Faculty spotlight: Bo Rothstein

Founder of the Quality of Government Institute, Bo Rothstein, joined the Blavatnik School in January 2016 as Professor of Government and Public Policy, as well as the Professorial Fellow at Nuffield College. His research focuses on good governance, the performance of democracies, and tackling institutional corruption.

In traditional University of Oxford fashion, as a newly-appointed professor, Bo delivered an inaugural lecture titled  ‘Social justice, ethnic diversity, trust and the quality of government’, at a time when 70% of national populations surveyed do not trust their governments, and where voter turnout has rarely been so low.

“At the moment there is a whole array of reasons to be worried about the decline of trust in government,” said Bo, who is currently undertaking new research on ‘Anxieties in Democracy’, a collaborative project run in association with the Social Science Research Council, the Hertie School of Government and the Institute for Future Studies, that focuses on the recent turn to illiberal and populist politics in many democracies. 

Despite democratic advances (when taking a historic view), there are new reasons to be less optimistic, causing populations to become more sceptical of democracies, and allowing anxieties to creep in. The Arab Spring failed to deliver, Russia has suspended a weapons-grade plutonium deal with the US, and Colombia just said ‘no’ to a peace deal with Farc rebels, plus there are problematic signs in Poland, Hungary, the Philippines and Venezuela (to name a few). “Some say we are living in a ‘post-truth’ period,” said Bo, “where many voters have become immune to basic facts and politicians that promise obviously false or blatantly impossible solutions to complex issues get surprisingly strong support. This is particularly evident in relation to Brexit and with the impending US election.”

Bo is additionally conducting a large-scale research initiative titled ‘The Performance of Democracies’ to question why the huge increase in democratically governed countries has not produced more ‘valued outcomes’, such as increased population health, prosperity and control of corruption. This will be undertaken with the assistance of five full-time researchers and six DPhil students, and is funded by the European Research Council and the Wallenberg Foundation in Sweden.  

“A vital reason for theses project is that in many areas, democracy does not deliver as much ‘human wellbeing’ as we would have expected. There is a surprising lack of performance in delivering ‘valued outcomes’; for example, communist authoritarian China outperforms liberal democratic India on almost all standard measures of population health, literacy and economic prosperity. Last but not least, it turns out electoral democracy does not work to safeguard against corruption. To a surprisingly large extent, in many countries, voters do not punish corrupt politicians, instead they get re-elected. We want to investigate the reasons for this, and start to mitigate accordingly.”

Bo strongly believes that this decline in trust can be rectified in the coming decades, but in order for this to happen, imaginative and courageous political leadership, combined with political mobilisation, is required. “When it comes to quality of government, we face a situation that despite a large number of programmes for establishing ‘good governance’ in developing countries, we have not seen much progress. Another factor is that economic theories of marketisation have not delivered, both when it comes to overall prosperity, and in regards to distribution of wealth - the ‘trickle-down’ effect never materialised. The good news is that these issues are now receiving more attention, both in research and in the policy world, plus the awareness that something has to be done against wide-spread corruption and increasing inequality is growing globally.”

Bo’s piece of advice to governments around the world to ensure good governance efforts is to note the following:

“Markets can be very effective, but in order to work well, they must be embedded in a relatively large set of public institutions that combine a high level of competence with uncompromising integrity.“

Bo has also recently published a book, Making Sense of Corruption, co-authored with Aiysha Varraich.