Judith Tendler, and learning from ‘good government’

On 24th July 2016, Judith Tendler, former Professor at the Department of Urban studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, passed away. She was 77. A Ph.D from Columbia University, Judith Tendler spent several years at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), before a long career as a Professor in MIT. A significant share of Prof. Tendler’s work focused on the Americas, but she also studied South Asia and parts of Africa over her long career.

Prof Tendler’s book: ‘Good Government in the Tropics’ (1997) is one of the most influential books in the field of international development — an essential reading for students of governance and public policy studies. In the book, Prof Tendler and her research associates studied four cases of successful government in Ceara, a relatively poor state in north-eastern Brazil. In each of the cases, the government at different levels played an effective role, facilitating and brokering relationships, and submitting itself to mechanisms which could be used to hold themselves accountable. Those were rare, but rich, examples of ‘good government’.

These cases highlighting the achievements of ‘good governments’ challenged the dominant pessimistic thinking about governance in the so-called ‘third world’. Prof Tendler argued that much of the advice from international development agencies to developing countries was based on an analysis of poor performance of the public sector and governments. This resulted in a tendency to ‘import’ good practices from the successful developed countries, as well as a resistance to looking deeply into poor countries to identify variations in performance. In many ways. Prof Tendler consistently challenged the pre-suppositions that development agencies and policy advisors nurtured and which, as a result, shaped the advice they dispensed into narrow straitjackets often unfit for the context in which they were to be applied.

One of the interesting, if surprising, conclusions of Prof Tendler’s research for the book is that local governments (or non-government organisations, for that matter) were not inherently any better at service delivery. In the 1990s, the push for decentralised governance was very strong, and several countries, including India, made significant progress in decentralising power to tiers of government closer to its citizens. At the same time, policymakers and advocates were locked in debates over whether decentralisation led to positive outcomes. In this context, a call to look beyond established models of decentralisation and look for variations in implementation in different contexts was highly valuable.

The researchers found that service delivery improved in Ceara not because the central government got out of the way and allowed the local governments and civic action a free hand, but because it involved itself in a self-interested fashion, monitoring delivery by local governments, and playing an active role in civic education. This was quite unlike the conventional thinking around decentralisation at the time, and we are better off for it. In the book, Prof Tendler does not argue that her cases represented the norm. Instead, her point was simply that the politics of implementation merit far more attention than it had so far received. More and more now, researchers studying public policy are expected to focus on ‘implementation’ — looking beyond ‘what works’ to the ‘why’ and ‘how’. The learning agenda that is fast gaining currency too has been enriched by this focus on implementation, as it takes organisations into reflecting deeper on how to make change happen.

The questions Prof Tendler posed about an uncritical belief in the merits of decentralisation, the ability of civil society as an agent to hold the government accountable, or the fatalism that prevails regarding the commitment of public sector employees, are highly relevant today in India. It has been clear for some time now that the model of decentralised governance in India will look different in each state, and rightly so. A single framework for analysis therefore, will not work. Similarly, hybrid forms of civic action continue to thrive, as there is increasing pressure to work with government, and yet retain its independence. Finally, implementation capacity of the state remains a challenge, as the state attempts to restore credibility. The experiments with technology-enabled solutions and motivational messages directed at the bureaucracy are efforts in that direction.

As we analyse public sector reforms, the work of Prof Tendler will remain a great source of insight: there is no silver bullet, other than incremental improvement, and evidence-based iteration.

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