Raffler shares results from a field experiment on the effect of political oversight on government performance in 260 local governments in Uganda. She finds that local politicians often have limited control over the bureaucracies they are supposed to oversee. Increased opportunities for political oversight – in the form of training and financial information – improve politicians’ knowledge of government rules and procedures, increase politicians’ monitoring efforts, and ultimately result in better service delivery. However, these effects are limited to nonaligned local governments, where the political leadership is not from the dominant ruling party.
Why are accountability relationships within governments as opposed to accountability of elected representatives to their constituents important? How would you describe the relationship between elected representatives and bureaucrats?
Pia Raffler: When we think about government accountability, we tend to focus on the relationship between voters and their elected representatives. But politicians rely on bureaucrats to get things done. Typically, elected representatives in the executive decide on budget allocations and policies and task bureaucrats with implementing them. Thus, this second link – from politicians to bureaucrats – is critical for understanding the politics of service delivery. It’s sort of like a transmission belt from politicians’ preferences to services. However, it is often taken for granted and understudied by scholars of accountability. In many places around the world, local politicians have only very limited control over the bureaucracy. Local career bureaucrats often have much higher education levels than their “political masters”, to use Max Weber’s expression, and longer tenure. As a result, they tend to have better information about government procedures and finances, which can make it difficult for politicians to monitor them effectively.
This is also the case in the context I study, rural Uganda. Here, some bureaucrats use these asymmetries to claim that technical documents and financial information are intended for their exclusive use – even when that’s not true. One of the core roles of councilors (elected local representatives) is to oversee their government’s finances. Yet, 22% of interviewed local bureaucrats told my enumerators that councilors were not supposed to access basic documents such as account statements. As one councilor described it, “It’s hard to get documents from the technical personnel. They keep telling us it’s above us and that we should do things as per our level.” Referring to the fact that bureaucrats administer monitoring funds and allowances, another former politician stated: “The very person you are going to monitor controls your pocket. There is no monitoring.”
You conducted your experiment in a dominant party regime. Can you elaborate a bit more on the political context and local government in Uganda?
PR: Uganda is a good context to study local political oversight. As in many developing countries, service delivery has been heavily decentralized over the course of the last decades, also in response to World Bank policy. On paper, the relationship between the bureaucratic and political arms of Ugandan local governments is one of mutual checks and balances. The contrast between theory and practice opened the door for the intervention. The quality of services remains low, which can in part be attributed to limited resources, and in part to ineffective use of the available resources. Like many African countries, it is a hybrid regime. Multiparty elections take place on a regular basis, but the playing field is heavily (and increasingly) slanted in favor of the dominant ruling party.
In what ways did increasing the capacity of local politicians through training and dissemination of financial information affect political oversight?
PR: First of all, the intervention worked in that it increased councilors’ knowledge of local government rules and procedures and monitoring best practices. This increased capacity then resulted in greater political oversight, measured through an index including requests for – and access to – additional financial documents held at the local government level and the steps taken to improve projects perceived to have been poorly implemented. These actions in turn resulted in measurably improved local services. But these effects are concentrated in places where the local leadership is not entirely representing the national ruling party. In strongholds of the ruling party, councilors did not change their behavior.
What dynamics explain the significant differences in results that you observed in ruling-party strongholds versus local governments controlled by opposition parties?
PR: Lower-level local politicians in strongholds fear speaking out about misuse of funds because their reputation and political future ultimately depend on their standing with influential members of the ruling party. One former chairperson I interviewed put it well: “The one who is following things properly, the [party] don’t want them. They call them rebel – are they rebel?! … The problem is we have few people who have the country at their heart. We wanted to use the budget information, but we failed.” In a nutshell, members of the ruling party don’t have an incentive to rock the boat, thus potentially violating the interests of their higher-ups and drawing attention to mismanagement of funds by the bureaucracy whose reputation is closely intertwined with that of the dominant party. A follow-up survey shows that ruling party politicians in strongholds perceive repercussions for speaking out about poor service delivery – such as facing obstacles in their next reelection campaign, losing out on parish programs, and not being informed about new government programs – as more likely, compared to councilors in non-aligned local governments. The calculus is different for members of the opposition: uncovering misuse of funds is a good electoral strategy for them. They also have less to lose since they are less likely to be benefitting from the status quo in the first place. But they need allies in leading positions in local government to be able to exert pressure and effect change.
As part of the intervention, you collaborated with the Ministry of Finance, the Overseas Development Institute, and Innovations for Poverty Action to implement the day-long training workshop and deliver subcounty financial reports to local councilors. How were these interventions chosen? What were some of the highlights as well as challenges in partnering with a government agency?
PR: I had conducted lots of qualitative interviews with local government officials and voters to understand impediments to government accountability and realized that councilors have limited capacity and information to fulfill their mandate of monitoring service delivery. So, when ODI approached me about studying a budget reporting reform by the Ministry of Finance, Planning, and Economic Development (MoFPED), I was immediately excited. The data produced by the reform – bureaucrats reporting fine-grained information about how much money they had received from the central government and how they had spent it – formed the backbone of the intervention. We had a phenomenal collaboration between MoFPED, ODI, and my team at IPA in designing these interventions – we’d go out and pilot, do qualitative interviews, go back to ODI and MoFPED, tweak the intervention plan together, and repeat until we arrived at two interventions that we all felt confident in. Working with MoFPED was fantastic: the leadership demonstrated a real commitment to learning about the impact on service delivery. At the same time, we had developed a trusting relationship, which meant that the research team could spearhead implementation of the pilot in the local governments and collect data independently.
What are the policy implications of your findings for decentralization reforms that have been adopted by many African governments since the 1990s?
PR: The idea behind these decentralization reforms was to bring services closer to the people and to let them elect representatives whose task it is to monitor implementation. That’s a powerful idea, but it only works if local politicians have oversight capacity on paper and in practice. National incumbents in dominant regimes may have incentives to de facto recentralize power and sideline local politicians, especially where they represent opposing parties. Policymakers interested in improving services ought to pay attention to the de facto oversight capacity of local incumbents not representing the ruling party, who have greater incentives to speak truth to power and can serve as important checks. In these contexts, well-intended interventions which increase the power of the local bureaucracy relative to their political counterparts may ultimately undermine service delivery and, as I show in a related paper with Lucy Martin (Martin & Raffler 2021), electoral accountability.