Book Project

When Democracies Deliver: Governance Reforms in Latin America

My book project assesses two competing approaches to reforming public administration. The information collected during 18 months of field research in Argentina and Brazil suggests that the approach embraced by many Latin American policymakers and international organizations–namely, rapid, comprehensive, and deep-seated reform pushed through by political leaders–does not tend to produce effective and enduring change. By contrast, I find that incremental reforms sequenced over time are more effective and durable than such seemingly sweeping transformations. This gradual approach allows for modifications and corrections along the way and does not depend on finding the right solution ex ante, a notoriously difficult task in the complex “real world.” Instead, the cognitive limitations of decision-makers make gradual learning more promising. A bounded rationality approach is therefore more persuasive to understanding institutional change than the comprehensive rationality expected and required to achieve sweeping transformations.

In a second step, the project shows how different governing patterns influence the decision policymakers make about whether to embark on sweeping transformations or proceed via gradual learning. Executive power concentrated in single party cabinets facilitates dramatic overhauls by political leaders; but the comprehensive planning required for such radical change tends to be unrealistic and to ultimately disappoint.  Paradoxically, the book argues, political-organizational contexts that hinder grand reform attempts may nonetheless facilitate greater long-term success.

This core argument is significant for its contribution not only to the nascent field of research on institutional change, but also to theory building in comparative politics and public administration, using empirical evidence to demonstrate the means by which bureaucracies function as autonomous agents of change, and thus drawing theoretical connections between the historical institutionalist tradition and insights on bounded rationality. This project has been funded by a Boren Fellowship from the National Security Education Program, an Eisenhower-Roberts Fellowship, and a National P.E.O. Scholar Award.

An article that advances the main theory and findings of my book project can be found the January 2016 issue of Comparative Politics.

The Stanford Governance Project

My work on the Governance project with Francis Fukuyama at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy Development and Rule of Law seeks to measure state capacity on a comparative basis, by extending a variant of a survey instrument that has already been used in the United States to BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). I am leading the effort in Brazil in collaboration with one of the nation’s most respected governmental institutions, the Economic Policy Institute (IPEA). A portion of the survey, which was adapted by Fukuyama, Greg Distelhorst, and Margaret Boitton from the U.S. Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, has already been administered in China. We have expanded the China survey and adapted questions from the U.S. Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to make them applicable to other countries.

The State Capacity Project

The Stanford Governance Project builds on my ongoing research that analyzes the variation of bureaucratic capacity and political autonomy within and across national governments and evaluates the implications for effective governance, democratic performance, and public policy. The findings of this research coauthored with Matthew Taylor and Sérgio Praça are the subject of an article in Governance (2017) and a chapter in Miguel Centeno, Atul Kohli, and Deborah Yashar’s edited volume with Cambridge, State Building in the Developing World (2017). This study uses Bayesian latent variable analysis, an innovative methodology that I elaborated and which first appeared in my coauthored article, “Measuring Governance: Implications of Conceptual Choices,” published in European Journal of Development Research (2014). Drawing on a novel dataset that includes individual-level data of the careers and political affiliations of 326,000 civil servants, we produced objective measures of state capacity and political autonomy for 95 federal agencies in Brazil. For my work on state capacity and political autonomy with Sérgio Praça and Matthew Taylor, please see the State Capacity Project website.