Greater Expectations: A Field Experiment to Improve Accountability in Mali

The forth coming article “Great Expectations: A Field Experiment to Improve Accountability in Mali” by Jessica Gottlieb is summarized by the author here:

Since free and fair elections became the norm in a large portion of the developing world with often disappointing results, policymakers and researchers alike have been trying to understand why these formal democratic institutions fail to generate more political accountability.  Some existing answers are that poverty and inequality lead to patronage politics and facilitate corruption.  We also know that deficits in political information among largely rural and uneducated voters make it easier for politicians to shirk.  In this article, I offer a novel explanation for the failure of electoral accountability particular to new democracies: voters have low expectations of what their governments can and should do for them.

Voters in young democracies are more likely to underestimate politician performance when their prior beliefs about politicians are informed by experience with unaccountable governments, when politicians have yet to form reputations that weed out poor candidates, and when there are newly decentralized governments with authorities previously under the jurisdiction of the federal government.  Furthermore, new and developing democracies are also plagued by low levels of civic education and poor access to credible media outlets.

My argument has implications for the kinds of information that should be provided to voters to improve their ability to sanction politicians.  Specifically, voters need more accurate reference points against which to evaluate politician performance.  Key reference points include 1) general performance standards and 2) the relative performance of politicians in comparable polities.

To test the argument, I provide information about both types of reference points in one developing democracy, Mali.  Because of difficulties in identifying causation between voter knowledge and politician performance, I randomly assign some decentralized localities to receive the information – in the form of a civics course.  In 32 communes, the course provides information about general performance standards relating to the responsibility and capacity of local governments to provide a range of public goods.  In 32 communes, a slightly longer course provides additional information about the relative performance of local governments in the sample.  Thirty-one communes serve as the control group.

Survey evidence (N=5,560) evaluating the first step of the argument, that informing voter reference points increases expectations, reveals the civics course effectively raised participant expectations of local government performance.  Evidence supporting the main claim – that greater expectations lead to increased sanctioning of poor performers – comes from experiments embedded in candidate vignettes.  I find that treatment improved voter willingness to 1) sanction poor-performing candidates and 2) vote on the basis of performance rather than kinship or gift-giving.  To add external validity to survey findings, I examine impacts on one behavioral outcome and find that the civics course increases the likelihood that citizens challenge local leaders at a town hall meeting.

The main contribution of the article is demonstrating the relevance of a new type of information in voter decision-making.  That a civics course can inform voter beliefs about expected politician performance, as a possible input to increasing government accountability, is important for students and practitioners of democracy in Africa and beyond.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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