The Politics-Bureaucracy Interface: Impact on Development Reform

Niheer Dasandi


This paper provides an in-depth review of the existing research on the relationship between political and bureaucratic leaders in developing countries, the factors that shape this relationship, and the impact it has on the success and failure of reforms. It finds that political-bureaucratic relations are an important factor in reform success or failure.

Politicians and bureaucrats each have their own values, interests, ideas, attitudes and different sources, forms, and degrees of power. The ‘political-bureaucratic interface’ refers here to how political and bureaucratic leaders engage with each other, and to the structural or institutional constraints and opportunities that influence their engagement. It involves both the type of relationship – for example, how closely these leaders work together; whether they interact through informal or formal channels – and contextual factors that affect it.

Key Findings:

  • The findings suggest that political-bureaucratic relations that support successful reform often involve: (i) a core group of political and bureaucratic leaders who work closely together and share development-centred values and aims; (ii) bureaucrats who have unusually high levels of influence in designing policy; and (iii) strong political leadership promoting the reform.
  • Two aspects of the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats are particularly important: how distinct their roles are in the reform process (the distance and level of differentiation between the political and administrative spheres); and how much space, or autonomy, politicians give bureaucrats in designing policies.
  • Developing countries can be divided into three broad categories based on these key dimensions of political-bureaucratic relations: developmental states, predatory states and other developing countries. In ‘developmental’ states there is little separation of roles (so politicians and bureaucrats work closely together) and significant bureaucratic autonomy. ‘Developmental states’ are those where government involvement in the market has achieved high economic growth. In ‘predatory’ states there is little separation of roles and little bureaucratic autonomy. In these countries the ruling elite uses the state apparatus to extract personal wealth. In other developing countries there is greater separation of roles (more distant working relations) and lower bureaucratic autonomy. However, levels of both dimensions vary widely across these countries – and within them (between different ministries, for example). Most developing countries fall into this category, in which opposition between politicians and bureaucrats is more likely.
  • Three important structural factors shape the politics-bureaucracy interface in developing countries and its impact on reform: resources or sources of power; recruitment and promotion in the bureaucracy; and representation.
  • Conflicting interests between politicians and bureaucrats is a key factor in the failure of institutional reforms in developing countries. However, more recent research has been done in developmental states on reforms that succeeded despite opposition, in which some similarities emerged: close working relationships between politicians and bureaucrats within an elite group; bureaucrats who have much greater influence in designing policy than is usually the case; shared pro-development values and goals within the core group of political and bureaucratic leaders, bolstered by informal ties; and a strong and committed political leadership and a strategy to deal with opposition.


Three main considerations for external actors emerge from the literature: (i) identify where there is political commitment to reforms; (ii) identify and engage with domestic actors already committed to reform; and (iii) ensure funding is available according to the timings set out by domestic reform teams.


Dasandi, N. (2014). The Politics-Bureaucracy Interface: Impact on Development Reform. Birmingham, UK: Developmental Leadership Program.