Tsai examines issues of accountability, governance, and political participation in developing country contexts, particularly in Asia and East Africa. In 2014, she founded the MIT Governance Lab, a group of political scientists that works to develop and test innovations in citizen engagement and government responsiveness. By focusing on how and why citizens become active in engaging their governments, Tsai aims to bridge the research and practitioner communities by developing learning collaborations that can respond to governance challenges using empirical evidence in real time.
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Uses three separate conjoint experiments in China. Finds that citizens prefer local officials who punish lower level officials, even when experimentally conditioning on these officials' performance on other important criteria such as economic growth, distributive justice, and procedural justice.
Aims to improve our understanding of how these behaviors relate to other forms of political action and when they should be interpreted as indicators of legitimacy and state capacity. Develops the concept of constructive noncompliance: noncompliance with state policies and regulations that is justified by citizens as a way of communicating constructive criticism about policy performance and factual information about local conditions to decision-makers.
Uses data from both urban and rural China. Finds that individuals with political connections are more likely to contact authorities with complaints about government public services, despite the fact that they do not have higher levels of dissatisfaction with public service provision.
Studies a large-scale intervention promoting citizen action toward improving learning in two Kenyan districts. Finds no evidence of a treatment effect on private on public citizen actions. Identifies key conditions necessary for information to generate citizen activism.
Examines the fundamental issue of how citizens get government officials to provide them with the roads, schools, and other public services in contexts where democratic institutions of participation and accountability may be weak.
Conducts a large representative survey during the Ebola crisis in Monrovia, Liberia. Shows that Liberians who distrusted government took fewer precautions against Ebola and were also less compliant with Ebola control policies.