Programmatic Parties Key to Improving Public Sector Performance

January 22, 2014

  • Citizens’ ability to act collectively is central to politicians’ accountability.
  • Political parties can solve citizens’ collective action problems.
  • When they do, politicians are more likely to support public sector reforms.

Development outcomes, whether in service delivery, conflict, fiscal policy, or public sector reform, depend on citizens’ ability to act in concert to hold politicians accountable for serving their collective interests. As Philip Keefer, a lead research economist in the Bank’s research department argued, citizens who can’t organize also can’t act collectively.

“That poses risks to citizens and donors alike, as bad governance can lead to violence and civil conflict, hurt fiscal stability and derail meaningful reforms that would improve people’s living standards,” said World Bank Research Director Asli Demirguc-Kunt.

Keefer spoke earlier this month at the Policy Research Talks, a monthly event held by the research department to foster a dialogue between researchers and operational colleagues. He discussed how one particular type of citizen organization, the programmatic political party, affects development outcomes, especially in public sector reform, a key issue for donors.

The World Bank alone allocates around one-sixth of its lending and advisory resources to help countries improve their financial and personnel management systems. Yet those reforms are notoriously difficult to implement. In many countries, politicians have little interest in reforming the civil service, budget planning and other basic systems that are essential to the political oversight of bureaucratic performance.

Drawing on his analysis of 439 World Bank public sector reform loans in 109 countries, Keefer shows that public sector reforms are 30 percent more likely to succeed in a country with programmatic parties, which have credible stances on broad public policies, than a country with none.

" That poses risks to citizens and donors alike, as bad governance can lead to violence and civil conflict, hurt fiscal stability and derail meaningful reforms that would improve people’s living standards. "

Asli Demirguc-Kunt

Director, Research Department, World Bank

That’s because, without organizational arrangements that solve party members’ collective action problems, it is difficult for parties to maintain a credible program. Politicians in programmatic parties therefore have stronger incentives to pursue policies with collective benefits and public sector reforms. Programmatic parties also make it more difficult for their politicians to ask the bureaucracy to allocate contracts and jobs to their personal constituencies at the expense of the party as a whole.

Public administration reform often represents efforts by one set of politicians – those in the legislature – to supervise the behavior of another – such as those in the executive branch.  Unfortunately, Keefer said, “it’s hard for individual legislators to rise up and say, ‘let’s change it.’ They have to act collectively. Grouped in programmatic political parties, they can.”

But the effects of party organization go beyond public administration.  Keefer argued that vote-buying is a likely cause of significantly higher government spending before elections.  However, politicians who can’t make credible promises to citizens about what they will do after the election are more likely to buy their votes before the election. His evidence shows that where parties do not allow citizens to hold politicians accountable for their promises, pre-electoral spending spikes are far bigger.

Keefer recommended that the World Bank address obstacles to collective citizen action in striving to deliver results. But this requires more than changes to formal institutions of policy making and implementation, such as the introduction of local elections or formal recruitment procedures in the civil service. It also demands close attention to the ability of voters to act in concert and of civil servants to work together.  

During the discussion segment of the event, Joel Hellman, who leads the World Bank’s global practice on fragile and conflict-affected states, said Keefer’s “thought-provoking” presentation also raised questions on how to develop citizens’ abilities to act collectively. He asked, “Where do programmatic parties come from – and how can we promote them?”

Stay tuned for more on this fascinating research agenda.