Recent publications

“The Political Economy of Unfinished Development Projects: Corruption, Clientelism, or Collective Choice?” (pdf) American Political Science Review 111(4), November 2017, p. 705-723.

  • Abstract: Development projects like schools and latrines are popular with politicians and voters alike, yet many developing countries are littered with half-finished projects that were abandoned mid-construction. Using an original database of over 14,000 small development projects in Ghana, I estimate that one-third of projects that start are never completed, consuming nearly one-fifth of all local government investment. I develop a theory of project non-completion as the outcome of a dynamically inconsistent collective choice process among political actors facing commitment problems in contexts of limited resources. I find evidence consistent with key predictions of this theory, but inconsistent with alternative explanations based on corruption or clientelism. I show that fiscal institutions can increase completion rates by mitigating the operational consequences of these collective choice failures. These findings have theoretical and methodological implications for distributive politics, the design of intergovernmental transfers and aid, and the development of state capacity.

“External Validity and Policy Adaptation: From Impact Evaluation to Policy Design”. (final journal version [gated]) (working paper pdf) (policy memo) (policy memo em português) World Bank Research Observer, 2019.

  • Abstract: With the growing number of rigorous impact evaluations worldwide, the question of how best to apply this evidence to policymaking processes has arguably become the main challenge for evidence-based policymaking. How can policymakers predict whether a policy will have the same impact in their context as it did elsewhere, and how should this influence the design and implementation of policy? This paper introduces a simple and flexible framework to address these questions of external validity and policy adaptation. I show that all failures of external validity arise from an interaction between a policy’s theory of change and a dimension of the context in which it is being implemented, and develop a method of “mechanism mapping” that maps a policy’s theory of change against salient contextual assumptions to identify external validity problems and suggest appropriate policy adaptations. In deciding whether and how to adapt a policy in a new context, I show there is a fundamental informational trade-off between the strength and relevance of evidence on the policy from other contexts and the policymaker’s knowledge of the local context. This trade-off can guide policymakers’ judgments about whether policies should be copied exactly from elsewhere, adapted, or invented anew.

Working papers

“Innovation, Voice, and Hierarchy in the Public Sector: Evidence from Ghana’s Civil Service” (with Liah Yecalo-Tecle). (pdf) Resubmitted, Governance.

  • Abstract: Research on innovation in government often focuses on ideas introduced by senior leaders or managers, but ideas from public servants themselves are an important and underexplored channel for improving performance in government bureaucracies. We provide new evidence on the potential for bottom-up work process innovation, using qualitative and quantitative data gathered in the context of a large-scale productivity training program in Ghana’s Civil Service. In contrast to common negative stereotypes of developing country bureaucrats, most officials do have meaningful ideas for improving performance. However, the overwhelming constraint to voicing these ideas is hostility by supervisors to new ideas from their subordinates. We argue that this anecdotally common yet understudied behavior is consistent with theories of psychological attachment to hierarchy rather than alternative theories rooted in material, structural, or cultural resistance to employee voice and innovation. We discuss implications for bottom-up work process innovation in government and interventions to promote it.

“Management and Bureaucratic Effectiveness: Evidence from the Ghanaian Civil Service” (with Imran Rasul and Daniel Rogger) (pdf).

  • Abstract: We study the relationship between management practices and bureaucratic output, using an original survey of the universe of Ghanaian civil servants across 45 organizations and administrative data on over 3600 tasks and projects they undertake. We first demonstrate that there is a large range of variation across government organizations, both in management quality and output delivery. We then show that output exhibits a positive partial correlation with autonomy/discretion-related practices, but a negative partial correlation with incentives/monitoring-related practices. We investigate the external validity of this relationship in a separate sample of bureaucrats and outputs from Nigeria. While these results contrast with the frequent policy emphasis on introducing top-down monitoring and incentives as a means to elicit agent effort, we show that the findings are consistent with theories of bureaucratic coordination, intrinsic motivation, influence activities, and output clarity. We discuss implications for theory, empirical methodology, and policy.

“Systems Approaches to Public Service Delivery: Lessons from Health, Education, and Infrastructure” (with Zahra Mansoor) (pdf).

  • Abstract: Public services are delivered through complex bureaucratic systems. Recent research in economics and political science on bureaucratic performance and public service delivery typically seeks to abstract from these complexities to identify specific causal relationships, but this narrow focus risks ignoring the complementarities and contingencies that mediate these relationships in practice. How can research on government bureaucracies take account of their systematic characteristics while preserving methodological rigor and theoretical precision? We review the development of systems approaches in the health, education, and infrastructure sectors. We survey: the definition and scope of systems approaches; theoretical frameworks; empirical methods and applications; and linkages to policy. While the scope of systems approaches is common across sectors, as is the close linkage to policy, there are notable differences in the direction and extent of theoretical development and empirical application. These differences suggest opportunities for cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary learning. We conclude by discussing the potential for a systems approach to research in public management and public finance.

“Beyond State Capacity: Bureaucratic Performance, Policy Implementation, and Reform”. (pdf)

  • Abstract: Three decades of research have generated a consensus that state capacity is central to economic and social development. While the concept originated in macro-historical and comparative analysis, it has become a default term for discussing the performance of government bureaucracies. This paper discusses the limitations to conceiving of narrower questions of bureaucratic performance and policy implementation using the broad, aggregate concept of capacity. Capacity refers to bureaucracies’ hypothetical potential, but this usually differs from their actual actions due to organizations’ collective nature and the constraints and uncertainty imposed by their multiple political principals. While capacity is a convenient shorthand term for a wide range of factors, it achieves this by abstracting away from the actual mechanisms of bureaucratic action. Analysis should instead: focus on bureaucracies’ collective nature rather than abstract from it; engage with contextual specificity and contingency; and focus measurement and reform efforts on performance rather than hypothetical capacity.

“From Institutions to Organizations: Management and Informality in Ghana’s Public Bureaucracies” (pdf)

  • Abstract: Studies of state capacity in political science and economics have largely sought to explain variation in bureaucratic quality over space or time through the lens of national-level factors, notably the quality of institutions. However, these institutional approaches are unable to explain variation among organizations within the same government. I develop a complementary approach grounded in organizational economics, in particular relational contracts theory, that is consistent with organizational-level variation in bureaucratic quality within governments and generates predictions about the changing qualitative relationship between formal and informal practices across this spectrum. I find empirical support using original interview-based data on management quality from 40 organizations in Ghana’s central government. The range of variation in management quality across organizations is substantial and systematic, is not limited to a handful of exceptional “islands” of excellence, and is qualitatively more consistent with theories of relational contracts and organizational culture than prevailing theories of formal and informal institutions. I suggest a number of ways in which institutional and organizational approaches can usefully complement each other in the study of government bureaucracies and their reform.

“One Size Does Not Fit All: Budget Institutions and Performance in Ghana’s Spending Ministries” (available on request)

  • Abstract: A large literature investigates the link between budget institutions and performance across countries, but little attention has been paid to variation across spending ministries within countries. Since these ministries operate under the same formal budget institutions and national-level context, they are the ideal sites in which to study the gaps between de jure and de facto budget practices, and between budget allocations and actual expenditures. These gaps can be substantial, especially in developing countries, but are poorly understood. This article demonstrates that there is large and systematic variation among spending ministries in Ghana in expenditure outturns and volatility, compliance with formal budget processes, and other outcomes such as extra-budgetary spending. The findings pose a challenge to theories of budget institutions and their reform: not only is there no correlation between procedural compliance and budget outcomes, but the drivers of ministries’ budget performance are heterogeneous and often idiosyncratic. The existence of substantial variation in the quality of budget execution among ministries also has implications for the validity of analyses that use either budget allocations or actual expenditure to measure the outcomes of policy processes.

Work in Progress

  • With Imran Rasul and Daniel Rogger: “Training for Productivity: An Experimental Study of Civil Service Reform in Ghana”
  • With Nahomi Ichino and Erik Wibbels: “The Delivery and Spatial Distribution of Development Projects: Evidence from a USAID Governance Project in Ghana”
  • With Chris Adam: Recurrent Costs and the Macroeconomic Impacts of Infrastructure Investment
  • With Flavio Cireno, Julien Labonne, Pedro Masson, and Pedro Palotti: “Networks in the Bureaucracy: Evidence from Brazil”
  • With Binta Zahra Diop, Koku Awoonor-Williams, and Anthony Ofosu: “The Productivity and Allocation of Public Personnel and Funds: Evidence from Government Health Facilities in Ghana”
  • With Liah Yecalo-Tecle: “Patterns of Civil Service Reform in Africa: 30 Years of Evidence from Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia”
  • “Fiscal Decentralization and the Efficiency of Public Good Delivery: Evidence from Ghana”

Other publications

“Aid, Trade, Investment, and Dependency.” In Anderson, David, and Nicholas Cheeseman (eds), The Routledge Handbook of African Politics, London: Routledge, 2013. (routledge) (google books)

“The Gold Standard of Governance: Mining, Decentralization, and State Power in Senegal.” Politique Africaine 117, March 2010. (journal)

Review of: “Brokering Democracy in Africa: The Rise of Clientelist Democracy in Senegal” by Linda Beck. In Politique Africaine 115, October 2009. (pdf)