Social Policy’s Attribution of Responsibility: Challenges for Argentina and Brazil

In an article published in Comparative Political Studies,1 I argue that there are two kinds of national social policies: those that clearly “belong” to the national government, and those in which attribution of responsibility is much fuzzier. The difference between “clear” and “blurred” attribution of responsibility differentiates conditional cash transfers (CCTs) from social services such as healthcare. This variation across CCTs and health services, in turn, shapes political dynamics governing implementation.

In the case of the Brazilian CCT Bolsa Família, a survey of 2,669 voting-age individuals found that 76 percent of respondents identified the federal government as responsible for the program in 2010 (Zucco 2013, p. 814). For the Argentine CCT Asignación Universal por Hijo, a survey of 2,240 people showed that 86.5 percent in 2010 identified the federal government as the main responsible entity (Deloitte, Anses 2010). Conversely, in social services attribution of responsibility is harder for the voter. Available surveys show that a minority of users know of the existence of health policies at all in Argentina and Brazil, and they rarely attribute these policies to the federal government. 

In cash transfers credit claiming is “easier” because policy recipients are the direct beneficiaries. In addition, the provider’s logo appears in the ATM Card or the provider directly distributes the cash transfer. For these types of policies, attribution of responsibility tends not to be disputed. For social services, especially when provision is public and universal, providers such as health clinics or schools (and not users) are the direct recipients of the funds and therefore it is “harder” for voters to identify who is responsible. A policy that aims at improving the quality of health and education, for instance, faces the problem of information asymmetry because the good called “quality” is not tangible and clearly observable. In particular, citizens cannot verify whether the promises of better services have been met (Melo 2008, p. 182). For these policies, attribution of responsibility tends to be blurred. The distinction between “easy” and “hard” issues is relevant because, as  Carmines, Stimson (1980) argue, while “easy” issues do not require sophistication in voting decisions, “hard” issues call for voters with high conceptual skills.

CCTs also enjoy clearer attribution of responsibility because they are centralized at the federal government. The money tends to go from the capital city directly to the individual, without intermediaries in the territory. One of the characteristics of these CCTs is that they are not implemented clientelistically. States and municipalities may be in charge of checking for the completion of conditions and even signing up recipients, but the ultimate word in terms of who receives the CCTs and who does not is in the hands of the central government. This is important because as the number of actors increases, clarity of responsibility decreases and thus voters find it more challenging to determine whom they should reward. In particular, the decentralization of social services contributes to blurring attribution of responsibility because power is shared among different levels of government and thus voters may confuse who is responsible; in this context, political elites can use this fuzziness to their advantage (Atkeson, Maestas 2012, p. 112).

Policy recipients can only reward national incumbents and their subnational allies with their votes when they can establish that the federal government is responsible for such policies. Academic evidence across countries and research designs consistently shows that citizens have been rewarding national incumbents who provide cash transfers in Latin America (e.g: De La O 2013; Hunter, Power 2007; Zucco 2013).

In these same circumstances in which attribution of national responsibility is clear, however, opposition governors have incentives to hinder these policies. This is because, on one hand, their own opposition at the subnational level may be aligned with the national government, and therefore their main incentive is avoiding that their local opposition wins votes through the national policy. On the other hand, governors may also be playing in the national arena, because they or their allies will be competing for national elective positions. In this case, their belonging to the national opposition explains their incentives to obstruct policies that can benefit the national executive. Resistance to national policies due to political opposition can take the form of direct policy competition or bureaucratic obstacles to limit the reach of the central government. 

This presents a dilemma for national-level politicians: whether to take credit for popular policies or to promote even implementation of national policies. On the one hand, when attribution of responsibility is clear and therefore national governments can successfully claim credit for national policies, there are more chances of obtaining electoral gains. On the other hand, in precisely this context subnational opposition governments have incentives to hinder the implementation of such policies. As a result, the implementation of potentially transformative policies could be uneven across subnational units in decentralized countries. 


1 Niedzwiecki, Sara (2016): Social Policies, Attribution of Responsibility, and Political Alignments. A Subnational Analysis of Argentina and Brazil. In Comparative Political Studies 49 (4), pp. 457–498. doi: 10.1177/0010414015612392



Atkeson, Lonna Rae; Maestas, Cherie D. (2012): Catastrophic Politics. How Extraordinary Events Redefine Perceptions of Government. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Carmines, Edward G.; Stimson, James A. (1980): The Two Faces of Issue Voting. In American Political Science Review 74 (1), pp. 78–91.

De La O, Ana Lorena (2013): Do Conditional Cash Transfers Affect Electoral Behavior? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Mexico. In American Journal of Political Science 57 (1), pp. 1–14.

Deloitte; Anses (2010): Investigación Cuantitativa Externa.

Hunter, Wendy; Power, Timothy (2007): Rewarding Lula. Executive Power, Social Policy, and the Brazilian Elections of 2006. In Latin American Politics & Society 49 (1), pp. 1–30.

Melo, Marcus André (2008): Unexpected Successes, Unanticipated Failures. Social Policy from Cardoso to Lula. In Peter R. Kingstone, Timothy J. Power (Eds.): Democratic Brazil Revisited. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 161–184.

Zucco, Cesar (2013): When Payouts Pay Off. Conditional Cash-Transfers and Voting Behavior in Brazil 2002-2010. In American Journal of Political Science 47 (3), pp. 810–822.

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