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Lily L. Tsai

Ford Professor of Political Science and Director of the MIT Governance Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Chapter Member: Boston SSN

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About Lily

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.


Why Citizen Trust in Government Matters — Especially when Crises Strike

  • Benjamin S. Morse

No Jargon Podcast

In the News

Research discussed by Andrew Luttrell, in "A Difference of Opinion," Psychology Today, September 15, 2020.


"Building Credibility and Cooperation in Low-Trust Settings: Persuasion and Source Accountability in Liberia During the 2014-2015 Ebola Crisis," (with Benjamin Morse and Robert Blair), MIT, April 16, 2020.

Shows how governments in low-trust settings can overcome their credibility deficit when promoting public welfare. A study of the effectiveness of the Liberian government’s door-to-door canvassing campaign during the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic.

"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).

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.

"Constructive Noncompliance in Rural China" Comparative Politics 47, no. 3 (2015): 253-279.

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.

"Outspoken Insiders: Political Connections and Citizen Participation in Authoritarian China" (with Yiqing Xu). Political Behavior 40, no. 3 (2017): 629-657.

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.

"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.

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.

"Accountability without Democracy: Solidary Groups and Public Goods Provision in Rural China" (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

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.

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.