps, disaster.  Non-realization of the expectation that my turn will soon come will at some point result in my ‘becoming furious’ that is, in my turning into an enemy of the established order.  No particular outward event sets off this dramatic turnaround.”

The resonance of the above for our present moment is obvious. Superficially, its implications might seem gloomy, but there’s also the possibility of a hopeful interpretation. The ‘tunnel effect’  framework suggests that society’s problems don’t have to be ‘solved’ to provide a platform for progress. Rather, what is needed is a credible narrative that can kindle hope.

This search for silver linings is characteristic of Hirschman’s work.  He knew all-too-well the shock of witnessing how things can fall apart.  His ideas were profoundly shaped by his childhood and adolescence in Germany. A youthful progressive activist, in the fall of 1932 he was an entering student at the University of Berlin; by early 1933, he had gone into exile. Remarkably, his response was to spend a lifetime seeking creative and hopeful ways out of history’s seeming dead-ends. His purpose, as he put it,  was to “set the stage for conceptions of change to which the inventiveness of history and a ‘passion for the possible’ are admitted as vital actors”. 

Anger or hope, which is it to be?  How can a new sense of possibility be rekindled? In his sustained exploration of these questions, Albert Hirschman emerges as a prophet for our times. [See HERE for more detail on his thinking vis-a-vis inequality; and HERE for an application of his approach to the specific example of South Africa. ]




How politics and governance influence learning outcomes

book coverI am happy to announce the release of a new book, The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of two South African Provinces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, September 2018), co-authored/edited with colleagues from the University of Cape Town – and (by agreement with OUP)  available via this link for free download.  The book uses the approach to governance I laid out in Working with the Grain  (Oxford 2014) to better understand: (i) why  gains in access to schooling have not translated into gains in learning.  (ii) how context shapes the performance of public education bureaucracies; and (iii)  the potential and limits of participatory governance, both as a complement to bureaucracy, and as a substitute when bureaucracy is weak.  Click here for my summary take of the main findings and implications of the research.