Research Design

REPGOV examines a very old question: How does public administration fit within a representative democracy? The project is ‘through-composed’ in that each stage in our research described below reveals a response to that question in a somewhat different way. Because of this feature, we will revise this page as the project progresses, so please check back from time to time.

REPGOV intends to recast contemporary research about how public administration and its organizations work into explicitly democratic terms in a new and important way. Our hope is that by treating the concept of democracy seriously in our theoretical and empirical explorations, scholars and policymakers will understand the ways in which public administration can make representative democracy work better.

Building Theory

stage 1 (2022-2023)

REPGOV is ambitious in that it aims to provide new and integrated normative and positive theories about the relationship between democratic values and the institutions and practice of public administration. This begins by considering two crucial actors.

The policy worker must act to further the aims of laws duly enacted by the authorized representatives of the people, such as an environmental law that aims to reduce nitrates in groundwater. Policy workers are not only bureaucrats, but contractors or employees of non-profit organizations producing public services or maintaining public spaces. They may be private actors mandated to co-produce public services, as restaurant workers have been when jurisdictions have mandated coronavirus vaccination for indoor dining.

The champion advocates a particular institutional design, say, one that directs accountability toward outcomes that explicitly suggest nitrate reduction rather than specifying a process for reducing nitrates. Champions are found in interest groups, in government, in universities, and in many other places.

The normative theory we are developing contends that because policy workers are bound to act responsibly, that is, to reduce nitrates without violating the law or upsetting the balance of democratic values of the state they serve, champions must design institutions to reinforce the democratic values of that state. Thus, if outcome accountability is too strong for a more pluralistic state, champions must recognize this, and they must engineer a means for more perspectives to be heard. That will restrict the autonomy of policy workers, who will not be able to use whatever process they find best to achieve the outcome of nitrate reduction. In this way, the democratic values of a state are maintained in its public administration. And this value reinforcement obligation becomes a hypothesis for the remainder of the REPGOV project.

At the heart of REPGOV’s normative theory are some important instances in which policy workers encounter ordinary people and are challenged to reinforce democratic values. For example, the problem of roles occurs when a policy worker may freely and openly disagree with a policy aim or the means the state uses to achieve it as a citizen, but cannot responsibly act against either the aim or the means in the role of policy worker. These encounters form the basis of our positive theory and its empirical strategy.

Our positive theory-building strategy uses encounters like the problem of roles to build two strands of theory.

An institutional theory explains how governments in different political systems design administrative structures such that the means for achieving policy aims create incentives for responsible action, including the reinforcement of the democratic values of the state.

A behavioral theory explains how policy workers and ordinary people confront and transform their beliefs about democracy through encounters with their states, like the problem of roles.

REPGOV evaluates these theories through an ambitious mixed-methods design in the context of four European countries: Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Italy.

Uncovering Informal Means of Value Reinforcement

stage 2 (2022-2024)

What types of organizational strategies do policy workers create to reinforce values in encounters such as the problem of roles? REPGOV engages in an ambitious program of qualitative research to address this question that has two components.

In the first component, we are interested in the bottom-up creation of organizational norms as well as routines for the sustained reproduction of democratic values. The work of the REPGOV team is exploratory at this stage. It captures the first-hand accounts of policy workers in their real-life context, pairing in-depth interviews with observation.

In the second component, the REPGOV team will then conduct multiple embedded case studies in each of the four countries under study. In these, we seek to understand the ways in which individual behavior and organizational politics address tensions between the democratic values of the state, the individual values of the policy worker, and the character of government policies. One additional case study will involve an international organization. Such entities face conflict between the democratic values of states they serve and their own organizational values in profound ways.

Uncovering Formal Means of Value Reinforcement and Testing the Institutional Theory of Value Reinforcement

stage 3 (2024-2025)

What kinds of formal rules for value reinforcement do champions and, ultimately, representatives build into the law? With the help of legal experts in each country, the REPGOV team carefully extracts the democratic values of each political system from constitutional level texts. We will use this information to inform machine-learning algorithms that will be trained to examine administrative regulations in each country throughout the postwar era.

At this stage, REPGOV is interested in a problem of natural language understanding. When administrative elites write rules about value reinforcement, what do they say and how do they say it?

Using this approach, we aim to produce measures that capture the nature of formal rules about value reinforcement and are comparable across countries and time. These measures, as well as extant data on political institutions, will allow us to test the claims in REPGOV’s institutional theory of value reinforcement.

Testing the Behavioral Theory of Value Reinforcement

stage 4 (2025-2026)

How do policy workers and ordinary people respond to encounters like the problem of roles, and what are the consequences for value reinforcement? In the final stage of REPGOV, we use survey and laboratory experiments to test the claims of our behavioral theory of value reinforcement.

Our experiments will employ hypothetical structures of public administration via an experimental analogue to the thought experiment common in normative political theory. This permits within-subjects factorial designs that vary essential rules and procedures, while allowing the REPGOV team to control key socio-economic and political aspects of each of the four countries under study. Our method places subjects in the position of disinterested observers. They are asked to make anonymous judgments of hypothetical arrangements and face no material consequences for doing so. The design also attempts to avoid potential challenges to validity due to the familiarity actual policy workers, who are included in our studies, have about the encounters they confront in the experiments.