A Fear of Oversight

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Maria Nagawa, covers the new article by Pia J. Raffler, Harvard University,Does Political Oversight of the Bureaucracy Increase Accountability? Field Experimental Evidence from a Dominant Party Regime.

Max Weber proposed that in a well-functioning bureaucracy, bureaucrats should be insulated from self-interested politicians to objectively deliver on policy mandates and serve citizens. In particular in settings characterized by clientelism and weak electoral accountability, concerns about political meddling abound. At the same time, recent decentralization reforms have sought to bring services closer to citizens by empowering local politicians to influence policy outcomes at the local level. The idea is that citizens vote out politicians who do not adequately deliver local public goods and services, which incentivizes politicians to ensure they do. Yet, local politicians often need to work through unelected career bureaucrats who are responsible for implementing policies politicians lay out. This second accountability relationship between politicians and bureaucrats has often been taken for granted by traditional literature on government accountability.

Pia Raffler explores the tension between bureaucratic insulation and local political oversight.

Under what conditions does increased political oversight result in better service delivery? She investigates how increasing the information available to politicians and building their capacity impacts how they monitor and sanction bureaucrats in a country with a dominant party regime, Uganda. She finds that when capacitated, politicians increase monitoring and sanctioning effort, thus ultimately leading to better services – but only in places where local governments are not fully aligned with the dominant ruling party.

Politicians in local governments rely on bureaucrats to draw up plans, manage funds, and implement projects and yet they often face substantial barriers to accessing information and overseeing the bureaucracy. In a country like Uganda, bureaucrats tend to be more educated and therefore more apt to evade monitoring. This increases the likelihood of bureaucratic malfeasance, deviation from policy mandates, and lowers the quality of services delivered. Furthermore, politicians may not always want to uncover such malfeasance. They could collaborate with bureaucrats to extract rents or get preferential treatment in program implementation. And in a dominant party regime, bureaucratic behavior, even when it involves misuse of funds, may be approved by party elites. Politicians may therefore prefer to look the other way to protect their political futures within the party. The author argues that one main feature determines politicians’ incentives to correct misallocations of funds: whether they serve in a local government where the entire political leadership is represented by the dominant ruling party (aligned) or in one where the opposition and independents also hold (some) leadership positions (non-aligned).

The author conducts her study in Uganda, a semi-authoritarian regime ruled by a hegemonic party, the National Resistance Movement.

Despite the ruling party’s dominance – the party holds 65 percent of parliamentary seats – there is a clear distinction between the role of bureaucrats and that of politicians as joint producers of local public goods and services. A large share of these services is produced in 146 districts and over 2,100 sub-counties, each serving an average population of 22,000 citizens. At the sub-county level, the political wing consists of an elected council headed by a chairperson while the bureaucratic wing comprises career bureaucrats who implement council decisions. The central government earmarks fiscal transfers to local governments, and while councilors preside over funding allocations, bureaucrats administer the budget, including several payments to politicians. Finally, there is substantial sub-national variation in party dominance. 58 percent of local councils are led by a chairperson representing the ruling party and also belong to a district led by a ruling party chairperson (aligned).

In collaboration with the Ugandan Ministry of Finance and ODI, the author studies a randomized intervention to empower politicians to access technical information and monitor their bureaucratic counterparts across 2,365 elected politicians and 461 bureaucrats in 280 sub-county governments in 28 districts. The study consisted of a one-off training workshop as well as quarterly information sharing on budgetary allocations, fiscal transfers, and reported expenditures in 150 treatment sub-counties. Three surveys were conducted: a baseline survey before training, a follow-up survey after eight months, and a physical audit survey after 20 months. Qualitative data were also collected before the physical audit survey.

Findings from the baseline survey show that politicians have little control over the bureaucracy.

This is aggravated by stark differences in levels of education – most councilors have not completed secondary school while all sub-county bureaucrats hold university degrees. This results in an over-reliance of politicians on bureaucrats for technical information, weakening their ability to demand accountability or even interpret their rights and responsibilities. The intervention led to a small and positive effect on councilor knowledge of local government procedures, including budget information, actions bureaucrats could take to rectify substandard service delivery, technical monitoring skills, sub-county finances, and councilors’ rights to access financial information. The intervention also had positive effects on an aggregate measure of oversight including its sub-indices – demand for and access to financial reports and monitoring of project sites – but had no effect on repercussions introduced by councilors for substandard service delivery (withholding payments of service providers, initiation of an investigation, and attempting to transfer a bureaucrat).

“In low-income countries especially, stark differences in politicians’ and bureaucrats’ education, tenure, and access to information and resources makes politicians’ oversight role arduous.”

Raffler further finds that treatment effects vary by ruling party dominance.

There are no effects on the aggregate oversight measure and only small effects on the sub-indices in aligned sub-counties. In non-aligned sub-counties, however, the treatment led to substantial increases in all oversight measures as well as on the introduction of repercussions. Downstream, she finds an improvement in user satisfaction with project implementation and observed project quality, but only in non-aligned areas. Why then are politicians in aligned sub-counties less likely to monitor and sanction bureaucrats? They fear the consequences of speaking out such as obstacles to reelection, losing out on parish programs, and not being informed of future government programs.

Although decentralization aims to improve service delivery at the grassroots level, the link between policy makers (politicians) and implementors (bureaucrats) remains tenuous. In low-income countries especially, stark differences in politicians’ and bureaucrats’ education, tenure, and access to information and resources makes politicians’ oversight role arduous. Moreover, politicians may not always be incentivized to oversee the bureaucracy if they fear it will put their political future within their own party at risk. The author shows that while efforts to increase political oversight can increase monitoring and improve service delivery, such efforts should also consider the divergent incentives politicians face.