Does Policy Influence Hollow Out Public Managers’ Political Neutrality?

AuthorErik Hysing,Joachim Åström,Jan Olsson
Date01 July 2022
Published date01 July 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(6) 1019 –1044
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211050305
Does Policy Influence
Hollow Out Public
Managers’ Political
Joachim Åström1, Jan Olsson1,
and Erik Hysing1
Consequences of public officials’ policy influence have been at the center
of debates on political–administrative relations. Based on a survey of public
managers in Swedish local government (N = 1,430), this study examines
whether policy politics hollows out political neutrality. The analysis shows
that although managers are highly involved in policy politics, attitudinal
support for the neutrality principle is strong. The enquiry into behavioral
intentions shows more variation. In relation to a set of dilemmas, most
managers would defend neutral competence, but significant minorities
would also act for more partisan reasons. However, we find no empirical
evidence that policy influence undermines political neutrality.
political–administrative relations, political neutrality, policy politics, public
managers, Swedish local government
The relationship between politicians and public administrators is a classic
theme that has continued to generate debate within public administration
1Örebro University, Sweden
Corresponding Author:
Joachim Åström, Örebro University, 701 82 Örebro, Sweden.
1050305AAS0010.1177/00953997211050305Administration & SocietyÅström et al.
1020 Administration & Society 54(6)
research. At the center of these debates is the question of whether public
administrators’ policy influence undermines their political neutrality
(Overeem, 2005; Svara, 2006a). This question evokes normative concerns.
The classic politics–administration dichotomy depicts the separation of polit-
ical and administrative spheres as critical to ensuring the political neutrality
of the administration. This dichotomy has provided a normative foundation
for modern public administration going back to Wilson (1887) and Weber
This model has been debated, however, on both normative and empirical
grounds (Demir, 2009; Lee & Raadschelders, 2008). For example, public
value research (Moore, 1995) emphasizes the importance of (entrepreneurial)
public managers providing public values to society within broad directives
from “the authorizing [political] environment” (Hartley et al., 2015; for a
critique, see Rhodes & Wanna, 2009). Others conclude that the dichotomy is
an unrealistic empirical model, suggesting that the relationship is better char-
acterized as a hybrid (Aberbach et al., 1981) or as a pair of complementary
roles, in which politicians and public administrators have overlapping func-
tions, are interdependent, and exert reciprocal influence (Svara, 2006a).
Following this line of reasoning, defining and upholding political neutrality
within the administration is less about drawing a clearly demarcated line and
more about active reflection and deliberation by public administrators
(Hartley et al., 2015) and/or having a more highly developed political leader-
ship (Torfing & Sørensen, 2019).
In response, defenders of the dichotomy have argued that, by distinguish-
ing between partisan politics (the struggle for power) and policy politics
(influence over the content of policy), the empirically observed policy influ-
ence of public administrators could be reconciled with ideals of political neu-
trality, conceptualized as officials being nonpartisan or even apolitical. As
argued by Patrick Overeem (2005), “public administrators cannot (and should
not) be excluded from the kind of politics that is inherent in policy-making,
but they can (and should) be excluded from politics that has a more partisan
character” (p. 322). From a classic Weberian perspective, however, uphold-
ing the dichotomy is important not only as a way to ensure that the adminis-
tration can avoid politicization when dealing with policy problems and policy
politics, but also because it serves as a bulwark against bureaucratic domi-
nance. In other words, power in the form of policy influence risks corrupting,
eroding, and hollowing out the bureaucratic ideal of political neutrality. How
the policy influence of public administrators is related to their attitudes
toward political neutrality deserves more research attention.
In addressing this question, it is important to recognize that political neu-
trality has dimensions of both principles and behavior, which cause tensions

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