Widgets Magazine

Fresh Faculty: Saad Gulzar talks research on motives behind political candidacy

New assistant professor Saad Gulzar joined the political science department last June after completing a Ph.D. at New York University (NYU) and receiving master’s degrees from Columbia University and the National University of Singapore. Today, his research focuses on the political economy of development and comparative politics. The Daily sat down with Gulzar to talk about his research and influences.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Could you begin by describing how you ended up at Stanford?

Saad Gulzar (SG): I did my undergrad in Pakistan, where I’m from, and I graduated in 2008. After that I did two master’s degrees, one at the National University of Singapore and another one at Columbia, in New York. Then I went back to Pakistan, worked there for a few years, and I decided that I wanted to do a Ph.D., and I started that in 2012 at NYU. I finished [my Ph.D.] recently and started just now [at Stanford].

TSD: What are your goals for your time at Stanford?

SG: I’m still settling in. I have never lived in California before, so that element is nice. My colleagues in the department are amazing, so I’ve been interacting with them a lot and getting a lot of advice and feedback. I’m still very early in my career so the idea is to learn from senior colleagues and especially get more of this work on Pakistan out, as there is very little work on Pakistan in political science.

TSD: How did you develop your research interests?

SG: I mostly research state personnel, like politicians and bureaucrats and how they perform, how they interact with each other, who decided to become a politician, who enters public service and once they’re in office, either as a bureaucrat or a politician, how they perform and what incentives motivate them to perform better for the public. That’s broadly my research agenda.

TSD: Why are you interested in the performance of public officials, specifically?

SG: I think it’s an important question because there’s been a lot of work on how institutions in a country determine the way people perform by bringing about policies that are good for the general population, and increasingly there’s been more and more focus on actually looking at the kinds of talent that exists in public organizations and also among politicians. Over the last 10 years there’s been a huge explosion in trying to understand these kind of topics. This is because it’s been shown that the kinds of people who end up in office have a huge impact on policy outcomes. We’re trying to understand what policies organizations can put in place to get the right type of people in office and to do so with a large sample size and thorough experimental methods.

TSD: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found through your research?

SG: Pakistan introduced this new reform in 2015 where they elected village councils for the first time in the country’s history, which brought a huge explosion in the number of representatives that people got to elect.

Before people actually decided to run for office, I did an experiment trying to understand how we can get more people to run for office. One of the ideas is that you want to increase the pool of people running for office because this brings political competition, which has been associated with better outcomes. We know little about why people choose to enter politics in the first place. The idea here was that this was a unique opportunity — politics at this level had not existed in the past, so presumably many people would be running for these offices.

We go and talk to people and tell them a little bit about what it actually takes to file papers [to run for office] and then on top of that in some cases, through an experiment, we encourage them to seek office because politics is a good career and can get you a lot of benefits, including respect and influence. Otherwise, we told them to think about politics because it’s a great avenue to help the people around you, so for more prosocial reasons. What we find is that just talking to people increases candidacy fivefold. It turns out if you want to get more people to run for office, going and talking to them might be an important policy that you can adopt.

Politics as a career is tainted in terms of how people perceive it. People think that those who are seeking office to make a career out of politics are not going to deliver good policies, whereas those who are seeking office because they want to help others are the ones who are actually going to do a good job. But from an academic standpoint it’s actually unclear to us which of those two would lead to a better outcome.

What we do find is that, after a year in office, people who were told to enter politics to help other people actually do a better job than the those who weren’t. So that’s consistent with the view that the community is able to identify individuals who would do a good job in office, especially when we prime them with candidacy being associated with a pro-social reasons for running. I think that gives some interesting policy prescriptions on what might or might not work in places where institutions are relatively weak. 

TSD: Are there any books or people you feel have significantly influenced you?

SG: There’s been a lot of interesting work, mostly from the U.S., actually, on why people seek office, and I would encourage people to go have a look at it. For example, Linda Fowler’s work on political ambition and research about what it takes to actually seek office. Then there’s also work by Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless on encouraging candidacy, particularly among women in the United States. But I think the one weakness in this literature is that the gender component is a issue for who enters politics in the U.S, and most work is done on the U.S., and not around the world.

TSD: What would be your ideal course to teach?

SG: I’m teaching a statistics [and] data science class for undergrads next term, which is housed within the data science track in the political science major. I’m really looking forward to that; I think it’ll be a lot of fun. I’m trying to make it more applied so we can apply statistical techniques to actual, real-world data and try to think about how the data can be brought to bear on important policy questions.

TSD: How has your adjustment to California been?

SG: You have to drive everywhere. I was living in New York for my Ph.D., where I didn’t have a car, so from New York it’s a bit of an adjustment. It’s very suburban here. So that’s been interesting, but the weather’s been awesome, so I’m trying to make the most of it. Everything closes at 7 p.m., though, so that’s the other [downside].

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.


Contact Rebecca Smalbach at smalbach ‘at’ stanford.edu.