Formal institutions of democratic rule are thought to be fundamental for generating the policies and practices needed to improve levels of human development. In short: we expect citizens to “throw the bums out” when they don’t deliver the goods and services we need, and to keep them in office when they do! But as it turns out, it’s not so straightforward.
A first place to look is the relationship between voting patterns and service delivery. Do citizens, as voters, respond in the manner that we might expect from democratic theory? Specifically, do they vote for (against) incumbents once services are (not) provided?
Daniel de Kadt (Asst Prof at UC Merced; PhD from MIT) and I investigated the politics of voting and service delivery in Southern Africa, and we recently published this study in the British Journal of Political Science. We find, to our surprise, that when citizens in Southern Africa gain access to basic infrastructural services they are less likely to vote for the dominant incumbent party. We discuss why we think this might be going on, and highlight that there is good reason to believe that citizens may be taking into account several other important considerations, including perceptions of corruption, that help to explain the results.
Beyond citizens, it’s also critical to consider the role of politicians, bureaucrats, and other service providers in the accountability “matrix.” In particular, what drives politician attitudes and behaviors in relatively new democracies? To what extent do they work to represent the needs and preferences of their constituents? To what extent do they accept or resist efforts to hold them accountable? Do certain circumstances or particular initiatives produce better politicians?
For several years, while teaching at Princeton, I conducted research on the various challenges to democratic accountability in the context of decentralized and polycentric institutional environments, and in this work, I paid particular attention to local politicians. Despite the great optimism for cooperative or polycentric governance, I show that diffuse accountability mechanisms can lead to substantial under-performance. A related paper from that research described the gender- and race-specific policy preferences among those politicians, particularly with respect to health- and AIDS-related policies.
Since I moved to MIT, I have been working to develop and to extend this research in some exciting ways with various terrific collaborators. Along with Philip Martin (PhD student, MIT) and Nina McMurray (PhD student, MIT), and more recently with Gabriel Nahmias (PhD student, MIT), we are working on a project investigating accountability and responsiveness by directly studying African politicians in South Africa, focusing on the thousands of democratically-elected local councillors. Specifically, we have been studying how these individuals relate to both their constituents and to other political principals (i.e. parties, and other levels of government), and the extent to which their individual life histories shape their attitudes and performance in elected office. This research includes analyses of an original survey, electoral and administrative records of over 100,000 local government candidates, and field experiments. You can learn more here: South African Councillor Panel Study (SACOPS) and check out a preliminary research report published by a funder, Making All Voices Count.