Historical data from Kenya show that when an ethnic group gains power, public servants of that group may be emboldened to misbehave

The efficient provision of public goods relies on a well-functioning bureaucracy. But in many developing countries, the public sector suffers from absenteeism and poor performance (Banerjee and Duflo 2006). Our research argues that political shocks may contribute to public sector inefficiency. In particular, ethnic politics and changes in the political dominance of ethnic groups appear to affect the performance of Kenyan policemen.

Historical records shed light on the personnel economics of the state

Recognising the importance of the public sector, ‘personnel economics of the state’ has become one of the most active areas for research in development economics (Finan et al. 2017). But research on this topic is usually constrained by the lack of access to detailed personnel data, especially for public servants at the bottom of the hierarchy. This problem is particularly severe for parts of the state’s administration that are ‘sensitive’, like the police, even though they provide essential public goods.1 In a recent article, we overcome these challenges by relying on extremely rich and unique historical data on the performance of 6,784 police officers in Kenya between 1957 and 1970 (Eynde et al. 2018).

The rise of ethnic politics impacted the behaviour of Kenyan policemen

The personnel records we use allow us to track Kenyan police officers over their entire career. The records keep track of the offences committed by each police officer, including incidences of absenteeism, untidiness, drunkenness, disobedience, and (in rare cases) violence. We study the period 1957-1970 to investigate how the rise of ethnic politics affected the performance of policemen. Ever since the first multi-party elections in 1961, ethnic politics has featured prominently in Kenya. We show that the 1961 elections were quickly succeeded by changing patterns in discipline – police officers from ethnic groups that were part of the dominant Kenya African National Union (KANU) party started to behave significantly worse. We see this pattern confirmed whenever an ethnic group gains or loses power through the KANU coalition.

Evidence of an ‘emboldenment’ effect

To understand what drives this pattern, we scrutinise the determinants of public sector performance emphasised in the literature: selection, incentive structures, and monitoring.

  1. We are able to rule out personnel selection – we find that neither the quality of those entering, nor of those exiting, the police force changed significantly after 1961. In fact, the increasing number of misconducts appears to be driven by a change in behaviour – the same policemen change from good to poor discipline in response to ethnic politics.
  2. The effect is strongest for objective offences such as absenteeism and drunkenness, but weaker for more subjective offences such as untidiness and disobedience. This rules out discriminatory reporting, which should be strongest for subjective offences.
  3. We examine police reorganisation, but neither police division characteristics nor the officers’ placement – the ethnic or geographic distance to the place of work – can explain the result.
  4. We test whether favouritism distorted incentives. We confirm that a history of misconduct affected promotion opportunities and increased the probability of being dismissed. However, KANU ethnicities were not treated differently in this respect.

These results suggest that the deterioration of behaviour is not a response to changing incentives within the police force. How, then, do we explain the worsening behaviour of KANU policemen?  We argue that our results are consistent with the idea that ethnic politics created a general sense of being empowered, which emboldened the policemen of the ruling ethnic groups. This interpretation is supported by historical sources that describe the importance of political shocks on the self-image of ethnic groups.

Street-level public servants are not isolated from high-level political shocks

Kenya’s independence period is in many ways a unique setting for studying the relationship between identities, political shocks, and public sector performance. But, it is interesting to observe that the rise of ethnic politics in Kenya not only quickly made ethnic identities salient in the public service, but did so in such a way that policemen changed their attitudes and day-to-day behaviour. These historical findings suggest that street-level public servants are not insulated from high-level political shocks.

A representative bureaucracy may not be the answer

What are the policy implications? Many African countries aim to rebuild and form the public service into a ‘representative bureaucracy’.2 In practice, this invariably means in proportion to population shares of ethnicities. François et al. (2015) document such proportionality at higher levels of government more generally in Africa. But, in the context of our study, it is not the uneven representation of different ethnic groups in the police force that drives underperformance; it is behavioural effects triggered by political dominance. According to our evidence, these effects may be long-lasting. Countering these impacts is challenging. It is less straightforward to design policies that address an emboldenment effect than policies that curb favouritism. Still, our findings could justify closer monitoring of groups that are prone to emboldenment effects. Information campaigns could possibly counterbalance images of ethnic superiority. And, at the most fundamental level, our results provide an argument in favour of institutional reforms that make the political system more inclusive.


Banerjee, A and E Duo (2006), “Addressing absence", Journal of Economic Perspectives 20(1): 117-132.

Banerjee, A, R Chattopadhyay, E Duflo, D Keniston and N Singh (2012), “Can institutions be reformed from within? Evidence from a randomized experiment with the Rajasthan Police", Mimeo.

Eynde, O V, P Kuhn and A Moradi (2018), “Trickle-down ethnic politics: Drunk and absent in the Kenya Police Force (1957-1970)”, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, forthcoming.

Finan, F, B A Olken and R Pande (2017), “The personnel economics of the developing state”, Chapter 6 in A V Banerjee and E Duflo (eds), Handbook of Economic Field Experiments, Vol 2: 467-514.

Francois, P, I Rainer and F Trebbi (2015), “How is power shared in Africa?”, Econometrica 83(2): 465-503.

Hassan, M (2017), “The strategic shuffle: Ethnic geography, the internal security apparatus, and elections in Kenya”, American Journal of Political Science 61(2): 382-395.

Sanchez de la Sierra, R and K Titecay (2016), “The state as organised crime: Industrial organisation of the police in the Democratic Republic of the Congo”, Mimeo.


[1] Notable exceptions include Banerjee et al. (2012), Sanchez de la Sierra and Titecay (2016), and Hassan (2017).

[2] Article 232 of Kenya's constitution of 2011 requires that the composition of the civil service is representative of the country's diversity, including Kenya's Police and Army (Article 246/4 and 241/4).

Kenya Police Civil service Public sector Political shocks Ethnic politics Personnel economics Personnel economics of the state Emboldenment effect