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What we do


Institutional Dynamics

PARI has pioneered the field of organisational and institutional studies in South Africa. Using social science methodologies, our researchers explore how organisations are structured and staffed, how resources are allocated and personnel incentivised and how power is exercised and legitimised. This helps us understand what organisations do and why.

Our work often draws on the distinction between organisations and institutions, first suggested by institutional economists in the 1980s. That is, if organisations are groups of individuals with allocated resources and objectives, institutions are the rules and conventions that come to regulate their behaviour. Institutions can be formal, obeying official rules and laws, or informal, obeying codes and conventions arising elsewhere. In some cases, institutions are poorly embedded or there is conflict between the formal and informal institutions.

The challenge for governance is to align institutional practices with organisational goals. While economists approach such alignment as a challenge of incentives, we focus on questions of power. Who wields it and how? Is it located in the right places and is it exercised appropriately?

State Formation

Organisational capacity in the state is often a consequence of long-term historical processes that have favoured the emergence of professional administrations. Unlike in Europe and Asia, where war and preparation for war were the decisive processes through which contemporary states emerged, Africa’s modern states were born out of colonialism and apartheid. This gives South Africa’s state its particular features. It also means that models that have worked elsewhere for structuring organisations or dealing with particular service delivery challenges seldom work well here.

PARI seeks to understand current institutional capacity in the South African state by examining the histories of how departments and agencies came into being. We pay special attention to the way that former Bantustan administrations were incorporated to form new national and especially provincial administrations and how racially segregated administrations were amalgamated at all levels of government. The institute explores the changing role and jurisdiction of traditional authorities.

Social Change

How government works is not simply a function of its internal mechanics and cultures. State organisations are embedded in broader social relations that affect what they can and cannot do. The compliance of citizens’ in paying tariffs and fees sets the limits on what is possible for departments and agencies. The relationships between government workers and broader social and political entities – families, friends, clans, unions, political parties – determine the relative autonomy of administrations relative to broader society. What is more, ideologically informed choices about the role of the state and the limits of sovereignty mean that all sorts of private, commercial, informal bodies and agencies emerge to perform roles traditionally performed by governments and to regulate social relations.

We explore the kinds of community emerging in these spaces. Our interest is in the institutional arrangements underpinning new social forms. In this regard, we have been exploring one of the most dramatic features of social change in South Africa over the last 30 years: the link between the huge growth of townhouse complexes and the formation of the new middle class.

Applied Research

PARI is interested in understanding how government works as much as it is in helping it to work better.

The legacy of apartheid means that the vast majority of South Africans are dependent on the state for services, not least in health and education. As long as clinics, hospitals and schools perform poorly, the struggle for social justice in South Africa will continue. PARI leverages its work on institutional dynamics in government organisations to identify and design ways to improve how organisations function.

Working in partnership with relevant officials, we have been instrumental in drawing attention to the importance of procurement and supply chain management in the performance of government as a whole.

PARI has been working with officials from the National Treasury to improve supply chain management practices in the Eastern Cape Department of Health. We have worked with the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer to improve supply chain management practices in Limpopo. The institute also partnered with the Public Service Sector Education and Training Authority to develop the sector skills plan for the public service. This plan serves to guide training courses to improve learning and skills in the public service. PARI is now partnering with the Cities Support Programme in the National Treasury to do long-term research in three metros to inform its strategies to improve governance and service delivery.