Making politics work for development: Harnessing transparency and citizen engagement


The majority of development work is done in imperfect governance environments where things need to be done – and quickly. This report looks at making politics work for development, rather than against it, to address government failures. It discusses trends and the context of government failures, political engagement and transparency, and finds that citizen political engagement and transparency can bring about necessary changes in political behaviour. The paper presents lessons learned from research on how the latter work together to improve governance and encourages a shift in development policy advice which confronts politics and incorporates it into the search for technical solutions to development problems.

Key findings

  • Government failures are a consequence of ‘unhealthy’ political engagement, that is, when leaders are selected and sanctioned on the basis of their provision of private benefits rather than public goods. Evidence on the adverse effects of this engagement does not imply that authoritarian institutions that bypass or suppress political engagement would necessarily improve outcomes. On the contrary, evidence from a large variety of institutional contexts is clear that fostering healthy political engagement rather than suppressing it is more likely to result in better development outcomes.
  • Individual citizen actions, such as voting, play a critical role in whether political engagement functions in healthy or unhealthy ways. Evidence suggests that citizens perceive the cost of voting as low and the potential benefits as high. The impact of organised groups such as political parties depends in part upon their ability to influence individual actions such as voting. There is little evidence and understanding about the impact of civil society organisations in contexts where elections are affected by vote buying or captured by special interests.
  • Transparency can cultivate and improve the quality of political engagement in a variety of institutional contexts. However, in contexts in which political engagement is unhealthy there is no clear evidence on whether its  impact is sufficient to get leaders to respond with sustainable or long-term improvements in outcomes. Available research highlights the role of mass media as a force for persuasion, and as an institution that can address coordination problems among citizens beyond information alone.
  • Evidence suggests that transparency initiatives focused on citizen engagement outside the political process, also known as social accountability mechanisms, are less effective than transparency initiatives focused on politics. For example, citizen report cards have been used to monitor and demand accountability directly from frontline service providers rather than from politicians.
  • Evidence shows that the characteristics of political engagement affect whether a transparency initiative improves a service delivery problem. Information campaigns about local service delivery problems, are likely to have only transient effects if they do not improve political engagement. Sustained reductions in corruption and improvements in service delivery depend upon whether transparency has fundamentally changed incentives and behavioural norms in the public sector.
  • Building effective government institutions requires changes in political behaviour, not just investments in formal capacity and innovative technologies. The literature suggests that transparency in combination with political engagement provides tipping points for change in how government institutions function: the combination influences institutional change not only by affecting incentives of leaders but also by changing the informal behavioural norms in the public sector to act upon them. 
  • Conditions in many countries where the vast majority of the poor live resemble those described in historical accounts of previous institutional transitions in advanced economies. These conditions do not guarantee good outcomes. However, deliberate policy efforts for transparency targeted at helping citizens select and sanction leaders on the basis of performance in providing public goods can try to channel these forces toward the goals of economic development.

The report recognises the double bind of making recommendations that leaders are unable to implement due to political constraints. Broadly, it recommends leveraging transparency and citizen engagement, taking existing national political institutions as given. This includes: supporting transparency initiatives that support the generation of specific, reliable, and impartial evidence on the performance of leaders tasked with the delivery of public policies and designing citizen engagement policies that explicitly take citizens’ and leaders’ political behaviour into account.


World Bank. (2016). Making politics work for development. Harnessing transparency and citizen engagement. Conference edition. Policy research report. Washington DC: World Bank.