GOV/LAB: Holding Governments Accountable

MIT Spectrum Deep Dive: Lily Tsai recently launched GOV/LAB, which gives grad students hands-on experience in political research.

This piece by Kathryn M. O'Neill was featured in MIT's Spectrum magazine in Spring of 2015, the original online version can be found here. Photo by Ben Bocko.
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THE MIT GOVERNANCE LAB LAUNCHED IN AUGUST 2013 to connect those on the front lines of political activity with scholars conducting rigorous academic research. Led by Associate Professor of Political Science Lily Tsai, MIT GOV/LAB employs five PhD students and two project managers, and projects are already under way in Bangladesh, Guatemala, Kenya, the Philippines, Liberia, Tanzania, Uruguay, and the United States. Tsai discusses this new initiative with Spectrum.

What was your inspiration for launching the Governance Lab?

A few years ago, I had the fortune of going to the village where my mother spent the first few years of her life in China. I was able to see the mud brick house that my grandfather built with his own hands, and it was basically unchanged after six decades. There was still no running water and no electricity.

Seeing this village really illustrated how hard work by individuals does not build roads, provide infrastructure for running water, or lead to better schools. In other words, poverty and development are not just—or even primarily—economic problems. In many developing countries, huge amounts of aid don’t seem to make any difference—and that’s because money is not the issue.

Fundamentally, poverty and development are political problems. My personal motivation for starting Governance Lab was to help figure out how to make governments more accountable and responsive to their citizens. This is important not just because it is what democracy is all about, but also because it’s impossible to get better development unless we increase citizen voice and increase government accountability.

What’s innovative about the work of the Governance Lab?

Innovation is not just about technology. A key part is social and political: Technology has to work in real contexts. So, for example, we’re collecting data on the political and social impacts of the Ebola crisis in Liberia, where the stigma of survivors is becoming a huge concern. What do people think the policies toward survivors should be? What is the impact of government outreach on safe burial practices? How do you get more citizen cooperation in a crisis situation when people don’t trust the government?

At the GOV/LAB, we work with partner organizations to design, pilot, and evaluate programs. Our relatively small-scale, short-term investigations provide information that’s operationally useful—so that they can make mid-course corrections. In Liberia, for instance, we’re working with an NGO [nongovernmental organization] that is trying out different kinds of outreach to officials; we will then assess what factors make citizen-government cooperation more likely.

What benefits do graduate students gain from working on Governance Lab projects?

MIT attracts students who want to combine academic research with work that has a direct impact on policy and the real world. GOV/LAB provides hands-on research experience early in a student’s graduate career with the added benefit of faculty guidance. Our students play a substantive role: They have a hand in identifying research questions and often serve as coinvestigators or co-project leads. Not only do GOV/LAB students contribute theoretically to political science, they also generate findings that are directly useful to donors, NGOs, and other stakeholders whose work has a profound impact on people’s lives.