Monday, September 28, 2020

Institutions and institutional change and citizens’choices

This week I would like to briefly reflect on the old conception of the role of institutions and institutional change in shaping the choices we make as individuals or groups as we attempt to attain our growth through access to resources. Differently put, what is the role of our diverse institutions (public service in general and to a lesser extent the key non public sector institutions that matter in our daily lives) in assisting Batswana to make productive and profitable choices on their pursuit of empowering themselves? One of the major aspects of this question is the perceived positioning of institutions such as ministries and their various departments at different locations, local governments and mainly public corporations (particularly those providing utility services) and the extent to which they are able to provide citizens with adequate life choices for sustained growth and development.

A second consideration is the extent to which the evolution of these institutions is tied to their responses to citizen’s incentives, strategies and choices for their survival. In this light, the ability of institutional change to impact on the overall political and economic systems, becomes a defining point of whether or not institutions and their evolution has any positive impact on the overall growth of citizens as individuals or groups within a given democratic setup, such as ours. My basic assumption is that the evolutionary change of political and economic institutions in our country defines the environment within which we can actualize and attain a degree of human cooperation that ultimately regulates our ability to access the resources that we need to develop ourselves as individuals or groups of citizens.

Ever since independence, we have had systematic institutional changes taking place in most of our major political and economic structures that matter, ensuring that citizens of this country are able and empowered to access various resources so that they can be part of the general development process. We can look at changes in the ministerial structures over the years resulting in increased numbers of ministries, all in the name of increasing and rationalizing service delivery to citizens; we could also look further to the processes of decentralization since independence and the resultant transformation of our local authorities; other areas include the ever changing terrain of educational institutions at all levels, particularly tertiary education level which defines ones ‘ competencies and skills and knowledge required to help position themselves in the labour market. This is, for most, the more direct assessment of how institutions actually prepare and deliver you into the various options of jobs for employment, self employment and any other opportunity the institutions at both economic and political level may now view you as of worthy a contribution to make.

All these changes have been made so as to ensure that institutions and any changes of same are part and parcel of a broader environment that is meant to give citizens choices to pursue their types of lifestyles in a legal, economic and politically enhancing context. Part of the reason for placing our trust on these institutions is that we tend to believe that they limit the extent of uncertainties that we often face in our interaction with each other, often as a result of complexities of the types of problems and challenges we face and as well as the capacity of our “problem solving software” as individuals (often limited). It is however critical that we understand that institutions and their evolutions don’t always guarantee efficiency of such in making access easier for citizens, but only assists in explaining how, in making our choices of what avenues to pursue, altruism and other non-wealth-maximizing values enter our choice set equations. This in part explains why, despite relying on the same institutions of government at both central and local government, we don’t end up reaping similar or proportionally equal benefits, precisely because our mechanisms of setting and making choices differs and some may not necessarily be driven by maximizing profit whereas other would be. The extent of what we benefit out of the choices we made as individuals will largely be, not only a function of the environment of institutions and their dynamism in changing but in part it would also be explained by our individual and group relations with, both the formal and informal constraints, normally associated with the stability of institutional change.

Informally, our choices are affected by the extent to which we are still bondage to the more formal rules, socially sanctioned norms of behavior and internally enforced standards of conduct that all defines some aspects of our culture. In our case this culture can be at either national level (if we do have a national culture) or the more specific localized culture (tribal and/or regional.

Cultural traits have tenacious survival ability and they often define the way we process and utilize information that we get from these institutions for our own individual use, check your own allegiance to your culture and how it may have affected your choices in your career. The more formal constraints will include political and/or judicial rules, economic rules and contracts as contained in written statutory instruments of different kinds. The latter are known to lower the cost of information, monitoring and enforcement while at the same time complimenting and increasing the effectiveness of informal constraints. In other words in a market based economy such as ours, the rules are devised in the interest of private well being rather than social being and therefore the rules that define our accessibility to resources, as citizens of this country, are self- interest based. This again further explains why we can not make similar choices or even if we do, our rewards will be different.

The history of our institutional change, as can be discerned from mainly our public service institutions over the years, can be said to be the interactive processes of these institutions and citizens in their various capacities as they pursue their purpose for life. Of more importance to note is that as institutions evolve, they alter firstly, the incentives that governs learning and information that leads citizens to adjust their decision-making processes to gradually fit into the dynamism of the system. Secondly, the change re-focuses the kinds of economic activities that we can see as profitable and viable and thus shapes our capacity to adapt to these institutional changes to improve our ways of accessing resources. The legacy of institutional change in Botswana ought to be assessed on the basis of its ability to enhance and empower citizens’ access to vital resources for their sustained livelihoods. Where do we stand in this regard?

*Dan Molaodi teaches Public Administration at the University of Botswana

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.