How context and reform align (or misalign): New evidence from the education sector

Recognition that ‘context matters’ for development policymaking and implementation has become commonplace, almost to the point of cliché – but going beyond the general nostrum to something practically useful continues to challenge.  This post draws on a set of ambitious new case studies of the politics of policymaking in education to illustrate  the practical potential of an approach that takes seriously the ways in which power and institutions shape context,  and thus  reform opportunities and constraints.  (A companion post lays out the approach’s theoretical underpinnings.)

On the surface, global gains in educating children have been remarkable. Access has expanded enormously. So, too, has education-sector-specific knowledge about how students learn and successful teachers teach.  Yet the combination of access and knowledge has  not translated into broad-based gains in learning outcomes. Why?

To better understand the reasons for this disconnect, and to help uncover new ways of improving learning outcomes, the ambitious, decade-long RISE program championed broad-ranging research on systems of education. As part of this effort, it  sponsored a set of country studies  of the politics of education policy adoption. In early 2022, I was  commissioned by RISE to write a synthesis (available here)  of the individual studies. The synthesis paper provided an opportunity to explore further some questions left over from an earlier round of research in the education sector.

Back in 2012, I launched an in-depth research project on the politics and governance of basic education, centered around case studies in two provinces of South Africa. The project built on  decades of work as a researcher-practitioner at the interface between governance and economic development across a wide range of sectors (though never before on education),     I came away from the research  enormously impressed by the rigor of specialized, education-sector scholarship  and, more broadly,  by the knowledge and commitment of many in the education-sector-focused policy and research community. But I was also  struck by how little progress has been made in linking  this knowledge to broader findings on interactions between governance, policymaking and implementation.

In seeking to account for this disconnect, a useful point of departure is the 2018 Learning World Development Report’s distinction between proximate and underlying causes of learning shortfalls. Proximate causes include the skills and motivations of teachers, the quality of school management, the available of other inputs used in schools, and the extent to which learners come to school prepared to learn. Underlying these are the governance arrangements through which these inputs are deployed. Specialist knowledge on the relation between the proximate causes and learning outcomes can straightforwardly be applied in countries where governance works well. However, as the RISE political economy case studies detail vividly, in countries where the broader governance context is less supportive, specialist sector-specific interventions to support learning are less likely to add value.

How to move forward in the latter contexts?  “Focus not only on sector-specific technical interventions, but also on improving governance”  is a seemingly obvious answer. That answer is not wholly wrong – but it can all-too-readily be interpreted in ways that  lead reformers down counterproductive dead-ends.  To see why, consider the definition of governance offered by an influential World Bank report:

 “Governance is the process through which state and nonstate actors interact to design and implement policies within a set of formal and informal rules [institutions] that shape and are shaped by power”.

As this definition signals, governance processes are embedded within broader contexts shaped by power and institutions. Further, as voluminous research has shown (see here, here, and here), over the medium-term (in most countries, most of the time)  these broader contexts change only on relatively small margins. Viewed from the perspective of sector-level decision-makers, the broader political context is exogenous. What can be done to improve outcomes in messy governance contexts?

One useful way to move forward  is to construct a typology, organized around  a small number of distinct contexts, each characterized by distinctive configurations of power and distinctive institutional forms – and thus distinctive patterns of incentive and constraint (and possibilities for improving development outcomes) within which sectoral governance plays out. With a set of distinct types in hand, a key next step is to find ‘good fit’ ways forward, by identifying a variety of potential entry points for improving outcomes, and clarifying how they align with the different  contexts.  

This piece and its companion are organized around three distinct (heuristic) political-institutional types, each resonant with a familiar ‘real-world’ pattern. The three are:

  • Context A (‘dominant’) –  in which power is highly concentrated, and exercised top-down.
  • Context B (‘personalized competitive’) – in which authority is fragmented, with multiple centers of power, limited capacity for co-operation, and limited compliance with formal rules.
  • Context C (‘impersonal competitive’),  characterized by strong formal ‘rules of the game’ that are intended to provide a platform for resolving conflict among stakeholders and their goals, and for implementation – but, insofar as political contestation remains unresolved, can result in a combination of exaggerated rule compliance and/or isomorphic mimicry.

The companion  blog lays out the theoretical rationale for focusing on these three heuristic political-institutional contexts. This piece (and the RISE synthesis paper) uses this three-fold typology to organize, and analyze comparatively,  the country cases studies on the politics of education policy.  As an initial step, the case study countries were grouped into the three types. This was done using three V-DEM governance indicators – the extent of electoral democracy, the quality of the rule of law, and the pervasiveness of clientelism. The resulting categorization is shown in Table 1 below. (See the synthesis paper for details).

The synthesis paper builds on the individual case studies to lay out some distinctive,  within-type patterns of education sector governance:

  • In dominant contexts, with power centered around a political leader and a hierarchical governance structure, the education sector’s goals are largely shaped by the leaders.  As the Vietnam case details, top-down leadership potentially can provide a robust platform for improving learning outcomes.  However, as the case studies of Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Tanzania illustrate, all-too-often dominant leaders’ goals  vis-à-vis the education sector can veer in other directions.
  • In impersonal competitive contexts,  a combination of strong formal institutions and effective processes of resolving disagreements can, on occasion, result in a shared commitment among powerful interests to improve learning outcomes – but in none of the case studies was this outcome evident.  Instead (as discussed further below), the case studies  a combination of unresolved political contestation over the education sector’s goals, exaggerated rule compliance and performative isomorphic mimicry.
  • Personalized competitive contexts such as Bangladesh, Ghana and Kenya lack the seeming strengths of either their dominant or their impersonal competitive counterparts;  there are multiple politically-influential groups and multiple,  competing goals –  but no credible framework of rules to bring coherence either to political competition or to the education bureaucracy.

As the case studies detail, these  political and institutional realities rendered ineffective many specialized sectoral interventions intended to improve learning outcomes.

What might be some context-aligned entry points for improving learning outcomes in the midst of this messiness?  Key is to open up  space in a way that enables sector professionals to bring their specialist knowledge to bear. The rows in Table 2 highlight four ‘soft governance’ entry points with space-expanding potential.  Each entry point is  (loosely) aligned with a distinct level  in a  chain of governance processes that link politicians, policymakers, public officials and citizens:

  • The leadership level – purpose: What are the goals of the education system? How to strengthen leaders’  orientation towards learning?
  • The bureaucracy level – mission: How to empower mission-oriented public officials within the education system?
  • The stakeholder level – alliances: Which influential stakeholders champion learning? How to foster co-operation among these stakeholders, thereby strengthening their collective influence?
  • The citizen-level – expectations: How do the expectations of parents, communities and citizens influence the extent to which the education sector is learning-oriented? How might learning-oriented influences be strengthened?

As the cells in Table 2 suggest, and the paragraphs below detail,  the potential for each of these ‘soft governance’ entry points to improve learning outcomes varies systematically across the three types. (The paragraphs that follow are a summary of a more comprehensive treatment in my February 2023 RISE insight note.)

For dominant contexts,  the top ‘soft governance’ priority is to engage with leaders as to the purpose of education. As noted earlier, Vietnam was alone among the case studies of dominant countries in consistently having improvements in learning outcomes as the sector’s principal goal. In Indonesia and Tanzania the principal goal was to aligning education with a distinctive set of ideas about the nation and its collective identity; in Ethiopia under the military Derg regime (and in Nigeria, too, at least for a time) it was to expand access to historically excluded groups, with little attention to quality. (How) can leaders be persuaded to prioritize learning, and to  take the steps needed to improve learning outcomes?  

For personalized competitive contexts, contestation among stakeholders invariably leads to policy incoherence,  bureaucratic fragmentation, and high risks of predation – and thus little  prospect that efforts to strengthen public systems can gain traction.    Yet as Table 2 suggests (and as analyses of Bangladesh and Ghana detail), fragmentation can have a silver lining – it can create space for alliances of developmental stakeholders to successfully push back against predatory pressures, and  eke out islands of effectiveness at local levels (sometimes even as localized as an individual school). More ambitiously, insofar as a societal expectation of “all for education” can take hold – that parents and communities, especially, have an active role to play in supporting a learning-oriented education system – then, even in personalized competitive contexts, far-reaching national gains in learning outcomes can be achieved.  As the synthesis paper details, Kenya offers an example of what is possible.

In impersonal competitive contexts, there is (as noted earlier) a clear normative vision of how a learning-oriented education system should function. In practice, however, things fall short of that vision in all four of the impersonal competitive case study countries:

  • In  Peru, there was ongoing  conflict over purpose between politicians on the one hand, and sectoral stakeholders and experts on the other.
  • In India, there was a large disconnect between (national) policymakers and  (state-level) implementers.
  • In Chile and South Africa, there was an ongoing pre-occupation with formal systems, with correspondingly less de facto attention on how to improve learning.

A comparison of the Chilean and Peruvian case studies offers some striking insights as to both the challenges confronting impersonal competitive contexts, and a promising way forward.  In Chile,  interactions among stakeholders largely were top-down and systematically managed.  Peru, by contrast,  was characterized by ongoing back-and-forth jockeying among stakeholders, messy compromises with the teachers union, and multiple policy reversals.  Insofar as better-aligned institutional arrangements and systematic, consistent policies are likely to be more effective than ‘messier’ ones,  learning outcomes would be expected to show more improvement over time in Chile than in Peru. Yet, as the synthesis study details,  between 2000 and 2018  Peru  achieved very large gains in learning outcomes, while the gains in Chile were modest. Why?

The Chilean approach to sector governance was, from a technocratic perspective of governance, “best practice”. Yet the (not yet published)  case study concludes that:

“Good intentions to improve educational quality, resources and carrots and sticks have not been enough to move the Chilean educational system in the direction that its political authorities wanted…. The top down character of Chilean educational policy making and the insufficient use of institutional voice mechanisms might backfire as the mounting social tensions and the 2019 social movement casts some doubts about its survival” (p.47)

By contrast,  Peru’s messier, less formalistic and more iterative process of policy formulation and adaptation helped build broad legitimacy among stakeholders –  importantly including strengthening trust in the technocrats and professionals responsible for its formulation – thereby enhancing their ability to push back  against idiosyncratic initiatives proposed by political appointees. As the Peru country case study put it:

“ Civil society organizations – NGOs, universities, think tanks and research centers – have also played a key role in defining policy agendas [and….]  in the development of education policies and reforms. Though not always able to contain either technocrats’ or other policy makers – agreements are often ignored by ministerial administrations and political parties –  they have certainly contributed to the continuity of agendas and to the advancement, through piecemeal, of reforms.”

The contrasting trajectories of Chile and Peru point to the importance, in impersonal competitive contexts, of not seeking to govern education solely within the strictures of an autonomous bureaucracy, but rather to open up space by embracing “social embeddedness”, working to build  developmental alliances with a sense of shared purpose. Indeed, the point applies broadly. Across the range of less-than-perfect governance contexts, rather than focus narrowly on technocratic (governance or sector-specialized) initiatives, foreground attention to the question of ‘commitment to learning’.  Especially in competitive contexts (both personalized and impersonal)  cultivate the idea that improving learning outcomes is everybody’s business,  and create opportunities for engagement –  invite citizens to become  active participants in a shared endeavor to equip coming generations with the capabilities they will need  be part of a vibrant, thriving society.

Between South Africa’s frying pan and America’s fire

Fueled by hope, I spent the 2010s travelling back-and-forth between South Africa and the USA, sharing  an optimistic approach to integrating governance and development strategies with mid-career practitioners at both SAIS and the Mandela School. But the subsequent decade unfolded in unexpectedly toxic ways in both countries. It felt important to complement with-the-grain pragmatism with an exploration of underlying challenges. A 2021 co-authored paper explored why things turned rancid in South Africa.  My new paper –  How Inequality and Polarization Interact: America’s Challenges Through a South African Lens, also published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – takes a comparative perspective.  This post lays out five personal take-aways from the comparison. (Here’s a link to the paper’s executive summary).

Take-away #1:  Far more than is the case for contemporary South Africa,  America’s current wounds – increases in inequality since the 1980s, and their attendant social and political correlates –   have been self-inflicted.

Back in the 1970s, I had been  drawn to the USA by its openness, its commitment to freedom, equal dignity and equal justice for all – everything that the South Africa I left behind was not.  With its 1990s ‘rainbow miracle’ transformation from apartheid to constitutional democracy, South Africa became a new  beacon of possibility for people around the world who value democratic governance and inclusive societies. However,  the country’s subsequent reversals were not wholly unexpected. Three decades after the end of apartheid,  South Africa remains among the world’s most unequal countries, and its fraught racial history continues to fester – though the rawness and relative recency of the anti-apartheid struggle perhaps continues to offer some immunization against a further-accelerating downward spiral.   

For the United States, however, the converse may be true. In the decades subsequent to World War II, the combination of an equitably growing economy and a vibrant civil rights movement had fostered the hope of deepening economic and social inclusion. But  beginning in the 1980s, the benefits of growth became increasingly skewed, and  ‘culture wars’ became increasingly virulent. Complacency bred of long stability may have lulled America  into  political recklessness at the inequality-ethnicity intersection – a recklessness that risks plunging the country into disaster.

Take-away #2:  In both South Africa and the USA, the drivers of polarization have been multiple and mutually reinforcing; essentialist explanations that focus narrowly only on a single dimension –  economic, institutional,  cultural or racial  – and ignore the others are, at best, seriously incomplete.

The Carnegie paper distinguishes between polarization’s demand-side and its supply-side.  The demand-side comprises the way citizens engage politically – as shaped by power, by their perceptions of the fairness of economic outcomes, and by whether they frame identity  in inclusive or in us/them ways.  The supply-side comprises political entrepreneurs and the ideas they champion –  ideas about how the world works; ideas about identity. Mutually-reinforcing interactions between the demand- and supply-sides can become increasingly toxic – potentially even to the point of a doom loop that destroys constitutional democracy.

Take-away #3: Both South Africa and the USA need to be more pro-active in renewing economic inclusion  – but  making the shift from an inequality-fueling to an inclusion-supporting economy is less daunting than it might seem.

When considered through the lens of the interaction between inequality and ideas, pro-inclusion policies are less important as ends in themselves than for how they affect the willingness  of citizens to accept the rules of the game (including the distribution of economic outcomes) as broadly legitimate.  As South Africa’s rainbow miracle turnaround in the 1990s and early 2000s shows, a turn from anger to hope does not need a comprehensive package of pro-equity reforms. Rather, reforms that foster “good-enough inclusion”—some immediate gains that signal that things have changed, combined with credible signals that longer-term structural change is underway—can set in motion a virtuous spiral, which can be sustained as long as the momentum of  positive policy change continues to unfold over time.

Take-away #4: The influence of economic elites, though often obscured beneath the headlines,  has been central in both countries – for both good and ill. 

In South Africa, as Alan Hirsch and I explored in depth,  South Africa’s business establishment played a leading role in helping to midwife negotiations between the white minority government and the ANC.  In the USA, organized business was an important part of the elite consensus that fueled three decades of inclusive economic growth subsequent to World War II. In recent decades however, a segment of the elite  has actively financed  political entrepreneurs who have skillfully championed a combination of polarizing cultural discourse and distributionally regressive economic policies. This is a classic example of elite capture, a phenomenon familiar to scholars of comparative politics.  Paralleling what happened in 1980s South Africa, might America’s economic elites wake up to these risks and become more open to inclusive renewal?

Take-away #5: In settings that are open politically, turnaround will be achieved less by directly engaging  polarization’s most toxic champions, than by working around them.

Mass political mobilization was pivotal to South Africa’s shaking loose the shackles of apartheid – and new calls to the barricades might seem to be the obvious response to current political and governmental dysfunction.   However,  different times and different challenges call for different responses.  Currently, both the South African and U.S. governments are, at least aspirationally, committed not to accelerating polarization but to strengthening both inclusion and the institutional foundations of democracy. In such contexts, some compelling research suggests that what is called for is not fighting polarization with more polarization but lowering the temperature by fostering deliberative discourse, focused on positive, hope-evoking options. As happened once before in the USA,  the aim would be for a myriad of collaborative, problem-focused grassroots initiatives  to serve as potential building blocks for  a twenty-first-century social movement– a  movement that views cooperation in pursuit of win-win possibilities not as weakness but as key to the sustainability of thriving, open, and inclusive societies.

Ethiopia and the World Bank in the 2000s

The role of donors in Ethiopia has emerged as a focus of an ongoing debate on authoritarian aid. (See here and here) As part of a broader wariness of where  moralizing hubris  can lead, I made a decision a few years ago to focus my work on the challenges of ‘messy democracies’ (which, evidently as of 2021, includes the USA and other Northern countries). Though I don’t intend to engage with the current controversy, between 1999 and 2008 I was quite centrally involved with the World Bank’s engagement in Ethiopia, especially from a governance perspective; I subsequently  wrote about that experience. Here, as a contribution to the current debate, is the relevant extract from my 2014 book, Working with the Grain.

“Ethiopia – planting seeds of bottom-up accountability.  Between 2000 and 2010, aid inflows averaged about 5-8 percent of total annual income (in the range of $1 billion annually) – and accounted for about one-third of public expenditures. When it comes to aid, mutuality often  plays out in a troublingly superficial way: political support from citizens of donor countries depends importantly on the aid effort’s ability to evoke among ‘Northern’ taxpayers a warm feeling of doing the right thing.

Prior to Ethiopia’s 2005 election, the country had become a poster-child of ‘good’ aid. Back in the 1970s, along with Bangladesh it had been the country where images of starving children had evoked a rash of ‘live aid’ rock concerts and feel-good donations. For a while, the brutality of the  repressive military Derg regime undercut the narrative. But finally, with the emergence in Meles Zenawi of  a new-generation-leader committed to development, the narrative could come together.  The strength of   commitment by donors to Meles Zenawi’s government was evident both in the amount of aid, and in the form in which it was given. Ethoiopia became a leading example of new, cutting edge approaches to development aid. 

A common criticism of aid is that it supports gold-plated enclaves (complete with the donor country nameplate)  in the form of  initiatives which destroy the capacity of national governments by undercutting the recipient government’s ability and willingness to make choices, and by  luring the most talented people away from the public sector. In response to this criticism, in countries where governments seemed committed and capable, donors increasingly were moving to provide aid as annual ‘budget support’ for the country’s expressed priorities. (This isn’t quite the blank check it seems. It provides a platform for in-depth dialogue between donors and recipient governments as to priorities and performance. As champions of budget support pointed out, having some influence over all of government spending was surely likely to do more to combat poverty than having direct control over what rarely amounted to more than 5-10 percent of the total spend.) Meles’s commitment to development, plus the country’s track record of managing resources prudently, had made Ethiopia a major recipient of budget support.

But in the violent aftermath of the 2005 election, the positive story came undone. It became politically impossible to write an annual budget support check; that would signal seemingly unqualified support for the Meles regime. Instead, the clamor arose for donors to withdraw support entirely from Ethiopia. What was to be done? Donors adopted a two-part response.

One part was a fig-leaf of sorts. In place of budget support, and without cutting aggregate levels, donors embraced a new aid model for Ethiopia: the protection of basic services. Formally, there were two large differences between the old and new models. Aid no longer was made available for general purposes: it was specifically targeted to support a scaling-up of social sectors by paying the costs of teachers and health workers. Better yet, in Ethiopia’s radically devolved formal constitutional arrangements,  education and health were the functions of regional governments, the support provided was no longer going directly to Meles. In practice, though, budget revenues that aren’t used for one thing can be used for another. Provincial levels had no independent revenue-raising capabilities, and teachers and health workers were already being paid indirectly by the center through inter-governmental transfers. But budget fungibility is an argument  for technicians. Viewed through a more political lens, the advantages are large vis-à-vis donor country electorates of reframing aid  in terms of direct support for teachers, nurses and doctors.  

The second part of the donor response also might initially have seemed symbolic – though it was especially difficult to negotiate with the Ethiopian government. In return for large-scale continuing aid support for the provision of basic services, donors pressed hard for the introduction of a variety of bottom-up mechanisms to enable citizens and civil society organizations to monitor whether public resources indeed were delivering on their intended purposes.

Implementation was a long, slow process; for four years, there were repeated disagreements between donors and government, and associated delays. But, remarkably, the Ethiopian authorities themselves increasingly have embraced the bottom-up approach. As of 2012, over 3,000 officials from across the country had been trained in how to design and implement good practices in local-level financial transparency and accountability; over 50,000 local leaders have been sensitized as to how they can proactively monitor public spending; over 90 percent of all local governments were posting budgets.

To be sure,  no one would confuse contemporary Ethiopia with a vibrant, multi-party democracy along the lines of contemporary Korea.  Meles’ regime was not one to make the same mistake twice. Going into elections in 2010, there was little doubt as to the outcome. In the event,  the EPRDF won close to two-thirds of the vote, and 99% of the seats in national and regional parliaments. But the journey of development along the dominant trajectory can be a long and surprising one. In the early 1960s, no one would have predicted that forty years later Korea would be a thriving multi-party democracy. Whether Ethiopia can sustain a further two decades of stability and broad-based, inclusive economic growth is  enormously uncertain – and Meles’ untimely death only underscores the risks. But if Ethiopia is able to remain on its current trajectory, the seeds of better governance which have been planted over the past two decades – a de jure democratic constitution with strong formal checks and balances; and a de facto willingness to explore how bottom-up transparency can help hold public officials accountable for performance – could yet be early harbingers of a profoundly transformed polity and society.” (2014; pp. 65-67)

Learning from South Africa ‘s Emerging Arc of Political Renewal

cyril rampahosa

Jacob Zuma has now announced his resignation! In coming weeks I intend to write more about how, remarkably, South Africa has begun to break the momentum of state capture – a necessary condition for moving forward with the next generation of challenges of building a genuinely inclusive, thriving society. For now there are four aspects of South Africa’s success which I want to highlight (and use to contrast with the parallel challenges confronting the USA….. ).

The first is straightforward: the South Africa experience provides a powerful affirmation of the strengths of having in place the checks and balances which underpin constitutional democracy – including an independent judiciary; determined, high quality investigative journalism; and a robust civil society. These are, of course, also American strengths.

Second, the process demonstrates the strengths of South Africa’s political discourse — ongoing engagement across the spectrum, debate, mutual learning, and (to a striking degree) convergence around a sense of both truth and of the broader national interest. I worry deeply that none of this seems to be evident in the USA.

Third, the process has been underpinned in recent years by strong, principled leadership, committed to values forged in political struggle, and sustained courageously by officeholders in government and outside in the face of pressures to conform. (Pravin Gordhan and Nhlanhla Nene are just two of the many who have played such a role.) Such leadership has been key to enabling a process of renewal to (hopefully) take root within the ruling African National Congress. I worry deeply that, with a few honorable exceptions, very few such leaders are evident in the United States – with the gap especially stark (indeed, perhaps terrifyingly so….) among the representatives of the majority Republican Party in Congress.

Fourth is strategic patience – a sense of the ‘long game’. Certainly, there has been no shortage of expressions of outrage, and attacks on political leaders for their purported cowardice in failing to condemn the ‘latest’ outrage. But South Africa’s success has been built on a careful reading of the logic and rules of power which govern leadership selection, especially within the ruling ANC. (I note especially, without going into the details, the strategic patience of Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe.) In the end, the time for confronting predatory forces arrived – on the right terrain, and with the right preparation. The result is the potential for a renewal of hope.

In the South African case the relevant terrain was the contestation over the next generation of ANC leadership. In the USA, with the Republican Party seemingly hopelessly compromised, the relevant terrain will be the mid-term elections of 2018. Is the ground being equally well laid? Are the coalitions converging around what is true, around common values, a shared commitment to America’s ‘civil religion’ — around a center that can hold, that can decisively repudiate populist, predatory threats? Or are we witnessing a mutually reinforcing embrace of the politics of outrage? South Africa offers a potent, hopeful example of the power of patience.

Active citizenship when bureaucracies are weak – some school-level lessons from South Africa

Bureaucracies, we have learned, are embedded in politics. How, then, to strengthen public services in messy democracies? In settings where public hierarchies are weak, can participatory governance provide an alternative entry point? Recent results from a research project I have been leading on the politics and governance of basic education in South Africa suggest an intriguing answer. (The research is part of a  broader, global initiative sponsored by the University of Manchester-based Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) programme.)

South Africa’s Eastern Cape province provides an ideal setting for exploring these questions. As the ESID approach (laid out here) underscores,  two sets of variables that have a powerful influence on  bureaucracies  are: (i)  the inherited institutional legacy, and (ii) how elites interact with one another. On both counts, as the ESID working paper,  The governance of education in the Eastern Cape, by Zukiswa Kota, Monica Hendricks,  Eric Matambo and Vinothan Naidoo details, the Eastern Cape scores badly. The province’s bureaucracy is a patchwork, built largely around two patronage-riven structures inherited from the apartheid era. Electorally, the ANC was dominant – but in practice it comprised  an overall umbrella under which inter-elite conflict was endemic.

The combination of elite fragmentation and a personalized bureaucratic legacy left the Eastern Cape’s Department of Education (ECDoE) bedevilled by  divergent and competing regional interests, organisational cultures, and patronage ties. The national government tried to intervene, and for a few years it temporarily took over administration of the ECDoE. But this did not stem the crisis. Provincial politics proved too powerful. After a few years, intervention was scaled back, having had only limited impact on the crisis.

This brings us to the question of whether, in weak governance settings,  participatory governance could be an alternative entry point. The 1996 South African Schools Act delegates authority both to provinces and to school governing bodies (SGBs) in which the majority of positions are held by parents. In principle, this governance framework creates the potential for horizontal governance to serve as at least a partial institutional substitute for weaknesses in hierarchies. To explore this possibility,  in a second ESID working paper (School governance in a fragmented political and bureaucratic environment), Lawule Shumane and I explored in depth how governance played out over time  in four  schools in the Eastern Cape’s Butterworth district. In two of the four cases, participatory school-level governance turned out to provide a useful platform for pushing back against bureaucratic dysfunction.

In the first case, the school-level institutional culture was one where all stakeholders – teachers, the SGB, the extended community – felt included.  This inclusive culture provided a powerful platform for managing the recruitment of teachers (and, when the time came for leadership succession, of the school principal) in a way that assured a continuing commitment to the educational mission of the school. One interviewee illustrated how this participatory culture operated with the example of how new staff are inducted into the school’s organisational culture:

“The principal will call newly appointed staff to a meeting and introduce them to everyone. At this meeting the principal will welcome the new staff member to the team and inform them on school culture…. he will often say ‘Mr. or Ms. so and so, at this school we are a family and if we have problems we deal with them openly. If there is unrest, we will know it is you because it has never happened before’.”

The second case is more ambiguous.  The principal who set in motion the school’s long decline was appointed in the late 1980s, and remained in the post for over two decades. In the latter-1990s she purchased and moved to a home in a coastal town 100 kilometres away. From then on, using  one pretext or another, she was, for  much of the time an absentee principal. This continued for about a decade (!!!). The school went into a downward spiral, with the number of students falling from close to 1,000 in the early 1990s, to a low of 341 in 2011.

In 2009, frustration at the principal’s continuing absence finally boiled over. A group of parents and some SGB members met, and jointly reached the view that a new principal was needed. The ECDoE district office was not supportive. In response, the parent community blockaded the school, preventing the principal from entering. The district office kept her on as a displaced teacher, reporting to the district office, until her retirement in 2010. The SGB  subsequently selected as principal an internal candidate who had shown a commitment to try and make the school work during the grim period in its history. All, including the broader community,  worked together to try and turn things around.  Between 2011 and 2015  the number of pupils in the school rose  from 347 to 547.

To be sure, these intriguing cases do not imply that horizontal governance is a panacea in the face of bureaucratic dysfunction. Two of Levy-Shumane’s case study schools seemed trapped in a low-level equilibrium of capture, centred around the principal and teaching staff in the short term, with the collusion of the school governing body  and the broader community, reproduced via a captured process of principal selection – and with low morale, absenteeism by students and teachers and crumbling infrastructure the all-too-common consequences.  More broadly,  systematic analyses show that the impact of efforts the world over to strengthen participatory governance of schools  has been mixed.

But the Eastern Cape school-level case studies offer a key insight into why evaluations yield mixed results – and what might be a way to improve the outcomes. The key differentiator among the cases  is not  ‘capacity’.  Rather, the influence of horizontal governance on performance (for good or ill) depended on the relative influence of developmental and predatory stakeholders. Parents know whether teachers show up, and whether they bring honest effort to their work.  What matters for the efficacy of participatory, school-level governance is power.

This is where active citizenship can come in. The crucial task for initiatives aimed at strengthening horizontal governance is to help empower developmental actors within SGBs, parents and the broader community – helping to build networks that link SGBs with one another as a way of  sharing learning as to ‘good practices’, and potentially providing mutual support in the face of predatory pressures.

Support for school-level governance is no panacea. Children indeed gain when teachers improve their skills, and when schools are better resourced. However, trying to get these things by changing how bureaucracies work is, at best, a slow process. Bureaucracies are embedded in politics;  far-reaching improvements depend on very specific, and very difficult-to-achieve, political conditions.  But there also is abundant evidence that  a non-hierarchical entry point for improving educational outcomes has real potential to achieve gains – not always-and-everywhere, but in some schools, some of the time. Perhaps it is time to complement ongoing efforts to strengthen hierarchy with something different.

A somewhat different version of this piece appeared on the South African online Daily Maverick news and opinion website, under the title, “To help Eastern Cape schools, add a dose of active citizenship”

 

Obamacare and the ‘good governance standards shuffle’

Fred Astaire stillThis post is about Obamacare. It’s hardly news anymore, I know. But my focus is less on the details of America’s ongoing efforts to reform its health sector, than on the way the discourse has played out – making the post  another in my series on the dysfunctional ways in which we speak about government.

In an earlier post, I explored Great Gatsby-style carelessness. This time, I want to introduce a dance move —  the ‘good governance high standards shuffle’, a display of exuberant glee (disguised as disappointment) whenever the real world intrudes, and the outcome of one or another public initiative  is less than perfect.

In the same way that it can be difficult to distinguish between real tears of disappointment, and malicious glee hiding behind crocodile tears, sometimes the ‘high standards shuffle’  can be difficult to detect. Sincerity can all too easily get ‘played’ by cynicism in disguise. While some dancers of the standards shuffle are clumsily obvious,  others have the moves down pat — making it hard to tell whether or not one is being played. (And some exponents might even be unaware that they’re doing the standards shuffle.)

Each year, as part of my teaching at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I select a ‘live’ example of the challenges of public management. A few weeks ago, as I described in another post in this series, I used the case of Washington’s Metro to explore with my students at SAIS the costs of careless in our discourse about government. In 2014, my focus was on the  ongoing American debate on health care reform (also known as “Obamacare”). That debate offers a marvelous  opportunity for seeing the high standards shuffle in action – an opportunity that has not diminished with the passage of time.  So: come dance with me……

An exchange in the United States Congress early this past summer illustrates what the clumsy version of the standards shuffle looks like. Here (as reported by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank) is  President Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human services, Sylvia Burwell, being grilled by Sam Johnson, Republican Congressman of Texas:

’It looks like to me everything’s going up’” Johnson said, complaining about health care costs. Burwell pointed out that Medicare spending was $300 billion below forecast and that per-capita health-care costs growth has been the lowest in 40 years.

‘Well, but the insurance rates are going up’, Johnson pressed. Burwell said rates are going up at a lower rate than before enactment.

‘Okay’, Johnson said, ‘Let me just change subjects for a second….’ “

But sometimes the moves can be much harder to detect. Let’s go back to October 1st 2013 —  the day the Obama administration launched  the online platform for purchasing (subsidized) health insurance.  A week before the launch White House officials were assuring the public that the start up would be smooth. But that was not what happened. Over eight million people tried to log on to healthcare.gov  in the first three days of the launch. It took hours of trying to get onto the site. In the first month, fewer than 27,000 people actually were able to navigate the site to the point that they could select a plan to purchase.

Then things turned around. In late October, the Obama administration turned to Mr Fixit, Jeffrey Zients, an entrepreneur and former management consultant (including with Bain & Company….). Zients promised that by the end of November four out of five people on the site would successfully complete their efforts to purchase insurance, and that by the end of the year the site would  by working smoothly. He delivered.  By April 2014, 5.4 million people had enrolled for health insurance via the healthcare.gov site, a number which exceeded Obamacare’s proponents expectations.  had succeeded beyond its proponents expectations. As of mid-2015, 16.4 million people who otherwise would have remained uninsured had benefited from one or another aspect of Obamacare – bringing the percentage of the population that remained uninsured down from 16% in 2009 to 9% in 2015.

Yet even if, in broad terms, Obamacare has achieved its objectives, might the messiness in implementation have been avoided? Intriguingly, my SAIS students and I concluded that, for two reasons, it was an inevitable part of the package.

The first reason is technological: Large information technology projects almost never launch as planned, in either the private or public sectors. An October 2013 article in Computerworld reported that only 6.5% of 3,555 projects from 2003 to 2012 with labor costs in excess of $10 million were wholly successful; that 41.5% were failures (either abandoned or started anew from scratch); and that the remaining 52% were challenged (over budget, behind schedule or failing to meet user expectations). Generally, private companies respond to these realities by scaling-up incrementally, with multiple ‘beta’ versions, fixing problems as they arise, and managing expectations along the way.

This brings us to the second reason why the messiness of the launch was likely unavoidable – namely that in the politically toxic environment that prevailed in Washington, an incremental approach was not feasible. Here’s how the political context was described in a November 2013 article in the Washington Post:

“The project was hampered by the White House’s political sensitivity to Republican hatred of the law – sensitivity so intense that the president’s aides ordered that some work be slowed down or remain secret for fear of feeding the opposition…. Republicans also made clear they would block funding…..Tucking [the unit responsible for implementation] within a large bureaucracy, some administration officials believed, [it] would be better insulated from the efforts of House Republicans, who were looking for ways to undermine the law….‘You’re basically trying to build a complicated building in a war zone, because the Republicans are lobbing bombs at us’ a White House official said…”

Reflecting on the Obamacare experience, I am tempted to propose two theorems of public sector implementation in ‘messy democracies’:

  • That start-up will rarely be as smooth as proponents promise, and generally messier than in the private sector. (Even without the Obamacare-specific politics, public organizations need to content with a more complex combination of multiple goals and rigid procurement practices than do their private counterparts.). And
  • That the true measure of public sector capability is the capacity to adapt when crisis becomes apparent – with the moment of crisis creating the opportunity to cut through the fog of political obfuscation and bureaucratic routines. Whether a public organization can rise to the occasion is the true test of what can be achieved, not judgement against a standard of perfection.

But these theorems imply that public action will almost always be vulnerable to the ‘good governance standards shuffle’. Again, the discourse surrounding Obamacare is revealing. Though the facts of what happened seem clear, endless repetition of the ‘failed roll-out of Obamacare’ mantra persist. In the eye of at least some beholders, success (rather than failure) simply is not an option. Evidently, something other than an engagement with the facts is at work. In the case of Obamacare, there’s not much ambiguity as to what it is: a determination, for ideological (or other) reasons to discredit the reforms. Obamacare WILL serve as ‘Exhibit #1’ of what government cannot do, irrespective of the evidence.

To be sure, things can (and do) go wrong; those of us committed to public action hardly have room for complacency. But we would also do well to avoid buying into superficially appealing benchmarks of perfection, thereby inadvertently contributing to the corrosive discourse about government. Rather, we can step back and publicly applaud the cynical performance for what it is – a virtuoso display of the ‘good governance high standards shuffle’!!!!

(Postscript: Here, for your enjoyment, as a bonus for reading this post, is a link to a YouTube video of a true dance master in action – Mr Fred Astaire…….).

 

 

Washington’s Metro — The Costs of Carelessness (WWG implementation series #4)

District of Columbia Fire and Emergency workers at the site of a rush-hour collision between two Metro transit trains in northeast Washington, D.C. Monday, June 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

District of Columbia Fire and Emergency workers at the site of a rush-hour collision between two Metro transit trains in northeast Washington, D.C. Monday, June 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

For those who are so disposed, finding instances of government dysfunction can be like shooting fish in a barrel. But the resulting back-and-forth cycle of blame, defensiveness and recrimination can be a dangerous distraction from the crucial task of  getting public agencies that play a central role in our daily lives to work better. Take the example of Washington’s Metro.

Each year, as part of my teaching at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I select a ‘live’ example of the challenge of public management. This year, Washington’s Metro seemed to be a good case to choose — barely a week has gone by without one or another crisis of Metro management making it into the headlines.

The Metro case demonstrates vividly the costs of carelessness in our discourse about government. (In a complementary blog post, I drill more deeply into how this ‘Great Gatsby’ government discourse works. ) But it also points to a possible way forward — how  a combination of public entrepreneurship and  active citizenship potentially can be leveraged to foster a sustainable turnaround of performance. (For additional detail on the recent Metro experience, here is a link to an article published in the Washingtonian, a few days after I taught the case at SAIS.)

In the beginning, Metro looked like a success story. It opened its doors to passengers in 1976; its 117 miles of track, over 215 million trips per year (and up-front $9.3 billion capital investment) made it the second largest system in the United States. Washingtonians came to expect a streamlined, comfortable, reliable, and aesthetically pleasing commute. In 1987 and again in 1997, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority won ‘Outstanding Achievement’ awards from the American Public Transportation Association.

But beneath this success something else was incubating.  By 2001, the key management tasks had become routine operational ones – but Metro’s long-time (1996-2006) general manager, Richard White, was not one to sweat the details. “He was a frequent visitor on Capitol Hill…He drove to work….He was part of the regional dialogue about highways and land use and everything else….[he] didn’t spend much time mingling with the rank and file”. The system began to decay. In 2006, the Metro board terminated his contract, three years early.

Then followed an accelerating downward spiral of deteriorating performance in the management of both financial and safety systems:

  • A 2008 internal audit report raised the red flag on poor controls. Richard Sarles (general manager from 2010 to end-2014) reported that “Metro had poor financial controls when he arrived in 2010 and that he had been working to improve them”. (WP 6/7/15).
  • In 2009, two trains collided, killing nine people, and injuring 80. “What you’re finding, when you look behind the curtain, is that there’s been a lot of neglect to safety priorities coming out of accidents,” said Kitty Higgins, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board to a Washington Post team investigating the accident. “It really is disheartening.”
  • A 2014 audit by the Federal Transit Administration reported extensive safety concerns, including: understaffing in the central Metro train control center (only 34 of 54 authorized positions were filled; those in position enjoyed massive overtime payments); shortages in keeping maintenance materials in stock (so, for three months, replacement brake pads were cannibalized from out-of-service trains); and the non-repair of tunnel ventilation systems (two fans in Metros deepest tunnel location were out of operation for more than six months awaiting repair). It also found “extensive grant-related mismanagement that had gone on for several years”.
  • In January 2015, passengers were left stranded for a half-hour as their train and tunnel filled with smoke, and Metro officials were paralyzed with indecision as to what to do, resulting in one death.
  • The track defect that caused an August 2015 derailment (no one was injured this time) had been identified as an urgent problem in a safety inspection a month earlier, but with no follow-up. Metro’s chief safety officer resigned a month later.

Underlying these performance shortfalls were weaknesses in governance. Four jurisdictions (the District of Columbia; the states of Maryland and Virginia; and the Federal government) plus multiple sub-jurisdictions all have oversight responsibility for Metro, and are allocated seats on the Metro board of directors. Governance by multiple principals is messy; but it mirrors the spatial geography of Washington’s capital city. However, the consequence has been that none of the jurisdictions has taken a broad strategic view of the organization’s challenge.

Board members focused disproportionately on narrower concerns that are of interest to their constituents: where bus stops would be located; operating and closing times; caps on fee increases in the face of revenue shortfalls. Financial oversight also has been shortsighted. In response to the 2014 audit findings of shortfalls in Metro’s financial management, the FTA imposed new layers of restrictions on Metro’s access to federal funds. Punishing a system in the midst of a downward spiral for its continuing shortfalls might offer some satisfaction for ideologically-inclined politicians – but it also is an almost certain recipe for accelerating the decline.

What, then, is to be done? In the short-to-medium-term there is room for optimism that things will turn around. The attention of the Board (and the areas’ politicians) is there. A new CEO has been appointed. The immediate task, though formidable, seems clear: rebuild confidence in the operation – and renew its mandate and finances.

But how to ensure that the cycle described above – rising confidence, de facto autonomy, and then a slide into dysfunction — doesn’t repeat itself? Key, I would argue, is to look again at how we think about the boundary between the spheres of bureaucracy, of politics, and of civil society. Our standard narrative is Weberian, and extols the virtues of an ‘insulated’ bureaucracy. However, as the experience of the latter 1990s onwards underscores, a lack of insulation from pressure for performance has hardly been Metro’s problem.

The past two years have seen a rise in public focus on Metro.  Coverage by Washington’s media has been forthright, detailed. Metro’s riders, too, have increasingly been on the case. A variety of activist groups of Metro riders have been formed. In October 2015 these came together to form the Washington Metro Riders Union. Viewed through the lens of bureaucratic insulation, journalism, social media and civic activism might seem to be noise in the system. But, as Daniel Carpenter has highlighted, high-performing American public sector organizations took root

“…. not at the expense of democratic participation but in a symbiotic relationship with it….….grounded in multiple networks through which agency entrepreneurs can build program coalitions around the policies they favor….. At their strongest, these ties cut across the established lines of class, partisanship and ideology…and enable officials to ground their agency’s reputation in a broader embedment in society.…. The [contemporary] challenge of American statebuilding may be to reengage state bureaucracies with the very civic organizations and social networks in which they once flourished.”

Robert Putnam makes a similar point in his classic 2000 book, Bowling Alone. “American democracy”, he argued:

 “….evolved historically in an environment unusually rich in social capital….. A politics without face-to-face socializing and organizing….would be heard as a muddle of disembodied voices….. Just as one cannot restart a heart with one’s remote control, one cannot jump-start citizenship without direct, face-to-face participation. Citizenship is not a spectator sport.”

Encouragingly, in his first day on the job, Metro’s newly appointed General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, went on a listening tour among stakeholders – including a commitment to meet with the Riders Union. Is it really too much to hope that in America’s capital city, a city where more words are spoken in praise of democracy than almost anywhere else on earth, public discourse need not be a toxic battleground – but that instead an activated media and citizenry could become an integral part of the fabric of active, effective governance?

 

Public sector governance — what we (choose to) see shapes what we get….

storm-rainbowDiscourses on public sector governance, in South Africa and elsewhere, illustrate powerfully the insight of behavioral psychologists that ‘framing’ matters. If our framing is inconsistent with the way things actually are, we are doomed to disappointment and unhappiness. But frame in a way that responds to reality, and opportunities abound for active, worthwhile engagement.

South Africa’s daily headlines and frustrations dispirit – from electricity blackouts, to corruption in the procurement of railway engines (including allegations that the engines purchased did not match the specifications of South Africa’s railway system); to reports that neglect of maintenance could lead to the collapse of water utilities in over half the country’s utilities; and that teaching jobs can be bought (including via threats of violence to ensure that a desired position becomes vacant).

As of 2014, only 34 percent of the country’s citizens reported that they had confidence in their government, down from 66 percent in 2007. While the country is hardly alone in its lurch into pessimism (on average, as of 2014, only 40 percent of citizens in countries the club of high-income democracies, the OECD, had trust in their governments), South Africa’s decline in confidence is among the most rapid anywhere. In a complementary blog post I explore how the country’s current extraordinarily sour, conflict-prone public discourse has its roots in economic and psychological deformations inherited from the apartheid era. This post focuses narrowly on public sector governance.

Notwithstanding the evident challenges, might pessimism about the performance of South Africa’s public sector be overdone? Without wishing away the challenges, might there be alternative ways of framing that point towards creative entry points for strengthening public sector performance?

To answer these questions, it is helpful to disentangle two arguments that often are conflated:

  • that a predatory political leadership can provoke a downward spiral into disaster; and
  • that good governance is necessary for development.

The first argument is straightforward — and, as recent dark prophecies emphasize, all too plausible for South Africa. (I will return to it at the end of this post.) But the broader ‘good governance’ argument does not withstand scrutiny — either empirically or conceptually.

Consider first South Africa’s empirical track record. Aggregate indicators indeed show that government effectiveness in South Africa rates well below high-income countries, with substantial decline between 1996 and 2014. Even so, as shown in the accompanying table of  South Africa’s comparative governance relative to other middle-income countries, as of 2014 South Africa’s government effectiveness rated at the high-end for relevant comparators — on a par with Mexico and Turkey, and well above Brazil and Thailand. In a recent paper for the DFID-funded and University of Manchester led Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) research programme, Alan Hirsch, Ingrid Woolard and I documented major gains between 1994 and 2010 in the provision of public services to the poorest 40 percent of the country’s population. And, to further confound the drumbeat of daily headlines, here are some recent examples of public sector effectiveness:

  • The successful procurement from independent power providers of well over 5,000MW of renewable (wind and solar) electricity generation capacity between 2011 and 2013, an investment of over US$15 billion, with very large declines in unit prices over four rounds of competitive bidding (e.g. for solar, from from $0.35c/kilowatt hour in the first round to under 8c/kwh in round four)   – transforming South Africa from a laggard to a leader globally.
  • The leveraging of the Expanded Public Works Programme  to create over one million work opportunities in 2014 (the equivalent of about 400,000 low-income jobs) and to integrate these into ongoing programmes of support for the social sectors (in Limpopo), for rehabilitation and maintenance of rural roads (in the Eastern Cape) and for environmental rehabilitation (via, for example, the internationally renowned Working for Water, Working on Fire, and Working for Wetlands programmes).
  • Ongoing gains in the outcomes of basic education in some provinces (e.g. the Free State), and persistent examples of high-performing public schools even in provinces (such as the Eastern Cape) where the broader environment for educational performance remains weak.
  • High-quality, proactive regional economic development strategies in both of South Africa’s two leading regional economic hubs – the Western Cape and Gauteng. And
  • A four-fold increase between 2009 and 2012 in the number of people receiving anti-retroviral therapy – with over 2 million people receiving life-saving anti-retroviral medications in 2012, delivered through a supply chain that reaches effectively into the most remote parts of the country, and alongside interventions that successfully have lowered rates of HIV-prevalence.

Why, given these results, is the tone of the discourse so unrelievedly negative? Part of the reason is that most South Africans (whether of the political left or right) implicitly conceive of the public sector in top-down, hierarchical terms. Good leaders get the policies right, and then direct the bureaucracy to deliver. Viewed through this lens, all is either won or lost at the top of the hierarchy – ‘a fish rots from the head down’ in the reigning metaphor.

More broadly, the ‘good governance’ paradigm implicitly frames public performance as ‘all’ or ‘nothing’, with little scope for shades of gray. However, as recent landmark contributions by Francis Fukuyama and Douglass North underscore, this pre-occupation with good governance is inconsistent both with the evidence of how results are achieved in many developing countries, and with the historical record of all contemporary high-income countries. (Note, though, that as I explore in an accompanying blog post it can, for some, have a paradoxical ideological function — a seeming embrace of ‘good governance’ can, for those on the political right, offer a marvelous opportunity for ‘crocodile tears’, for seeming to wish that government can do better, but then sorrowfully concluding that it cannot.)

Letting go of a narrowly, top-down framing of how the public sector works opens up space for identifying potential entry points for positive action that can help build a thriving, inclusive society. Developing democracies can indeed thrive – but, as a review of the track record over the past fifteen years underscores,  almost everywhere the process looks very different from a ‘best practice’ vision of how hierarchy is supposed to work .  Rather, in these messy settings results often come via ‘islands of effectiveness’.

Islands of effectiveness emerge when stakeholders take the initiative: from public entrepreneurs within government going to the limits of their formal mandates, and sometimes beyond, in their efforts to make a difference in peoples’ lives; from multistakeholder partnerships capable of trumping predatory pressures . (Working with the Grain explores these processes in depth.) As a landmark study shows, this combination of public entrepreneurship and multistakeholder partnership was key to the gradual, cumulative transformation of the patronage-driven American bureaucracy of the 1880s into (by the early 1920s) a more performance-driven organization. It also has underpinned many of the positive outcomes along the lines of the South African examples listed above.

There is, however, a crucial caveat. Predatory politics and islands of effectiveness can coexist for a while, but not over the long term. Robust coalitions can resist everyday predators, but they cannot indefinitely withstand all-pervasive predation emanating from the top of the political order. Combatting that kind of predation is, ultimately, the task of politics – of the choices political parties make as to their leaders, and of how citizens respond to those choices. It is a task for activists – but it is not the only task. Even in the midst of a messy politics, there is scope for supporting the emergence of initiatives that can make a difference in peoples lives, and for celebrating gains where they are made. Approaches that throw out the baby with the bathwater may or may not be sufficient to get rid of the bathwater – but they will almost surely kill the baby.

 

 

 

 

Reframing democratic development — vision, strategy and process

no_easy_walk_to_freedom How,  in today’s complex and uncertain times, can those of us working at the interface between governance and development sustain  what the great twentieth century development economist, Albert Hirschman, called  “a bias for hope”?

In two recent blog posts (click HERE and HERE)  I took stock of the evidence as to the extent of governance improvement between 1998 and 2013 among 65 democratic countries (the large majority of which made their initial transition to democracy subsequent to 1990). The results left me feeling even more skeptical than when I wrote Working with the Grain as to the practical relevance of maximalist “good governance” agendas. We need an alternative approach.

To tease out an alternative, it is useful to begin with the classic three-part tripod for orchestrating change – clarifying the vision, developing a strategy for moving towards the realization of that vision,  and delineating step-by-step processes for facilitating implementation. Using this lens, the classic ‘good governance’ discourse turns out to be all vision, empty of strategic content, and counterproductive vis-à-vis process.

‘Good governance’ generally directs attention to the destination, to   how a well-functioning democratic society is supposed to work — and seeks to motivate by cultivating dissatisfaction with the gap between the destination and the way things are. Yes – electoral accountability, a strong rule of law, a capable public sector, robust control of corruption, and a ‘level playing field’ business environment are all desirable.  But the institutional underpinnings for many of these are demanding – and advocates generally stop short of laying out any practical program for getting from here to there. With no proactive agenda for action, the all-too-common result is to end up fuelling  disillusion and despair, rather than cultivating hope.

There is, though, an even deeper problem with maximalist advocacy: it sells democracy short. 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.

This brings us to process —  the second pillar of the change tripod. In the later stages of his career, Albert Hirschman turned his attention from trying to understand strategies for economic development, to trying to understand  how we thought and spoke about them. His  purpose, he asserted, was: “…. to move public discourse beyond extreme, intransigent postures of either kind, with the hope that in the process….participants engage in meaningful discussion, ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of other arguments and new information..”

 The renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, points to why the quality of discourse matters greatly.  “Peace”, he suggested  “is every step:Freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves…. here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see…. (in) every breath we take, every step we take….. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.” Insofar as democracy is an affirmation of dignity, its promise is not accessible only when some distant destination is reached. Its potential is also here and now — realizable through a process that, in and of itself, is an affirmation of that dignity.

Dignity also is central  to the third leg of the tripod for the orchestration of change –a strategy for democratic development which has the affirmation of human dignity at its heart. As an alternative to what one might call ‘Big-G’ reforms of governance systems,   Working with the Grain (Oxford, 2014) lays out a ‘small-g governance’ strategy for deepening democracy among countries which have formally embraced democratic forms, but whose practices fall far, far short of a normative ideal. A ‘small-g’ strategy focuses on a search for concrete gains vis-à-vis specific problems – and emphasizes the pursuit of these gains through active citizenship, through participation and engagement among equals.

The immediate goal of a  ‘small-g’ strategy is to nurture “islands of effectiveness” — to identify entry points for focused engagement among a variety of stakeholders with high-powered incentives to see the outcomes achieved.  Working with the Grain explores in depth a variety of potential entry points:

  • Public entrepreneurs at multiple layers of government can foster ‘islands of effectiveness’ even within a broadly dysfunctional public service —   focusing on achievement of a very specific public purpose (better schools, better infrastructure, less stifling regulation), and endeavoring to build within their domain both a team with the skills and commitment to achieve that purpose, and the network of external alliances needed to fend off opposition.
  • Civil society groups can forge a middle path of engagement —   neither locking-in to confrontational action, nor surrendering principle in search of the next donor- or government-funded contract, but rather focusing on the quality of service provision, both partnering with providers and holding them accountable for how public resources are used.
  • Northern activists can seek eyes-wide-open partnerships with globalized firms – anchored in collectively designed and transparent, mutually monitored commitments to, say, rein in bribe-giving, or to target exploitative practices vis-à-vis environmental protection, labor standards, and the extraction of natural resources.
  • Scholars and practitioners can monitor governance in ways that encourage a long view – foreswearing overheated rhetoric in the face of year-to-year changes in indicators of corruption, the rule of law, or government effectiveness, and using monitoring to provide a platform for nurturing constructive dialogue on trends, identifying lagging areas, and exploring how they might be addressed.

Gains from any individual initiative might initially seem small, but individual islands can pull a wide variety of related activities in their wake, adding up over time into far-reaching economic , social and political change – while affirming, at each step along the way, the positive promise of democratic development.

Vision, process and strategy become a mutually reinforcing pathway of democratic development. The vision brings the promise of dignity to center stage;  the process is one that systematically affirms that dignity; and the ‘small-g’ strategy  offers ample opportunity for the practice of ‘active citizenship’ for engagement among equals. Taken together, these elements perhaps indeed offer a new basis for sustaining Albert Hirschman’s ‘bias for hope’ — but in a different intonation from that usually evoked by democracy’s advocates.

The usual intonation of democracy advocacy is a drumbeat of exhortation, of a world on the march to some more perfect destination on the horizon. But, as per Albert Hirschman and Thich Nhat Hanh, hope can also come in a quieter pitch: softer voices, calming rather than raising the temperature, searching, encouraging deliberation, reflection, co-operation.  Over the past two decades, democracy advocates have been sobered by the messy complexity of what it takes to get from here to there. Perhaps going forward, it is not in the drumbeat of exhortation but in hope’s softer, quieter intonations that we will find our inspiration – and our staying power.

Transformational fantasies, cumulative possibilities

reality check ahead

Dreams die hard. I was on the road for much of last fall, talking about my new book  – which promotes (as I put it in a recent piece in foreignpolicy.com),   the virtues of modesty in our approach to democratic development. While my message is a sober one,  my aim is not to foster pessimism but rather to highlight pragmatic ways forward.

Yet, repeatedly, I come up against critics who bewail my seeming lack of ambition. “Why”, they ask, “do you sell short the possibilities of transformation? Isn’t what we need bold, decisive, ethical leadership which cuts through the messiness of present predicaments?  Where governance is weak, bold leaders can and should make it strong – rapidly and systematically!”.

By now, there is plenty of scholarship that makes the case that changes in governance cannot be willed into being – but rather that ‘good governance’ is the cumulative consequence of a long, slow incremental process. Nobel-prize-winner Douglass North and colleagues have clarified conceptually how personalized bargains between contending elites can provide platforms for both stability and (perhaps) the slow evolution of formal rules of the game. Francis Fukuyama masterfully  documents,  over two volumes,  the deep historical roots of the rule of law, and of the difficult challenges posed by democratization in settings where state capabilities remain weak.

For many, though, conceptual and historical perspectives remain unpersuasive. “We need change”, they insist. “Therefore good leaders should provide it.”

One way or another damage is being done. If what I argue in Working with the Grain is wrong, then my incrementalist approach is giving comfort to mediocrity (and, sometimes, venality) when boldness and excellence are called for. But if the critics are wrong, then it is their seemingly visionary argumentation that is doing damage – holding up the impossible as a standard,  and thereby fuelling the inevitable disillusion and despair that comes in the wake of failure.

To try and cut through these contending arguments, I have turned to some facts. Subsequent to the exuberant phase of democratization of the early 1990s, many democracies (both new and more longstanding) have made major economic, social and political gains. But what has driven these gains?  Is it continuing governance transformation, driven by sustained, bold leadership? Or is it a more messier process —  ‘muddling through’, but nonetheless on balance successful?

One way to get a better sense of these achievements and their drivers is to review cross-country evidence. I focus here on progress across two dimensions – trends in economic performance and trends in institutional quality.  The attached file of MAJOR GOVERNANCE IMPROVERS, 1998 to 2013  summarizes the observed patterns for the full set of 65 countries that are on a democratic pathway, have populations in excess of 1 million, and whose per capita incomes as of 2000 were below $10,000.  The group divides more-or-less evenly between 35  countries for which the recent period has been one of continuing (albeit often uneven) economic progress, and 30  countries that have experienced limited, if any, gains on either the institutional or economic front.

In the companion post linked here, I explore the empirical detail.  But here is the headline conclusion:

  • European Union accession countries aside, only two countries – Georgia and Liberia – experienced continuing transformational gains in governance subsequent to their initial democratizing moment.

Only two countries…(!!!) ..…Georgia and Liberia…(!!!)…. Hardly a powerful platform for transformational claims!!!

Given these realities, surely we need to set aside our transformational fantasies and base our actions and advocacy not on our dreams and desires, but on the track record of what is feasible. But this need not mean setting our sights low. Over time, the cumulative consequences that follow from the accumulation of many seemingly small victories can be profound. But focusing on incremental gains calls for a different mindset than has prevailed in the recent past – it calls for us to set aside our infatuation with instant gratification and commit to sustained effort for the long haul. Development, including in its governance dimensions, is not a sprint, but a marathon.