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. And like all projects, real timelines are more flexible than imagined ones. We are actively working on aspects of all stages of the project described below at this writing. Consequently, 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.
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 democratic theory we have developed 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.
Our positive theory-building strategy uses encounters like the problem of roles to build two strands of theory.
An institutional theory conceives of administrative law in continental European states as a network of principles of good public administration. It shows how governments in different political systems design these principles and predicts temporal and intergovernmental stability and change in this network of principles – the institutional framework for responsible public administration. An additional component of this institutional framework theorizes the connection between democratic values and the principles of good public administration.
A behavioral theory explains how policy workers and ordinary people confront and transform their beliefs about ‘good’ public administration and democracy itself. This theory, too, places attitudes and beliefs within a network and predicts stability and change as the result of learning and experience. 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, a 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 provide important elements of learning and experiencing responsible public administration.
REPGOV evaluates different aspects of these theories through an ambitious mixed-methods design in the context of four European countries: Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Italy.
What types of beliefs do policy workers develop in regard to democracy and good public administration? Do these beliefs lead to behaviors that promote responsible public administration? Do they reinforce values in encounters such as the problem of roles? REPGOV engages in a program of qualitative research to address these questions that has two components.
In the first component, we are undertaking a program of semi-structured interviews to understand how public officials define and conceptualize democracy. Our substantive focus is on agencies that preserve national cultural heritage, which has important overtones of democracy with different contours across the countries where our research is being conducted. This begins our exploration of how public officials’ belief systems are shaped as they interact in the environment of public agencies and confront the problems of roles and levels for themselves.
In the second component, the REPGOV team will engage in participant observation within the agencies we study. This aims 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 as the European Union. Such entities face conflict between the democratic values of states they serve and their own organizational values in profound ways.
How do representatives build democratic values into the law that guides public administration? 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 use this information to construct the network of principles in the corpus of statutory law in each of the countries we study.
These complex networks provide the basis for testing the claims in REPGOV’s institutional theory of value reinforcement.
How do policy workers and ordinary people conceive of responsible public administration? Are their belief systems about it and how it relates to democracy different? What accounts for these differences? In the final stage of REPGOV, we use attitudinal surveys as well as laboratory and survey experiments to test the claims of our behavioral theory of value reinforcement. This proceeds in three stages.
First, we will implement attitudinal surveys that compare the belief systems of policy workers with those in the mass public. We will also use these surveys to assess any changes in these belief systems as policy workers gain experience both with the laws they must implement and with encounters such as the problem of roles.
Next, using an innovative smartphone app that allows laboratory-style experiments to be conducted without presence in a lab, we will construct simple strategic scenarios that draw out the problems of roles and levels. This allows us to compare and contrast our expectations of responsible action with those of purely rational action when examining the resulting experimental data.
Finally, to further investigate the criteria at work when confronting the problems of roles and levels, we will conduct survey experiments employing 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 we are studying.
An overarching goal of REPGOV is to use the collective lessons of our research to develop a strategy for the assessment of democratic performance by public organizations. Our aim is to use the real-world understandings that we glean from our study to develop a textbook and case program. Created in conjunction with practitioners, it will be designed to give policy workers a clear understanding of their responsibilities to a democratic public and to the leaders of the organizations in which they work to support.