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


The politics and governance of basic education – drilling into the details

four main ver2The view that ‘context matters’,  that development practice needs to move from ‘best practice’ to ‘good fit’, has become commonplace among development practitioners and scholars.  What are the practical implications of this general nostrum?

One way to address this question is to focus on a specific sector, and to explore how specific policy and institutional challenges within that sector play out across divergent locales. my 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 – details the results of a multi-level, multi-disciplinary and multi-methodology analysis along these lines.  In this blog post (the first in a series), I lay out my personal take as to what are the major findings and implications of the research.

  • Finding #1: Both policymaking and implementation are shaped by political and institutional context.

At national level (as chapter 3 of the book details) political and institutional drivers account for the disconnect between South Africa’s bold aspirations to introduce performance management into the education system and the non-binding ‘isomorphic mimicry’-like system which eventually was put into place. At provincial level, chapters 4-7 detail some stark differences  between the Western and Eastern Cape educational bureaucracies in the quality of management — and the roots of these differences in the starkly divergent background political contexts of the two provinces.  Unsurprisingly,  a well-functioning bureaucracy emerges as a valuable asset: the Western Cape does well (but the Eastern Cape poorly) the core bureaucratic tasks of  managing resources,  assigning personnel to where they are most needed, monitoring and managing on the basis of performance. However:

  • Finding #2: A well-functioning bureaucracy does not provide a sufficient governance platform for achieving good educational outcomes.

A 2007  assessment of Grade 6 mathematics capabilities conducted by the Southern African Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ) found that while the Western Cape was the highest scorer among South Africa’s provinces, it was outperformed by Kenya, which achieved its superior results with only one-fourth the level of resources per learner. Careful econometric analysis (in chapter 6 of the book) confirmed that these results were achieved  even after controlling for a variety of other influences (including socio-economic circumstances of learners, teacher skills and experience, and parental participation at the school level).

Case studies of four Western Cape schools (in chapter 8 of the book) reveal how,  for all of its strengths, the Western Cape Education Department has the classic bureaucratic limitation of a limited ability to ‘see’ at hyper-local levels – leaving (in the absence of support for school-level participatory approaches) the terrain vulnerable for capture by predatory local interests. Kenya’s strength, by contrast, is in the ‘softer’ side of governance   – a shared  motivation among stakeholders throughout the system  to achieve good learning outcomes. Chapter 10 of the book (and an upcoming blog post) explore how this ‘softer side’ emerged in Kenya, and how it influences learning outcomes.

  • Finding #3: horizontal governance emerges as a partial institutional substitute for hierarchical weakness.

The Eastern Cape school-level case studies in chapter 9  detail how  pro-active engagement on the part of school governing bodies and parents helped sustain and  turn around performance in at least some schools.  This finding is supported by the econometric analysis in chapter 6  which shows a strong, significant positive effect on educational outcomes of  ‘parental contribution to building construction and maintenance’ (high in the Eastern Cape relative to the Western Cape). But participation is no panacea; the school-level case studies also uncover instances of  capture by predatory interests.

  • Finding #4: A shift from ‘schooling’ to ‘learning’ requires moving beyond a narrow pre-occupation with systems and processes to a more inclusive, participatory vision which brings to center stage the evocation of ‘agency’ – a renewed sense among multiple stakeholders at multiple levels that constructive action can make a difference.

As the 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, put it many education sectors are “stuck in low-learning traps in which each acts in ways which maintain the status quo – even if society, and many of these actors, would be better off if they could shift to a higher-quality equilibrium”. The Millennium Development Goal of ‘education for all’, of getting children into schools,  was one which aligned well with a top-down, process-compliance-oriented view of public service provision. But this approach is insufficient to achieve major gains in learning outcomes.  Key to ‘unsticking’ a complex system trapped in a low-level equilibrium is a transformative idea, one capable of reframing the  visions of the full gamut of stakeholders as to how they should engage.  What is called for is a vision of pro-active engagement – a vision, one might say, not simply of ‘education for all’, but of ‘all for education’.

Follow me on Twitter at @brianlevy387 including for additional posts in this series.

The Idea of Inclusion and its Resilience

Hirschman Hope, 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. Here’s how he depicts the intellectual  malaise in which many of us find ourselves a quarter century after the exuberance of the  early 1990s:

A drastic transvaluation of values is in process in the study of economic and political development. It has been forced upon us by a series of disasters that have occurred in countries in which development seemed to be vigorously under way…… As a result one reads with increasing frequency pronouncements about the bankruptcy of development economics…[But] the intellectual enthusiasm for development reflected elements of real hopefulness that were actually present. What was not correctly perceived was the precarious and transitory nature of that early hopeful and even exuberant phase…”

Their current resonance notwithstanding, Hirschman actually wrote these words in 1973. (He died in 2012, and had stopped writing more than a decade before then.) He had been a major thinker and chronicler of Latin American development, and was writing about the loss of hope and rise of authoritarianism that swept through that continent from the late 1960s onward. More than that,  as his biographer Jeremy Adelman documents,  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.)

Hirschman’s writings continue to inspire my own efforts to make sense of our times, and to seek out creative ways of revitalizing a bias for hope. (More on that in forthcoming posts, and via my twitter feed, @Brianlevy387).  In this post, I provide an overview of some of Hirschman’s core ideas, focused on his classic article “The changing tolerance for income inequality in the course of economic development”.  In a related post, I highlight the ways in which some of  the ideas might usefully be applied to South Africa (here’s a link).  The material here is organized the material into seven themes:

I: Short-run tolerance, long-run hazard

“It can happen that society’s tolerance for increasing disparities [may initially] be substantial… To the extent that such tolerance comes into being, it accommodates, as it were, the increasing inequalities in an almost providential fashion. But this tolerance 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…… Nonrealization 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….”

II: The ‘tunnel effect’

“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…..”

“An individual’s welfare depends on his present state of contentment (or, as a proxy, income), as well as on his expected future contentment…. The tunnel effect operates because advances of others supply information about a more benign external environment; receipt of this information produces gratification; and this gratification overcomes, or at least suspends, envy……”

III: Sudden reversals

“As long as the tunnel effect lasts, everybody feels better off, both those who have become richer and those who have not….”.

“Providential and tremendously helpful as the tunnel effect is in one respect (because it accommodates the inequalities almost inevitably arising in the course of development), it is also treacherous; the rulers are not necessarily given any advance notice about its decay and exhaustion…. On the contrary, they are lulled into complacency by the easy early stage when everybody seems to be enjoying the very process that will later be vehemently denounced and damned as one consisting essentially in ‘the rich becoming richer’ ”.

IV: How dissatisfaction manifests – some paradoxes

(i): the upwardly mobile

“As de Tocqueville noted, the upwardly mobile do not necessarily turn into pillars of society all at once, but may on the contrary be disaffected and subversive for a considerable time. The principal reason for this surprising development is the phenomenon of partial and truncated mobility: the upwardly mobile who may have risen along one of the dimensions of social status, such as wealth, find that a number of obstacles, rigidities and discriminatory practices still block their continued ascent, particularly along other dimensions, as well as their all-round acceptance by the traditional elites, and consequently they feel that in spite of all their efforts and achievements, they are not really ‘making it’. Only as social mobility continues for a long period, and the traditional system of stratification is substantially eroded as a result, will the upwardly mobile become fully integrated – or ‘co-opted’.”

(ii): those left behind

“The dynamic of those left behind is the reverse…the nonmobile see only the improvement in the fortunes of the mobile and remain totally unaware of the new problems being encountered by them.

(iii): second phase

“In a second phase there may take place a symmetrical switch: the upwardly mobile become integrated, whereas the nonmobile lose their earlier hope of joining the upward surge and turn into enemies of the existing order….It is quite unlikely however that the beginning of the second phase will coincide for the two groups….The nonmobile may experience the turnaround from hopefulness to disenchantment, while the mobile are still disaffected. This last situation clearly contains much potential for social upheaval.”

V: What determines the extent of polarization?

“For the tunnel effect to be strong, the group that does not advance must be able to emphathise, at least for a while, with the group that does. In other words, the two groups must not be divided by barriers that are or are felt as impassable…..”

“If, in segmented societies, economic advance becomes identified with one particular ethnic or language group or with the members of one particular religion or region then those who are left out and behind are unlikely to experience the tunnel effect: they will be convinced almost from the start of the process that the advancing group is achieving an unfair exploitative advantage over them.”

“A further possibility is that the success of others is attributed not to their qualities, but to their defects. One often rationalizes his own failure to do as well as others in the following terms: ‘I would not want to get ahead by stooping to his (ruthless, unprincipled, servile etc.) conduct’ “.

VI: Growth and equity – sequential or simultaneous?

“If growth and equity in income distribution are considered the two principal economic tasks facing a country, then these two tasks can be solved sequentially if the country is well supplied with the tunnel effect. If, because of existing social, political or psychological structures, the tunnel effect is weak or nonexistent, then the two tasks will have to be solved simultaneously, a difficult enterprise and one that probably requires institutions wholly different from those appropriate to the sequential case.”

“Development disaster occurs in countries in which [a sequential] strategy is nicely abetted for a while by the tunnel effect, but where ruling groups and policy makers fail to realize that the safety valve, which the effect implies, will cease to operate after some time.”

VII: The tunnel effect in the contemporary USA

“After a revolution, and because of it, society will have acquired a high tolerance for new equalities if and when they arrive.…. The egalitarian or, rather ‘born equal’ heritage of the United States – the collective leaving behind of Europe with its feudal shackles and class conflicts – may have set the stage for the prolonged acceptance by American society of huge economic disparities.”

“Could A come to feel under certain circumstances that an advance on the part of B is likely to affect his own welfare negatively?…. this sort of prediction is likely to be made in a society whose members are convinced that they are involved in a zero-sum game because resources are available in strictly limited amounts….”

“It may well be that when B advances, this makes A unhappy not because he is envious, but because he is worried; on the basis of his existing world view, he must expect to be worse off in short order. In other words, A is unhappy not because of the presence of relative deprivation, but because of the anticipation of absolute deprivation.”

NOTE: Over the next few weeks, I plan to initiate a conversation on the above on Twitter. To participate/follow, please follow me via my twitter handle Brian Levy @Brianlevy387biogra