What Works? Understanding Positive Performance and Improvement in Public Sector Organizations in the Global South

About the Conference

Organized by Kellogg Faculty Fellow Erin McDonnell and Rik Peeters (CIDE), this small conference is jointly hosted by the University of Notre Dame and CIDE – Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas. The conference will bring together approximately 25 participants, including invited elite international scholars working in the area and participants chosen from this open call for papers.

The conference aims to construct a network of scholars interested in the growing area of research into public sector effectiveness, bringing together diverse perspectives from different disciplines, institutions, and countries to foster future collaborations and research output. All conference participants will present papers eligible for consideration to be included in a joint academic product – either in the form of an edited book project or journal special issue (we have interest from International Review of Administrative Sciences). Given the focus on 'what works?' we aim to also build connections with and disseminate findings among public bureaucrats and policy makers.

The conference will be 2.5 days. We will cover lodging and ground transportation for people staying in the conference hotel. Food will be covered during conference. We anticipate being able to cover the cost of airfare up to $600 USD. The conference is sponsored by Notre Dame International Mexico Faculty Grant Program, Kellogg Institute of International Studies, & CIDE. 

Topics & Purpose

Public sector organizations are some of the most important organizations affecting the lives of millions of people around the globe, both as a source of employment and as a provider of thousands of programs affecting human wellbeing. From public hospitals to ministries of finance, court systems to education systems, public sector organizations are all around us, affecting life outcomes. This conference aims to explore examples of positive public sector performance and the conditions that make this possible, despite structurally adverse conditions.

The study of public policy and administration has always paid more attention to failures, problems, and crises than to positive and successful policies, practices, and reforms (Douglas et al., 2019). This is perhaps especially true for studies of the Global South, which not only have pointed out the numerous deficiencies related to, for instance, limited state legitimacy and capacity and bureaucratic autonomy, but often also applied standards of advanced democracies’ Weberian bureaucracies to vastly different contexts (Eiró & Lotta, 2023; Masood & Nisar, 2023). It is academically and practically very problematic to hold bureaucracies of the Global South up to standards developed in fundamentally different socio-historical settings (McDonnell 2017).

First of all, it tends to misunderstand the structural causes of institutional weakness that prevent countries to develop towards Western-style governance mechanisms. For example, the role of politics – which often permeates public administration and policymaking in the Global South at all levels of government – is largely overlooked in mainstream public administration literature (Vázquez-González et al., 2023) as is the effect of social inequalities and large informal economies on policy implementation (Eiró & Lotta, 2023). Furthermore, such analytic shortcomings may result in overlooking forms of positive performance that do not fit traditional governance schemes as well as overemphasizing the usefulness and practical feasibility of mimicking the bureaucracies of advanced bureaucracies (Pepinsky et al., 2017).

The ambition of the conference is not to apologetically highlight several examples where policies do work out well or mimic Western-style governance, but rather develop a more systematic understanding of governance mechanisms that fit the structural conditions of public administrations in the Global South. In other words, our primary interest is in highlighting practices that go beyond or defy the conventional understandings of ‘good governance’ but that contribute to public sector effectiveness, are understood as valuable through the eyes of those working with them, or of the citizens that directly experience service delivery, policy implementation, and rule enforcement. Such an approach is also sensitive to the high levels of diversity among and within countries of the Global South, whose public institutions are not weak across the board but, rather, respond to different contextual challenges and develop varying mechanisms to deal with them.

We tap into and seek to bring cohesion to several strands of literature that have been working in this direction. Of particular interest are recent studies on street-level bureaucracy and policy implementation that highlight the importance of policy repair (Masood & Nisar, 2022), improvisation (Campos & Peeters, 2022), social embeddedness of frontline workers (Mangla, 2022), and establishing relational ties between marginalized communities and a distant formal bureaucracy (Peake & Forsyth, 2022). We also build upon studies that analyze the pockets of effectiveness in seemingly weak states (McDonnell, 2020) as well as studies that respond to the call for a more positive public administration (Douglas et al., 2021; Douglas, 2011). Bringing together scholars from different research approaches and contexts is an important step in building conceptual cohesion and a more systematic understanding of what works and why. 


Those eligible to apply include advanced graduate students (ABD), postdocs, and faculty from the social and behavioral sciences and allied professional schools. The workshop is open to a variety of methodological approaches and geographic sites of interest. Participants will have two options: 1) workshopping a full paper, to be shared before the conference or 2) an extended abstract & presentation of full project, also to be shared before the conference.


Applications due: May 3, 2024
Decisions announced by: May 13, 2024
Questions? Contact