Martin J Williams is an Associate Professor in Public Management at the Blavatnik School of Government, and Research Fellow at Green Templeton College.

Martin's research is on policy implementation, public service delivery, and bureaucratic reform, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. He also teaches and conducts research on the roles of evidence, context and external validity in policymaking.

Martin is an academic co-director of the People in Government Lab and co-research director of the Deliver Ed (delivering education reforms) project. He co-convenes the Master of Public Policy core course on Evidence and Public Policy.

Prior to joining Oxford University, Martin was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Economics, University College London, and completed his PhD in the Government Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He previously worked as an economist in Ghana’s Ministry of Trade and Industry as an Overseas Development Institute Fellow, and was a Senior Researcher at the Economic Policy Research Institute in Cape Town. He also holds MSc degrees in African Studies and Economics for Development from the University of Oxford, and a BA in Economics from Williams College.


Recent publications

  • “The Political Economy of Unfinished Development Projects: Corruption, Clientelism, or Collective Choice?” (pdf) Forthcoming: American Political Science Review 111(4), November 2017, p. 705-723.

    Abstract: Development projects like schools and latrines are popular with politicians and voters alike, yet many developing countries are littered with half-finished projects that were abandoned mid-construction. Using an original database of over 14,000 small development projects in Ghana, I estimate that one-third of projects that start are never completed, consuming nearly one-fifth of all local government investment. I develop a theory of project non-completion as the outcome of a dynamically inconsistent collective choice process among political actors facing commitment problems in contexts of limited resources. I find evidence consistent with key predictions of this theory, but inconsistent with alternative explanations based on corruption or clientelism. I show that fiscal institutions can increase completion rates by mitigating the operational consequences of these collective choice failures. These findings have theoretical and methodological implications for distributive politics, the design of intergovernmental transfers and aid, and the development of state capacity.
  • “External Validity and Policy Adaptation: From Impact Evaluation to Policy Design”. (working paper pdf) (policy memo) Conditionally accepted, World Bank Research Observer.

    Abstract: With the growing number of rigorous impact evaluations worldwide, the question of how best to apply this evidence to policymaking processes has arguably become the main challenge for evidence-based policymaking. How can policymakers predict whether a policy will have the same impact in their context as it did elsewhere, and how should this influence the design and implementation of policy? This paper introduces a simple and flexible framework to address these questions of external validity and policy adaptation. I show that all failures of external validity arise from an interaction between a policy’s theory of change and a dimension of the context in which it is being implemented, and develop a method of “mechanism mapping” that maps a policy’s theory of change against salient contextual assumptions to identify external validity problems and suggest appropriate policy adaptations. In deciding whether and how to adapt a policy in a new context, I show there is a fundamental informational trade-off between the strength and relevance of evidence on the policy from other contexts and the policymaker’s knowledge of the local context. This trade-off can guide policymakers’ judgments about whether policies should be copied exactly from elsewhere, adapted, or invented anew.

Working papers

  • “Management and Bureaucratic Effectiveness: Evidence from the Ghanaian Civil Service” (with Imran Rasul and Daniel Rogger) (pdf). Resubmitted, Economic Journal.

    Abstract: A burgeoning area of social science research examines how state capabilities and bureaucratic effectiveness shape economic development. We study how the management practices civil service bureaucrats operate under correlate to the delivery of public projects, using novel data from the Ghanaian Civil Service. To do so, we combine hand-coded progress reports on 3600 projects with a management survey in government Ministries and Departments responsible for these projects, following the methodology of Bloom et al. [2012]. Management matters: practices related to autonomy are positively associated with project completion, yet practices related to incentives/monitoring of bureaucrats are negatively associated with project completion. The negative impact of incentives/monitoring practices is partly explained by bureaucrats having to multi-task, interactions with their intrinsic motivation, their engagement in influence activities, and project characteristics such as the clarity of targets and deliverable outputs. Finally, we discuss the interplay between management practices and corruption, alternative methods by which to measure management practices in organizations, and the external validity of our results by comparing key findings to those in Rasul and Rogger [2018]. Our findings suggest the focus of many civil service reform programs on introducing stronger incentives and monitoring may backfire in some organizations, and that even countries with low levels of state capability may benefit by providing public servants with greater autonomy in some spheres.
  • “Systems Approaches to Public Service Delivery: Lessons from Health, Education, and Infrastructure” (with Zahra Mansoor) (pdf).

    Abstract: Public services are delivered through complex bureaucratic systems. Recent research in economics and political science on bureaucratic performance and public service delivery typically seeks to abstract from these complexities to identify specific causal relationships, but this narrow focus risks ignoring the complementarities and contingencies that mediate these relationships in practice. How can research on government bureaucracies take account of their systematic characteristics while preserving methodological rigor and theoretical precision? We review the development of systems approaches in the health, education, and infrastructure sectors. We survey: the definition and scope of systems approaches; theoretical frameworks; empirical methods and applications; and linkages to policy. While the scope of systems approaches is common across sectors, as is the close linkage to policy, there are notable differences in the direction and extent of theoretical development and empirical application. These differences suggest opportunities for cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary learning. We conclude by discussing the potential for a systems approach to research in public management and public finance.
  • “Innovation, Voice, and Hierarchy in the Civil Service: Evidence from a Productivity Intervention in Ghana” (with Liah Yecalo-Tecle).

    Abstract: Work process innovations created by public servants themselves are an important channel for improving performance in government bureaucracies. However, little attention has been paid to the types of ideas public servants come up with, the mechanisms through which they are (or are not) voiced and implemented, or the effectiveness of government interventions to promote innovation. We address these issues through qualitative fieldwork and administrative data analysis embedded in a large-scale randomized control trial in Ghana’s Civil Service. In contrast to the focus of existing literature on customer-facing or technology-driven innovations, we find that the most common ideas are relatively mundane: ways to work around practical or logistical challenges, actually implementing management processes that are already on the books, and non-financial recognition of performance. The overwhelming constraint to innovation is hostility by senior officials to new ideas from junior officials, consistent with theories of psychological attachment to hierarchy rather than more prevalent theories rooted in material, structural, or cultural resistance to employee voice and innovation. We find some evidence that targeted productivity and innovation trainings help individual officers become more creative in identifying work process innovations. We discuss the implications and generalizability of our findings to other developing and developed countries.
  • “Beyond State Capacity: Bureaucratic Performance, Policy Implementation, and Reform”. (pdf)

    Abstract: Three decades of research have generated a consensus that state capacity is central to economic and social development. While the concept originated in macro-historical and comparative analysis, it has become a default term for discussing the performance of government bureaucracies. This paper discusses the limitations to conceiving of narrower questions of bureaucratic performance and policy implementation using the broad, aggregate concept of capacity. Capacity refers to bureaucracies’ hypothetical potential, but this usually differs from their actual actions due to organizations’ collective nature and the constraints and uncertainty imposed by their multiple political principals. While capacity is a convenient shorthand term for a wide range of factors, it achieves this by abstracting away from the actual mechanisms of bureaucratic action. Analysis should instead: focus on bureaucracies’ collective nature rather than abstract from it; engage with contextual specificity and contingency; and focus measurement and reform efforts on performance rather than hypothetical capacity.
  • “From Institutions to Organizations: Management and Informality in Ghana’s Public Bureaucracies” (pdf)

    Abstract: Studies of state capacity in political science and economics have largely sought to explain variation in bureaucratic quality over space or time through the lens of national-level factors, notably the quality of institutions. However, these institutional approaches are unable to explain variation among organizations within the same government. I develop a complementary approach grounded in organizational economics, in particular relational contracts theory, that is consistent with organizational-level variation in bureaucratic quality within governments and generates predictions about the changing qualitative relationship between formal and informal practices across this spectrum. I find empirical support using original interview-based data on management quality from 40 organizations in Ghana’s central government. The range of variation in management quality across organizations is substantial and systematic, is not limited to a handful of exceptional “islands” of excellence, and is qualitatively more consistent with theories of relational contracts and organizational culture than prevailing theories of formal and informal institutions. I suggest a number of ways in which institutional and organizational approaches can usefully complement each other in the study of government bureaucracies and their reform.
  • “One Size Does Not Fit All: Budget Institutions and Performance in Ghana’s Spending Ministries” (available on request)

    Abstract: A large literature investigates the link between budget institutions and performance across countries, but little attention has been paid to variation across spending ministries within countries. Since these ministries operate under the same formal budget institutions and national-level context, they are the ideal sites in which to study the gaps between de jure and de facto budget practices, and between budget allocations and actual expenditures. These gaps can be substantial, especially in developing countries, but are poorly understood. This article demonstrates that there is large and systematic variation among spending ministries in Ghana in expenditure outturns and volatility, compliance with formal budget processes, and other outcomes such as extra-budgetary spending. The findings pose a challenge to theories of budget institutions and their reform: not only is there no correlation between procedural compliance and budget outcomes, but the drivers of ministries’ budget performance are heterogeneous and often idiosyncratic. The existence of substantial variation in the quality of budget execution among ministries also has implications for the validity of analyses that use either budget allocations or actual expenditure to measure the outcomes of policy processes.

Work in Progress

  • With Imran Rasul and Daniel Rogger: “Training for Productivity: An Experimental Study of Civil Service Reform in Ghana”
  • With Nahomi Ichino and Erik Wibbels: “The Delivery and Spatial Distribution of Development Projects: Evidence from a USAID Governance Project in Ghana”
  • With Chris Adam: Recurrent Costs and the Macroeconomic Impacts of Infrastructure Investment
  • With Flavio Cireno, Julien Labonne, and Pedro Palotti: “Networks in the Bureaucracy: Evidence from Brazil”
  • “Fiscal Decentralization and the Efficiency of Public Good Delivery: Evidence from Ghana”

Other publications

  • “Aid, Trade, Investment, and Dependency.” In Anderson, David, and Nicholas Cheeseman (eds), The Routledge Handbook of African Politics, London: Routledge, 2013. (routledge) (google books)
  • “The Gold Standard of Governance: Mining, Decentralization, and State Power in Senegal.” Politique Africaine 117, March 2010. (journal)
  • Review of: “Brokering Democracy in Africa: The Rise of Clientelist Democracy in Senegal” by Linda Beck. In Politique Africaine 115, October 2009. (pdf)