Does Political Oversight of the Bureaucracy Increase Accountability? Field Experimental Evidence from an Electoral Autocracy. American Political Science Review, Vol. 116, No. 4, November 2022, pp. 1443 – 1459.

Concerned with poor service delivery, a large literature studies accountability of politicians to voters. This article instead considers accountability relationships within governments—the ability of politicians to implement policies by holding bureaucrats responsible for their actions. In collaboration with the Ugandan government, I conducted a field experiment across 260 local governments. The objective of the reform was to empower local politicians to exercise closer oversight over the bureaucracy through training and the dissemination of financial information. Lowered oversight costs increase politicians’ monitoring effort and the quality of services, but only in areas where the political leadership is not aligned with the dominant party. In areas under ruling-party control, politicians fear uncovering mismanagement of funds. In contrast to scholars arguing that insulating bureaucrats allows them to do their jobs more effectively, these findings imply that increased political oversight can improve government responsiveness in settings with a modicum of party competition.

Preanalysis plan filed on the AEA registry (ID: AEARCTR-0000402). Supported by: The International Growth Centre and Hewlett Foundation. 

Best Field Work Award by the Comparative Democratization Section, APSA

Fault Lines: The Effects of Bureaucratic Power on Electoral Accountability, with Lucy Martin. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 65, No. 1, January 2021, pp. 210–224.

This paper introduces a new explanation for why citizens may fail to vote based on government performance. We argue that when politicians have limited capacity to control bureaucrats, citizens will not know whether government performance is a good signal of the incumbent’s type. We develop a selection model of elections in which policy is jointly determined by a politician and a bureaucrat. When politicians have limited power over policy, elections perform poorly at separating good and bad types of incumbents. We test the model’s predictions using survey experiments conducted with nearly 9,000 citizens and local officials in Uganda. We find that citizens and officials allocate more responsibility to politicians when they are perceived as having more power than bureaucrats. The allocation of responsibility has electoral consequences: when respondents believe that bureaucrats are responsible for performance, they are less likely to expect that government performance will affect the incumbent’s vote share.

Online appendices. Replication files. Preanalysis plan filed on the AEA registry (ID: AEARCTR-0000767).

What role does information play in shaping mass support in dominant party settings? We conduct a field experiment during the 2016 Ugandan parliamentary elections that provides voters with information about candidates from all competing political parties. Specifically, we produce and screen video-recorded candidate interviews in randomly selected villages just prior to the election. We find that voters have lower baseline knowledge about opposition candidates compared to ruling party candidates. The information treatment reduced this knowledge gap and caused voters to update more positively about the opposition. Further, those who watched the videos were less likely to vote for ruling party candidates, and those initially leaning toward ruling party candidates were more likely to vote for the opposition. These findings suggest that information asymmetries play a role in sustaining mass support for ruling parties in dominant party settings, and that levelling the informational playing field can strengthen electoral competition.

This study is one of seven projects selected for funding by the first EGAP Metaketa Initiative on Information and Accountability. Supported by: EGAP Information and Accountability Metaketa Initiative, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, and International Republican Institute/USAID. Read the preanalysis plan, filed on the EGAP registry (ID: 20150820AA). Watch a panel discussion about the results and potential for scale-up among high-level Ugandan policymakers here.

Voter information campaigns and political accountability: Cumulative findings from a pre-registered meta-analysis of coordinated trials, with Thad Dunning, Guy Grossman, Macartan Humphreys, Susan Hyde, Craig McIntosh, Gareth Nellis, Claire Adida, Eric Arias, Clara Bicalho, Taylor C. Boas, Mark T. Buntaine, Simon Chauchard, Anirvan Chowdhury, Jessica Gottlieb, F. Daniel Hidalgo, Marcus Holmlund, Ryan Jablonski, Eric Kramon, Horacio Larreguy, Malte Lierl, John Marshall, Gwyneth McClendon, Marcus A. Melo, Daniel L. Nielson, Paula M. Pickering, Melina R. Platas, Pablo Querubín, and Neelanjan Sircar.
Science Advances, Vol 5Issue 7, July 2019. 

Ungated version here.

Traditional Leaders, Service Delivery and Electoral Accountability, with Kate Baldwin

Chapter in: Jonathan Rodden and Erik Wibbels (eds). 2019. Decentralized Governance and Accountability. Cambridge University Press.

Meet the Candidates: Field Experimental Evidence on Learning from Politician Debates in Uganda, with Melina R. Platas

Chapter in: Dunning, Grossman, Humphreys, Hyde, McIntosh, and Nellis (eds.). 2019. Information, Accountability, and Cumulative Learning. Lessons from Metaketa I. Cambridge University Press.

Working Papers/Under Review

Can Citizen Pressure Improve Public Service Provision? with Daniel Posner and Doug Parkerson 

Encouraging citizens to apply pressure on underperforming service providers has emerged in recent years as a prominent response to the failure of states to provide needed services. We outline three theoretical mechanisms through which bottom-up citizen-oriented pressure campaigns may affect development outcomes and investigate them via a large-scale field experiment in the Ugandan health sector. While we find modest positive impacts on treatment quality and patient satisfaction, we find no effects on utilization rates, child mortality, or other health outcomes. We also find no evidence that citizens increased their monitoring or sanctioning of health workers. Our findings, therefore, cast doubt on the power of outside actors to generate bottom-up pressure by citizens or improvements in development outcomes. Held up against the findings of other, similar studies, our results point to the salience of mechanisms other than citizen pressure for improvements in service delivery, and to the importance of baseline health conditions for the success of bottom-up, citizen-oriented pressure campaigns. Such conditions shape outcomes both across countries and within countries over time, with the latter finding holding important implications for countries undergoing rapid socioeconomic change.

Preanalysis plan. Vox Dev article. Supported by: Department for International Development (DfID).

Best Paper Award by the Experimental Research Section, APSA

Party Nominations and Female Electoral Performance: Evidence from Germany, with Thomas Fujiwara and Hanno Hilbig

What accounts for differences in electoral success between male and female candidates? We use a decomposition strategy to distinguish between voter behavior and differences in party nomination strategies. In doing so, we exploit the unique features of the German mixed electoral system, where voters simultaneously cast votes for a party and for a candidate in their constituency. Using a panel of all electoral districts in eleven federal elections (1983–2017), we establish two facts. First, female district candidates nominated by the two largest parties (the center-right CDU and the center-left SPD) perform worse than their male counterparts. Second, the difference in performance is driven by party nomination strategies: the two largest parties, the CDU and SPD, systematically nominate female candidates in districts where their party is less popular, making it harder for women to win those districts. We also find that parties’ nominations strategies can explain most of the variation in gender gaps in electoral performance across parties and election years. We do not find evidence that bias among voters systematically contributes to the vote gap.

Access to Social Media and Support for Dominant Incumbentd: Natural and Field experimental evidence from Uganda with Jeremy Bowles and John Marshall

To limit the potentially destabilizing effects of social media, incumbents in competitive authoritarian regimes often limit citizens’ access. We examine how variation in access to social media affects political attitudes during Uganda’s 2021 election period and during comparatively “normal” post-election times. Leveraging a difference-in-differences design during a social media ban at the climax of the election campaign, we find that respondents able to maintain access due to VPN usage—who are more likely to be opposition partisans—came to view the dominant NRM party relatively positively. In contrast, a field experiment implemented half a year later finds that NRM partisans whose social media use was subsidized for three months came to view the NRM more negatively. While the latter moderating effect aligns with greater content on social media produced by opposition groups, the election-time finding appears to reflect both a relative increase in pro-NRM social media content during the social media ban and VPN users’ low prior expectations of NRM performance. While our findings suggest that social media can support opposition parties in competitive authoritarian contexts, they also highlight the ability of dominant incumbents to control content— especially in politically salient moments.

Limits on Learning? Selective Incorporation and Retention of Political Information with Andrew Little and Melina R. Platas

News, Accountability, and Electoral Rules: The Impact of Media Markets on Local Accountability under Majoritarian and PR Rules in Germany

This paper examines the differential impact of media coverage on representatives’ behavior across different electoral systems. Taking advantage of an original data set on newspaper circulation, of exogenous variation in spatial congruence between media markets and constituencies, and of the mixed electoral system in Germany I answer two questions: First, what is the extent to which media coverage influences the roll call voting behavior of politicians? Second, how does this effect differ between systems of majoritarian and proportional representation (PR)? I find that a one-unit increase in the level of congruence between media markets and constituencies decreases a direct MP’s propensity to vote in line with his/her party leadership by an average of 4 to 7 percentage points, while it has no effect on list MPs. I do not find an effect of congruence on absenteeism or committee membership. This paper makes two main contributions. First, it uses a new identification strategy to estimate the responsiveness of representatives elected through PR and majoritarian rules to media coverage. Second, it presents an original, highly disaggregated dataset on newspaper circulation and MP behavior in Germany.

Publications in Development Economics

Short-term subsidies and seller type: A health products experiment in Uganda, with Greg Fischer, Dean Karlan, Margaret McConnellJournal of Development Economics, March 2019, 137, pp.110-124.

Pricing policy for any experience good faces a key tradeoff. On one hand, a price reduction increases immediate demand and hence more people learn about the product. On the other hand, lower prices may serve as price anchors and, through a comparison effect, decrease subsequent demand. This tension is particularly important for the distribution of health products in low-income countries, where free or heavily subsidized distribution is a common but controversial practice. Based on a model combining the learning aspect of experience goods with reference-dependent preferences, we set up a field experiment in Northern Uganda in which three health products differing in their scope for learning were initially offered either for free or for sale at market prices. In line with prior studies, when the product has the potential for positive learning, we do not find an effect of free distribution on future demand. However, for products without scope for positive learning, we find evidence of price anchors: future demand is lower after a free distribution than after a distribution at market prices.

Read the paper here.

Mixed Method Evaluation of a Passive mHealth Sexual Information Texting Service in Uganda, with Julian Jamison and Dean KarlanInformation Technology & International Development 9(3). 

We evaluate the impact of a health information intervention implemented through mobile phones, using a clustered randomized control trial augmented by qualitative interviews. The intervention aimed to improve sexual health knowledge and shift individuals towards safer sexual behavior by providing reliable information about sexual health. The novel technology designed by Google and Grameen Technology Center provided automated searches of an advice database on topics requested by users via SMS. It was offered by MTN Uganda at no cost to users. Quantitative survey results allow us to reject the hypothesis that improving access to information would increase knowledge and shift behavior to less risky sexual activities. In fact, we find that the service led to an increase in promiscuity, and no shift in the perception of norms. Qualitative focus groups discussions support the findings of the quantitative survey results. We conclude by discussing a potential mechanism explaining the counterintuitive findings.

Read the paper here. Coverage in Businessweek,  IRIN,  Yale Alumni Magazine and thoughtful blog posts by Karen Grepin, Melina Platas, and Mike Miesen.

Policy papers and reports

“Political Knowledge and Political Participation: Improving USAID Program Design and Evaluation”, with Thad Dunning and Daniel N. Posner

“Randomized Control Trials: A New Approach to Assessing Anti-Corruption Policies”, ACRN

“Local Governance in Uganda”, with Lucy Martin