Why do some bits of the State function, even in Messed Up Places? Review of ‘The Politics of Public Sector Performance’

January 22, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

The Politics of Public Sector Performance, edited by Michael Roll, brings together some fascinating research on ‘Pockets of Effectiveness’ in developing countries. PoEs are public organizations that ‘deliver public goods and services relatively effectively … scattered islands in seas of administrative ineffectiveness and corruption.’

This kind of approach has a lot to recommend it – a kind of institutional positive deviance that looks at assets and success (rather than the more familiar focus on deficits and failure). By pointing out that some bits of the state work, even in generally messed-up places, it also looks harder at the world as it is, rather than as donors and consultants think it should be when they ‘developed a normative agenda, based on ideology, theory and pieces of evidence, and swarmed out of their headquarters to implement it.’ (Love the idea of a consultant swarm – any cartoonists out there?).

The research team identified a number of examples in China, Brazil (National Development Bank), Nigeria (National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control; National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons), Suriname (the state oil company) and elsewhere, and asked why and how they emerge, whether they persist, and whether they have a knock-on effect on other parts of the state.

They found some common features among the case studies: What become PoEs are typically created by powerful heads of state in a largely patronage-based political system that was failing to deliver public services.

In these situations, the Big Men in the case studies took top-down decisions to create PoEs to achieve particular tasks that they felt (for political or personal reasons) were important, like collecting tax, or extracting natural resources. In some cases, the motivation was political survival or enrichment, but in other cases concern about the country’s international reputation – presidents have feelings too, and pride (lots of it).

There is plenty of political opposition, of course, which presidents typically try and circumvent by appointing technocrats from outside the political game to run the PoE. Their chances of success are greatest when the head of state is strong, with few serious challengers, when they act soon after coming to power, usually within their first two years, and where the PoEs produce ‘quick and politically tangible results’ that can defuse opposition.

Other success factors include a strong legal mandate that establishes the autonomy of the PoE from the grasping fingers of other government departments; a loyal, aligned senior leadership team combined with standardized, meritocratic recruitment for the rank and file and higher salaries than the civil service average to get and retain the best people.

They summarized all this in a nice graphic:

Summary graphic

Figure 9.1 Model for the emergence of pockets of effectiveness

Notes: The filled arrows refer to modelled sequential orders. The two circular arrows refer to bargaining relationships. The narrow dotted arrow refers to a decision and the horizontal brackets symbolize more structural features that are external conditions for the other factors, although they themselves are to some degree based on bargaining processes. The unfilled arrows add an additional factor to the model that is specific to scale effectiveness.

So what does all this mean for aid donors, INGOs and other outsiders? Firstly, a dose of humility: the book concludes that international factors to back the reforms were ‘influential but not decisive’.

But also, it argues that outsiders should spend more time identifying pockets of effectiveness and backing them, even if they don’t conform to donor standards of ‘good governance’, ‘public financial management’ and all the rest. Chuck away your blueprints and templates, and learn to look harder at what is – you might just get somewhere.

Top stuff. Shame the book is an overpriced academic volume (hence boring cover), but hopefully this will give you a taste of its findings.

January 22, 2020
Duncan Green