Making Reform Happen

Towards a Diagnostic Framework

Keynote paper for the SELLER Network Conference, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, 21-25 May 2012, Budva


The present paper suggests a conceptual framework that disentangles the “politics of policy reform” as a chain of delegation and accountability relations. This framework shall help reformers and consultants to analyze weak links in the chain. The proposed approach overlaps with the notion of a policy cycle, but focuses on political actors and their interdependence, while avoiding the temporal, institutionalized sequence associated with the cycle idea.

Since policy reforms can be defined as changes of the status quo that enhance aggregate welfare in the longterm perspective, they can be assumed to reflect enlightened self-interests of a majority of citizens. Making reforms could thus be conceived in a wide sense as the challenge of translating citizens’ policy preferences into policies. But this chain from citizens to civil servants consists of many links that involve the delegation of authority and are fraught with problems of agency: that agents do not faithfully pursue the interests of their principals. Principal-agent theory has distinguished two types of agency problems: principals are unable to choose the right agents (called adverse selection) or principals are unable to control the behavior of their agents once a contractual relationship has been set up (moral hazard). To contain these agency problems in the political process, principals have established mechanisms of political accountability. Accountability implies that a principal has a right to demand information from an agent, and a capacity to impose sanctions.

The present paper argues that sustainable policy reforms depend on functioning delegation and accountability links. It is not enough to develop the enforcement capacities of agents through technical assistance projects. More attention should be paid to strengthening their accountability and avoiding “agency loss”. Five links may be distinguished in the chain of accountability and delegation: 1. citizens –> political parties; 2. political parties –> parliamentary deputies; 3. parliament –> government; 4. core executive –> ministers; 5. ministers –> state administration. Note that this chain simplifies a variety of more complex empirical accountability relations. One could also add a sixth link existing between government and independent public agencies and other implementing organizations belonging to the private or non-profit sector. But this link will not be covered here as the focus is on politics and the public sector. The five main links will now be discussed and illustrated with evidence from Southeast Europe and Eurasia.