Lily L. Tsai
Director and Founder
Lily L. Tsai is the Director and Founder of the MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB) and the Ford Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her research focuses on accountability, governance, and political participation in developing contexts, particularly in Asia and Africa. In 2014, she founded MIT GOV/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 researcher and practitioner communities by developing learning collaborations that can respond to governance challenges using empirical evidence in real time.
In 2015, MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences awarded Tsai the James A. and Ruth Levitan Prize for innovative and creative scholarship. Her book, Accountability Without Democracy: Solidary Groups and Public Goods Provision in Rural China, was published in Cambridge University’s Studies on Comparative Politics and received the 2007-08 Dogan Award from the Society of Comparative Research for the best book published in the field of comparative research. Tsai has also published articles in The American Political Science Review, Political Behavior, Comparative Political Studies, Comparative Politics, and World Development. Tsai earned a BA from Stanford University, an MA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in government from Harvard University.
- “The Role of Retributive Justice in Citizen Evaluations of Government: The Case of China” (with Minh Trinh and Shiyao Liu). MIT Political Science Research Paper Series (2017).Using three separate conjoint experiments in China, this article 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.
- “Constructive Noncompliance in Rural China” Comparative Politics 47, no. 3 (2015): 253-279.This article 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. It 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.
- “Outspoken Insiders: Political Connections and Citizen Participation in Authoritarian China” (with Yiqing Xu). Political Behavior 40, no. 3 (2017): 629-657.This article, using 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.
- “Does Information Lead to More Active Citizenship? Evidence from an Education Intervention in Rural Kenya” (with Evan Lieberman and Daniel Posner). World Development 60 (2014): 69-83.This article, a look at 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 and identifies key conditions necessary for information to generate citizen activism.
- Accountability without Democracy: Solidary Groups and Public Goods Provision in Rural China (Cambridge University Press, 2007).This book 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.
- “Public Health and Public Trust: Survey Evidence from the Ebola Virus Disease Epidemic in Liberia” (with Robert A. Blair and Benjamin S. Morse). Social Science & Medicine 172 (2017): 89-97.This article analyzes a large representative survey during the Ebola crisis in Monrovia, Liberia to show that Liberians who distrusted government took fewer precautions against Ebola and were also less compliant with Ebola control policies.
News January 2018
Cleaning House — Experimental Evidence on Improving Citizen Engagement in the Philippines
High-level findings from our Making All Voices Count research on civic leadership training for the 'poorest of the poor' in the Philippines.
News April 2018
‘Accountability without Democracy’ in the New York Times
Professor Lily Tsai’s seminal work on China was featured in connection with President Xi’s consolidation of power and the end of presidential term limits.
News April 2018
Professor Lily Tsai Receives MIT Committed to Caring Award
MIT GOV/LAB Faculty Director Lily Tsai named 2017-2018 Committed to Caring Award recipient by graduate students for great mentorship.
News May 2015
GOV/LAB: Holding Governments Accountable
MIT Spectrum Deep Dive: Lily Tsai recently launched GOV/LAB, which gives grad students hands-on experience in political research.
News May 2018
When Newly Empowered Leaders of the Poor Run in Local Elections
Following up on our Making All Voices Count research, a look at how a newly-trained community leader engaged in recent local elections in the Philippines.