We know very little about governments’ willingness to take risks. Technologies to enhance public sector performance are widely known and available nowadays, but we still can't predict when governments are likely to take risks in the implementation of complex public sector reforms. One prerequisite for any government attempting to implement reforms is that it has sufficient political capital. Governments and politicians seeking trust and legitimacy try to win or buy approval, but they do not always succeed in winning anything approaching legitimacy. We are still grappling with how to objectively measure the extent to which governments are effective and even demonstrate that citizens are good judges in perceiving and distinguishing good-performers from bad-performers, or in translating that perception into political endorsement or trust.
Our argument is that a government that shows early returns from Public Sector Management (PSM) reforms in terms of delivering better public services, showing fairness in the interactions with citizens, and enhancing the quality and performance of its street-level bureaucracy will build the necessary political capital to undertake more far-reaching and politically costly public sector reforms at a later stage. Further, these improvements are likely to increase citizens’ trust in governmental authority and their willingness to comply with government taxes and regulations, which in turn will improve a government’s capacity to become more effective and to evoke deference, which will further enhance the credibility of future reform packages.
Using survey data, we analyze the sources of political capital, specifically trust and legitimating beliefs, in a wide variety of settings: Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Our findings suggest that the source of this capital comes from service delivery, bureaucratic competence and honesty and procedural fairness. Across Africa, when evaluating governments, citizens’ perceptions of procedural fairness and the honesty of the bureaucrats swamp governments’ service delivery activities. In Latin America in particular, we found that governments were able to rapidly re-build trust in government institutions at the local level, by focusing on delivering quick improvements in sectors which were very visible and a priority for citizens. For example, these early gains allowed the Mayor of Medellin to gain enough political capital to break with past clientelist politics, and to introduce a new public management framework based on the delivery of services and responsiveness to citizens’ needs. His calculations were right: investing in improving very visible, relevant public goods, and making an extra effort to share the results with citizens paid off. He left office with 90 percent approval, without having to resort to clientelism as usual.
Thus, PSM reforms are more likely to generate short-term positive political returns and longer-term gains for a government if it is able to improve perceptions of its bureaucracy’s competence and the fairness of government procedures. The importance of procedural justice in eliciting support for governments is a strong finding of a large body of research. How we are to promote procedural fairness is compatible with PSM reforms: good public servants and transparency combined with institutional arrangements to provide effective voice and grievance procedures to those who experience discrimination. We also know from experiences around the world that governments are more likely to elicit its citizens’ approval when bureaucrats including teachers, nurses, and agricultural extension agents treat those individuals with whom they interact on a day-to-day basis with dignity and provide services with a manageable amount of red tape and corruption.
While improving services may not harm an incumbent government’s popularity, enhancing service delivery is unlikely to directly generate any significant short-term political returns for a government. Why is this the case? Introducing service-enhancing reforms in a clientelist context is costly and may trigger rent-seeking. In addition, because the public has limited information about what exactly the government does and how, individuals may not assign credit to government for service delivery improvements even when the credit is due. Rather, citizens may be attributing the improvements to other actors including sectarian groups, the private sector; NGOs and community-based groups; religious institutions; traditional leaders; and, donors. From looking at the results in our two pieces of research, we conclude that politicians will only engage in reforms to improve the provision of public goods when the chances of receiving credit and political capital are high. Therefore, we argue that projects which involve visible government agencies and address citizens’ top priorities will increase the chances that citizens correctly attribute improvements in welfare to the better performance of government.
If this is the case, and politicians are only going to be tempted to follow the risky path of reform when the gains are feasible, then how can the World Bank, other donors and NGOs work with governments to ensure that governments at least receive the credit when it’s fairly due?
Photo Credit: Javier Volcan