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.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.