Research News

Study: Transparency, competition key to improving legislators’ performance

Kristin Michelitch (Vanderbilt University)
Kristin Michelitch (Vanderbilt University)

Politicians will work harder at their jobs when their performance is reported to constituents early in their terms, but only where there’s a degree of competition from rival parties. These are the key findings of new research performed in Uganda by Kristin Michelitch, assistant professor of political science, who received an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship last year to research methods of holding politicians accountable in low-income, newly democratizing nations.

The paper, “Information Dissemination, Competitive Pressure and Politician Performance between Elections,” was published in the February 2018 issue of the American Political Science Review, the discipline’s flagship journal.

To undertake this work, Michelitch and University of Pennsylvania political scientist Guy Grossman partnered with ACODE, a nonpartisan Ugandan organization working to improve government transparency, among other efforts. One of ACODE’s projects is the production of a comprehensive annual scorecard detailing every district-level politician’s performance. (A Ugandan district is roughly comparable to a U.S. state.) ACODE had been presenting the scorecard to politicians and other district officials in yearly meetings as feedback.

Unlike in the United States, politicians’ job responsibilities are defined by law in Uganda—giving ACODE a clear, commonly understood set of criteria by which to judge performance and develop a performance scorecard. In addition to being required to participate in the legislative process, they are also required to meet regularly with their constituents, participate in local government council sessions and ensure public services in their areas comply with national standards.

Michelitch and her coauthor worked with ACODE to extend their existing programming to evaluate the effect of distributing the scorecard to constituents in addition to political elites. By randomly assigning half the districts to this additional programming, the researchers could measure the effect of the additional transparency efforts.

The dominant wisdom is that politicians ignore accountability initiatives outside of election season because voters have short attention spans. However, the two scholars theorized that ACODE should distribute the scorecard relatively early in the 5-year electoral cycle.

“Politicians’ performance in the year after the scorecard dissemination immediately improved in competitive constituencies.”

This is important, Michelitch said, because elections are few and far between in most countries, and both politician performance and citizen political engagement tend to decline in nonelection years. “We need to find effective ways in which politicians are held accountable during the many years between elections.”

The fear of competition is key to the success of transparency endeavors, Michelitch said, adding that “we find that transparency only works in competitive areas, but it doesn’t actually have to be all that competitive.” The threshold for when the scorecard begins to make a real difference appears to be up to a 22 percent margin of victory in the previous election. “This is good news because even a burgeoning threat by a challenger provides the foundation necessary for transparency to work to hold politicians accountable,” Michelitch said. “For newly democratizing countries like Uganda, it takes time for opposition to mount.”

Other results from the study reveal yet other complexities of democracy, she said. Politicians targeted by the additional transparency efforts changed what they could control, but that didn’t necessarily result in improved public services, which often depend on the performance of many different actors. For example, though targeted politicians could not unilaterally increase the budget allocated to their district, they would allocate the funds to a wider variety of improvement projects, presumably to target more constituents at once. “In order for public services to improve, many officials in different branches and levels of government need to be held accountable in addition to elected representatives,” Michelitch said.

As their next step in this research, Michelitch and coauthors will follow up on whether these transparency efforts affect challenger entry and reelection of incumbents in the next election.