At the excellent WDR 2004 Ten Years On Conference organised by the World Bank and ODI last week there were two very different views on the role of politicians in the delivery of public services.
I’ll caricature the positions a little to illustrate the point. In one camp, represented by Shanta Devrajan, a lead author of the WDR 2004, the politicians are middle-men, getting between the citizen and the provider of the service, weakening accountability and, often, extracting rents along the way. In the other camp, represented by Leni Wild and Marta Foresti from ODI politicians are the people with the authority and resources to improve public services and have a positive role to play.
These different perspectives on the role of politicians are linked to different views of the best form of accountability to improve the delivery of public services for the poor. The ‘accountability triangle’ from the WDR 2004 (Figure 1. Below) shows how citizens or clients can hold providers of services to account either directly (‘the short route’) or via politicians (‘the long route’). The short route, as Shanta said at the conference, means the market (or at least market-like mechanisms); the ‘long route’ means politics, broadly defined.
So, which route is better for improving the delivery of public services for the poor? I think the answer depends on what type of accountability we’re talking about – and I suspect some of the disagreement on the role of politicians might fall away if we get that clear.
One form of accountability is where citizens are like cops. They have entitlements to public services which are not being delivered and they need accountability mechanisms to ensure that ‘the law’ is upheld. Many of the examples of effective bottom-up accountability are of this sort: mechanisms to get teachers to turn up to teach, to get budgets spent in schools, or to ensure services are delivered. For these entitlement-enforcement types of accountability there seems to be good empirical evidence of the strength of the short-route to accountability; and there will often be a case, where the political system is dysfunctional, for cutting-out the political middle man and building ‘politician-proof’ systems.
In the other form of accountability, citizens are more like law-makers. Here the question is not ‘has the doctor turned up?’ but ‘am I legally entitled to access healthcare?’; not ‘is the budget making it to the school?’ but ‘are we allocating enough resources to education?’. In other words, the issue is not whether entitlements are enforced but what those entitlements are. Often these questions need to be answered to achieve really transformational change. And this form of accountability is absolutely political – with the best chance for citizens to achieve increased entitlements being to influence political leaders, often by banding together in civil society groups, unions, or political parties. For this kind of accountability political incentives and ‘elite bargains’ come to the fore.
Of course both types of accountability matter: cops are pointless without laws to enforce, laws are pointless if they can’t be enforced. But, I think if we get clearer about which type of accountability we’re talking about we’ll not only remove a lot of the disagreement between the ‘politics is the problem’ and the ‘politics is the solution’ camps, we’ll also get better at supporting the right forms of accountability for the right problems, and ultimately improve the delivery of services to poor people.
See also a blog by my colleague Dan Hymowitz on the same conference
Listen to an interview with Andy on improving delivery and what we need to do differently in fragile states.
The work described here was carried out by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, it is now being continued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.