Building blocks: lessons from the global south on reforming the architecture of government

By on 04/01/2023 | Updated on 04/01/2023
A photograph of a Perurail train.
Picture by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

A major conference examined the lessons for good governance from countries in the global south, ranging from Brazil and Peru to Indonesia. Rafael Leite and Ivor Chipkin from the Government and Public Policy think tank set out what decentralisation means for the structure of the state

Public administration reform is shaped by many factors, and the role of government structure in this process is the subject of long-standing academic debates. Central to this discussion is the extent to which government structure contributes to the achievement of particular policy outcomes, given the multifactorial nature of reform processes. However, the body of research available on the effects of different configurations of government departments, as well as the organisation of duties and responsibilities within public office, are not yet fully understood, especially in countries of the global south. For this reason, by exploring the role of government structure in the processes of policy change, it is possible to expand knowledge about what these structures influence and how they influence reform processes.

It was with this challenge in mind that between 5-7 July 2022 the Johannesburg-based think tank on Government and Public Policy (GAPP) organised a conference to facilitate a global conversation on the Architecture of Government, featuring academics and professionals from the global south (Africa, Latin America, India and China) but also from parts of the global north (Western and Eastern Europe and the US) with extensive knowledge and experience of the global south.

Read more: A tale of two countries: why has state capture seen China boom and South Africa bust?

Streamed on YouTube, the conference attracted huge attention – over 3,000 people a day – revealing once again the enormous appetite for exchanges within the global south, hosted by a southern institute and with the view to discuss experiences tackling some of the major public administration challenges from a non-western perspective. You can access the conference proceedings at this link, and watch the event in full here.

The conference hosted dialogues between prominent professionals in the fields of governance, politics and public policy, such as Pratap Mehta, Achille Mbembe, Angela Stent, Busani Ngcaweni, Yamini Aiyar, Barbara Nunberg, and Maria Antonieta Alva, among others. The speakers were grouped into seven panels that addressed different topics, such as the historical legacies and the architecture of government in South Africa; presidential and semi-presidential leadership in young democracies; the party-state relations in China; and the experiences of asymmetric decentralisation with a focus on India.

This report sets out some of the conference, and the first highlight is that at different moments, whether discussing the role of historical legacies in the architecture of government in South Africa, the functioning of metropolitan governance in Nigeria, or fiscal decentralisation processes in countries such as Brazil, Peru and Indonesia, it is clear that the way in which public institutions operate is determined by the interaction between two forces: on the one hand, social structures (understood as patterns of social organisation) and, on the other, the agency of those who are able to influence institutions (by changing rules or the distribution of resources). Pratap Mehta, previously vice-chancellor of Ashoka University and president of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, India, called these the normative conditions of institutions. However, in countries of the global south the capacity of governments to transform social structures is limited, and yet reform initiatives tend to emphasise the role of government in managing them. It is precisely the interaction of agency and structure that is the condition of successful reforms.

Public administrations in different contexts are facing similar challenges. They are part of the same global economic system (although they may be integrated in it to differing degrees), they are subjected to the same norms of the international order, and they are exposed to similar ideas about the way in which governments should be organised, such as the discourses on good governance (which often countries in the global south don’t have much say in). On the other hand, the functioning of public administration also reflects the balance of power between the various actors who, in their particular contexts, exercise their capacity to transform the architecture of government according to their interests and beliefs. However, the extent to which structure and agency interact to shape the architecture of government is still not well understood.

Following the money? The impact of fiscal decentralisation

Fiscal decentralisation in Brazil, Peru and Indonesia presents an interesting example. They were all strongly influenced by an international trend that promoted political decentralisation in the 1990s, which predicted that such reforms would both empower democracy by strengthening accountability, and improve the efficiency of public service by helping local governments adapt public services to the particularities of different communities.

The framework set up by each country to conduct decentralisation processes, however, was strongly shaped not only by the nature of the political regime in each place, but also by the role played by different institutions in this process.

In the case of Peru, decentralisation responded to a desire by the fiscal authorities to (i) enhance the budgetary powers held by local governments and (ii) achieve poverty reduction goals. In the Brazilian case, the decentralisation process was driven by the provision of administrative autonomy to municipalities and the strengthening of federalism after the return to democracy in the 1980s, as it was perceived as a way of strengthening checks and balances in the country’s political system. In the Indonesian case, decentralisation was driven by pressure from international organisations (such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) to promote economic rationalisation after the 1997 economic crisis.

Each approach gave rise to quite unique institutional arrangements. The Peruvian model was marked by its technocratic nature, in which local governments operated as “implementing arms” of the priorities defined centrally by Lima. The Brazilian model gave rise to a decentralised federalism but with enormous coordination conflicts (many of which were exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic). Finally, the Indonesian model, in which the decentralisation of expenditure was not accompanied by the decentralisation of tax collection – reflecting the fear of fiscal imbalances and the need for the central government to share the costs of the distributive conflict with local authorities. In conclusion, the three experiences reinforce the understanding that the structure does not limit the agency of individuals, but rather provides them with opportunities to bring about policy change.

Another particularly relevant observation that emerged over the three days of the conference is the recognition that, while the architecture of government is shaped by diverse social actors, the reverse is also true. In other words, the architecture of government also shapes how government interacts with wider society. In this context, variables such as the division of powers between central and national governments, the way public services are delivered (whether by public, semi-public or corporate organisations, public or private) and the design of mechanisms for popular participation, will lead to variations in the way different groups are represented in government – and thus influence the way government delivers results.

In this regard, the debates held during the conference on the Chinese and Indian experiences are illustrative. In the Indian case, despite being a multicultural and multi-ethnic democracy, federalism was born as an instrument for political accommodation of diversity by central government, and not from the emergence of social consensus on the role of local governments in the state structure. As a result, the centralising impulse has reduced the capacity of Indian federalism to produce differentiation. This leaves the country more exposed to the drive for homogenisation from the centre, while deepening the asymmetric outcomes of central government intervention.

In the Chinese case, the incentive structure of career laddering established by the Communist Party encourages local political and administrative elites to focus on differentiation as a strategy to achieve centrally defined outcomes (notably, economic growth targets). Differentiation therefore stems from a centralist vocation – which does not necessarily value difference, but understands it to be necessary in order to identify best practices, which are then implemented in a centralised manner once they have been tested.

The lessons of the conference for the debate on state reform and modernisation in South Africa and for developing countries are numerous. One of the main ones is the central role of learning in the pursuit of policy outcomes. When designing reforms, it is fundamental to think about ways to promote policy learning, given that it is the accumulation of learning that will maintain the momentum around a continued process of change, which in turn can be refined over time with lessons from the actual implementation reforms.

GAPP believes that the discussions that emerged from the Conference on the Architecture of Government are just a sample of the rich potential contributions of the global south to the world debates on (good) governance. We are confident that creating new platforms that give prominence to the reform challenges faced by non-Western countries is key to advancing discussions on how to create effective states that contribute to development goals.

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About Rafael Leite and Ivor Chipkin

Rafael Leite is a research fellow, and Ivor Chipkin is the executive director of the New South Institute think tank.

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