This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.
“Patronage networks” are a popular villain of political imagination, conjuring to mind cynical images of a corrupt party boss and elected lackeys indulging in extracted wealth from the public coffers. More realistically, this kind of “rent extraction” is real, where appointed government officials use the privileges and access of the job for personal profit, but it’s hardly the only story. That patronage can facilitate corruption is well known, but it remains an insufficient explanation for why patronage structures persist across political systems.
There are benefits from political appointments, not just to the appointees, but to the provision of public goods, argues Guillermo Toral in “How Patronage Delivers: Political Appointments, Bureaucratic Accountability, and Service Delivery in Brazil.”
The paper is written as a broader contribution to the study of patronage, adding discussion of its effectiveness to a literature already rich in outlining how such systems are used for plunder. To test the assumption of benefits, Toral looked at data from local Brazilian governments, surveyed bureaucrats and politicians, and conducted over 120 in-depth interviews across 7 Brazilian states.
That patronage can facilitate corruption is well known, but it remains an insufficient explanation for why patronage structures persist across political systems.
“I argue that political appointments and connections upwardly embed bureaucrats, which provides a set of governance resources,” writes Toral. “Depending on how these resources are used, patronage can enhance either rent-seeking or public service delivery.” Toral goes on to explain the five mechanisms of patronage that he uncovered in his research, which he calls “upward embeddedness.” The first is the bureaucrats’ increased access to material and nonmaterial resources. The second is how patronage allows for politicians to monitor bureaucrats, while the third is how it facilitates the application of sanctions and rewards. The fourth mechanism is related to how patronage aligns bureaucratic priorities and incentives, and the fifth is how patronage works to increase mutual trust. Toral explains, “The advantages of upward embeddedness are not based on distributive favoritism because most of these governance resources are not zero-sum.”
Another way to think of this is that because appointees come in by recommendation and selection from an elected executive, those appointees are bound to that leader and have access to — at a minimum — some of the executives’ attention. This makes it especially worth looking at in rural municipal contexts with finite budgets and labor pools.
“In these challenging environments, the counterfactual to a political appointee is not necessarily the highly capable, autonomous, and driven bureaucrat that Weberian theories presume,” writes Toral. “Without adequate human capital and incentives, civil servants may simply lack the capacity and motivation to deliver services. In those contexts, patronage can alleviate some constraints on bureaucratic governance.”
Appointees are also at-will employees, which means that they can be dismissed or threatened with dismissal for a failure to deliver and can also be promoted for success. In Brazil, while a developed city may have an established bureaucracy capable of handling tasks, the trust between appointees and executives in a developing city can facilitate coordination.
This effectiveness can be seen in tracked changes of school quality in Brazil, as illustrated by scores in the Basic Education Development Index following political turnovers. Quality changes with political transition indicated that previously well-connected appointees were using those connections for meaningful service provision before the election.
“For the benefits of patronage to outweigh the costs, politicians must value public service delivery, be it due to intrinsic beliefs and norms, political competition, electoral accountability, or anti-corruption institutions,” Toral concludes.