Research

Recent publications

“The Political Economy of Unfinished Development Projects: Corruption, Clientelism, or Collective Choice?” (pdf) Forthcoming: American Political Science Review, November 2017.

  • 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.

Working papers

“Management and Bureaucratic Effectiveness: A Scientific Replication” (with Imran Rasul and Daniel Rogger) (pdf)

  • Abstract: A burgeoning area of social science research examines how state capabilities and bureaucratic effectiveness shape economic development. This paper is among the first scientific replications of a study on the effective functioning of bureaucracies in developing country contexts. We build on our earlier work linking management practices for middle-tier bureaucrats and public sector output in the Federal Civil Service of Nigeria [Rasul and Rogger 2016], aiming to establish the scientific replicability of those findings in a similar institutional and economic context: the Civil Service of Ghana. At the same time, the replication probes the robustness of our earlier findings to methodological differences in how management practices, and bureaucratic output and effectiveness, are measured. Our key findings are that in both civil services, granting bureaucrats more autonomy is positively associated with the effectiveness of bureaucracies, while management practices related to the provision of incentives or monitoring are negatively associated with their effectiveness. By shedding light on where pockets of good functioning exist within generally weak political institutional structures, the results have important practical and methodological consequences for the future study of bureaucracies and state capability.

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

  • Abstract: State capacity has become a default concept across the social sciences for studying government bureaucracies and how to improve them. I argue that “capacity” is a coarse and unhelpful way to understand bureaucratic performance and policy implementation, because it obscures both the mechanisms and the contingencies of bureaucratic behavior. Whereas capacity refers to bureaucracies’ hypothetical potential rather than their actual actions, a vast literature emphasizes that bureaucracies perform at less than their hypothetical potential due to internal information and incentive problems created by their collective nature, and the constraints and uncertainty imposed by their multiple political principals. Moreover, when discussing the actual implementation of specific policies, general notions of state capacity quickly collapse into a more complex set of explanations rooted in specific political, bureaucratic, and contextual contingencies. While the term may be a convenient shorthand to reduce the complexities of bureaucratic performance, policy implementation, and long-term state formation into one term, it is rarely a useful way to understand how bureaucracies function or how to reform them. Scholars should focus on retrospective bureaucratic performance rather than prospective potential, and ground analysis of policy implementation in specific contexts.

“External Validity and Policy Adaptation: From Impact Evaluation to Policy Design.” Blavatnik School of Government Working Paper, July 2017. (pdf) (policy memo) Submitted.

  • 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.

“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

“Fiscal Decentralization and the Efficiency of Public Good Delivery: Evidence from Ghana”

With Imran Rasul and Daniel Rogger: “Training for Productivity: An Experimental Study of Reform”

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

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)

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