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Bureaucratic Pockets of Effectiveness in Ghana with Erin McDonnell
Episode 273rd May 2021 • Charter Cities Podcast • Kurtis Lockhart
00:00:00 01:21:18

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Today’s guest is Erin McDonnell, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. She joins us on the show to discuss her recent book Patchwork Leviathan, which looks at the emergence of bureaucratic pockets of effectiveness, or high performing groups, within otherwise weak state administrations with a particular focus on Ghana. We unpack Erin’s findings on the causes of these bureaucratic pockets of effectiveness, hearing Erin firstly sketch out what she calls the dual habitus brain. In the pockets of effectiveness Erin studied, she found that many of the participants shared an educational profile which they melded with their knowledge of local conditions. We consider other possible causes of pockets of effectiveness such as team dynamics, the ability to use discretion, systems for reward and the acceptance of failure, and human motives that are difficult to measure formally. We also consider some of the characteristics that keep these pockets of effectiveness robust, a particularly unexpected one being the characteristic of built-in redundancy. Other themes discussed are whether the recent discovery of oil poses a threat to Ghanaian pockets of effectiveness, Erin’s personal approach to effective bureaucratic management, and a whole lot more. So for an episode packed with personal anecdotes and local case studies from Ghana and beyond tune in today! 


Key Points From This Episode:

•  How bureaucracies are made up of human beings, not just rules.

•  Erin’s experiences of Ghanaian culture; food, people, and her fieldwork.

•  Perspectives on the idea that there is a lot of variation within states.

•  Why Erin’s research began with identifying high-performing groups of the state.

•  The common educational profile of people in Ghanaian pockets of effectiveness.

•  Better transnational institutional transfer after melding foreign practices in a local context.

•  How the idea of the ‘founding team’ factors into pockets of effectiveness.

•  What principal agent theory gets wrong when studying bureaucracies.

•  Perspectives on agency autonomy and how it plays into cultivating pockets of effectiveness.

•  How the charter city can become its own pocket of effectiveness.

•  Examples of how discretion is a motivating force for people who are pro-socially minded.

•  How systems of reward and acceptance of failure can drive motivation.

•  Perspectives on the role of clustering and agglomeration in shaping new culture in cities and pockets of effectiveness.

•  The role of redundancy in keeping pockets of effectiveness more stable.

•  Whether the recent discovery of oil in Ghana poses a threat to pockets of effectiveness.

•  The role of informal characteristics in accomplishing tasks in organizations and how these are measured.

•  Contrasts and connections between ‘positive deviance’, ‘problem-driven iterative adaptation’, and pockets of effectiveness theories.

•  Why Erin is skeptical about the idea of changing civil service codes in Ghana.

•  Erin’s personal approach to effective bureaucratic management.



Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:

Charter Cities Institute

Charter Cities Institute on Facebook

Charter Cities Institute on Twitter

Charter Cities Institute on LinkedIn

Erin McDonnell

University of Notre Dame

Patchwork Leviathan

Episode 25 with Yuen Yuen Ang

Saskia Sassen

The Weirdest People in the World

Elinor Ostrom

Chris Blattman