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”



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.