How Patronage Delivers: Political Appointments, Bureaucratic Accountability, and Service Delivery in Brazil

The forthcoming article “How Patronage Delivers: Political Appointments, Bureaucratic Accountability, and Service Delivery in Brazil” by Guillermo Toral is summarized by the author below.

Governments all around the world use political appointments to fill at least some bureaucratic posts. This practice is especially important in developing contexts, where civil service systems are less consolidated. How do political appointments impact public service delivery, governance, and development more broadly? 

The established answer to that question, at least when it comes to developing contexts, is that political appointments jeopardize governance, through two mechanisms – the selection of worse types (e.g., less qualified candidates) and the depression of bureaucrats’ level of effort (because of their connections to those in power).  

In this article, I advance an alternative view of political appointments as an institution that changes not just who enters the bureaucracy or how much they work but also, and critically, how they work. I argue that political appointments facilitate the monitoring of bureaucrats by politicians, enable the application of sanctions and rewards, provide access to material and non-material resources, align priorities and incentives, and increase mutual trust. In so doing, political appointments can facilitate bureaucratic accountability and effectiveness. 

I test this theory using a variety of data and methods (including quasi-experiments, surveys, and in-depth interviews). I focus on municipal governments in Brazil, a context where political appointments coexist with other modes of bureaucratic selection.  

Using a difference-in-discontinuities, I show that politically appointed school directors (or principals) become less effective at boosting student learning when they lose their political connections. This suggests that political connections can be mobilized to increase bureaucratic effectiveness.  

In a regression discontinuity design, I demonstrate that politically appointed school directors who meet a student learning target are less likely to be replaced. This suggests that politicians take bureaucratic effectiveness into consideration when selecting appointees, and use performance metrics to hold them accountable.   

I then use original surveys of bureaucrats and politicians to explore the mechanisms through which political appointments can enhance bureaucratic effectiveness and accountability. I find that appointed bureaucrats have more frequent contact with, higher levels of trust in, and better alignment with politicians than unappointed bureaucrats do. In conjoint experiments with bureaucrats and politicians, I find that political appointees are seen as better at communicating with the government and more responsive to its demands. 

These often-overlooked benefits of patronage suggest that politics in the developing world can be a source not only of corruption and misallocations, but also of governance resources that can help overcome development challenges. The advantages of political appointments may be particularly important in contexts where other, more impartial sources of bureaucratic effectiveness (e.g., high levels of human capital or strong bureaucratic norms) are not yet developed.  

The article also helps explain why political appointments are so important to rent-seeking politicians. By changing how bureaucrats work –for example, by making them more aligned and more easily monitored and sanctioned– political appointments make it easier for corrupt politicians to use the bureaucracy to their advantage. This ambivalence of political appointments helps explain why they have proven to be so resilient throughout history. 

About the Author: Guillermo Toral is an Assistant Professor at IE University, and a Faculty Affiliate at MIT GOV/LAB. Their research “How Patronage Delivers: Political Appointments, Bureaucratic Accountability, and Service Delivery in Brazil” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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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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