Governance in non -democracies: The role of civil society in increasing pluralism and accountability in local public policy
How can non-democracies achieve good governance without formal channels of interest articulation and electoral mechanisms of accountability? Using a mixed methods research design, I find that civil society informally plays this role of articulating societal interests and creating a measure of accountability through the transmission of information about local government decisions. While civil society activity produces similar governance outcomes in both democracies and non-democracies, the process or mechanisms by which they do so differ between regime types. Through extensive fieldwork in China supported by a dissertation improvement grant from the National Science Foundation, I find that civil society—comprised of voluntary organizations such as NGOs, clubs, and business associations—use informal and personal channels to access a closed policy-making process. The findings in my dissertation suggest a counterintuitive explanation for this puzzle—that the institutional conditions of non-democracies, namely the lack of transparent information and access to the policy process, increase the importance of civil society groups in local policy making. Simply put, my research finds that in non-democracies such as China, groups leverage their ability to transmit credible information from society to local government about societal needs thus increasing pluralism in the local policy process, and from local government to citizens and institutions of horizontal accountability about government behavior. This role of increasing pluralism in the policy-making process and accountability among local officials is similar to the outcomes documented by Robert Putnam and others in democracies, which draws into question the focus in the effective governance literature on exclusively formal institutions. Therefore, this research is vital for understanding the mechanisms by which civil society groups encourage good governance across all regimes not just liberal democracies, and the process of developing local policy in an authoritarian state such as China.