LAWRENCE —If local government leaders in developing countries seek to blindly copy Western-style public management and budgeting reforms, they likely won't be able to achieve substantive change, according to an award-winning study by a University of Kansas researcher.
"The U.S. has been a pioneer in performance management and budgeting reforms in the world for the past few decades," said Alfred Tat-Kei Ho, a professor in the KU School of Public Affairs and Administration. "Many countries, including many developing economies in Asia and other parts of the world, look toward the U.S. practices as best practices. However, our paper cautions reformers in those countries that they need to consider carefully the institutional differences between the U.S. and their own countries. They should certainly learn from the U.S. practices but should also make local adaptations that are appropriate for their institutional contexts."
Ho, who is also a faculty fellow of KU's Center for East Asian Studies, and his co-author Professor Tobin Im of Seoul National University recently received the 2015 Best Paper Award of the American Review of Public Administration, one of the key journals in the public administration field. Their study "Challenges in Building Effective and Competitive Government in Developing Countries: An Institutional Logics Perspective," was the result of a grant project on "government competitiveness" supported by the Korean Research Foundation.
As many developing countries today are seeking to make their governments more cost-efficient, effective and accountable to the public, they are looking to institute more sophisticated practices in many areas, Ho said.
However, when developing countries seek to import reform ideas that might conflict with some of the existing institutional settings, they can either be effectively blended with more traditional local practices and political dynamics or likely risk serving as simple "window dressing" that doesn't result in meaningful reform, he said.
For example, the study notes South Africa introduced performance-based budgeting in the early 2000s, but because the performance information was not presented in the context of the financial portion of the budget, policymakers weren't able to institute meaningful changes that relied in performance evaluations.
The scholars developed a conceptual framework to determine how far apart a developing country's institutions are from the expectations of Western-oriented reform.
They considered differences in organizational contexts and capacity, cultures and norms, and political institutions. They also looked at the role of leadership and organizational strategies and proposed hypotheses for future research that could explore the dynamics between institutional gaps, implementation strategies, and leadership characteristics of results-oriented reforms, especially in the context of developing countries.
The study was built not only on theoretical research, but also on years of engaged work with governments in the U.S. and overseas.
This type of research is already making a real impact on policymaking. For example, Ho participated in a project sponsored by the Asian Development Bank in 2015 and worked with a number of experts from the ADB and China on Henan Province's public expenditure performance monitoring reforms.
"Having some understanding of different countries' reform experiences and the perspective that reform strategies should be contingent on the institutional contexts of countries really help projects like this," Ho said. "Rather than dictating what a local government should do or should not do, we tried to present different possibilities of reform strategies and encourage local officials to think innovatively about how they may make public budgetary practices in China more accountable, transparent and effective."
Ho said his extensive engaged research with U.S. local governments helped with this international project.
"KU has a nationally top-ranked program in urban management and policies, public management and public budgeting and financial management, and many other countries want to learn from U.S. practices and experiences," he said. "In this globalized world, ideas flow around very quickly and get adapted very fast. While the U.S. experiences have a lot to offer to the world, there are now many innovative practices by governments in other parts of the world that U.S. local officials may find helpful, creative and adaptable in their local settings. We should have an open mind and encourage more mutual learning."
Ho also seeks to extend these experiences to students. For example, during the winter break of 2014, Ho worked with the Center of East Asian Studies and the Center of Sustainability to offer an overseas study program that took students to go to South Korea to learn about their policy reforms related to economic competitiveness and sustainable development.
Ho said in his international research and in the classroom he seeks to convey the message that all governments at all levels need to demonstrate the value of public services and their impact on society and the economy.
"It is not so much about how much a government spends, but more about whether it spends and taxes smartly and accountably," he said. " This is what many Asian governments are trying to learn and pursue, and the United States can certainly offer good examples and inspirations for these countries."
Photo cutline: Alfred Tat-Kei Ho, a University of Kansas professor of the School of Public Affairs and Administration and a faculty fellow of the Center for East Asian Studies, received the 2015 Best Paper Award of the American Review of Public Administration for his study on local government budget reforms in developing countries. On Sept. 2, Ho and his co-author, Professor Tobin Im of Seoul National University, received the award at the public administration section meeting of the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting in Philadelphia.