Social Identity and Cooperative Behavior by Public Administrators

Published date01 July 2023
AuthorJill Nicholson-Crotty,Sean Nicholson-Crotty,Danyao Li
Date01 July 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2023, Vol. 55(6) 1118 –1143
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997231162529
Social Identity and
Cooperative Behavior by
Public Administrators
Jill Nicholson-Crotty1, Sean Nicholson-Crotty1,
and Danyao Li2
Scholars suggest that coproduction may exacerbate inequity in the delivery
of services because citizens with high need may have fewer resources
to commit to the process. We explore whether differences between
administrators and citizens might also contribute to such inequities. We
use Social Identity Theory to develop the expectation that administrators
may have a greater affinity for and are more willing to work with in-group
members in the coproduction of public services. Evidence from a survey
experiment with approximately 200 public administrators demonstrates
that racial congruence increases the likelihood of cooperative behavior
indirectly through its impact on sympathy for a partner. The results do not
suggest a direct impact for shared identity on cooperative behavior.
coproduction, social identity, racial congruence, behavioral public
For decades, scholars have been interested in the coproduction of public
goods and services by administrative professionals and citizens. A large body
of research has worked to create taxonomies of coproduction types and link
1Indiana University, Bloomington, USA
2University of Southern California, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sean Nicholson-Crotty, Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana
University, 1315 E. 10th #410G, Bloomington, 47405 IN, USA.
1162529AAS0010.1177/00953997231162529Administration & SocietyNicholson-Crotty et al.
Nicholson-Crotty et al. 1119
these activities to organizational performance. This work suggests that, under
the right circumstances, government can be more effective when administra-
tors and citizens work together in the production of public services (e.g.,
Bovaird & Downe, 2008; Jakobsen & Andersen, 2013; Vamstad, 2012; Yang
& Pandey, 2011) .
There is also concern, however, that coproduction may exacerbate exist-
ing disparities in the delivery of public services (e.g., Warren et al., 1984).
Previous research has demonstrated that inequities might arise because some
groups have more time and resources to devote to improving the public ser-
vices they consume (e.g., Rosentraub & Sharp, 1981; Van Ryzin, 2011;
Williams et al., 2016), but this study takes another approach, exploring the
degree to which similarities between administrators and citizens might con-
tribute to inequities associated with coproduction. Given the longstanding
recognition that administrator preferences can have a significant influence on
the level and intensity of coproduction, surprisingly few studies have investi-
gated how differences between administrators and citizens may contribute to
the relationship between coproduction and inequity.
Social Identity Theory (SIT) offers considerable reason to believe that
they might. SIT posits that individual are likely to divide the world into in-
group (those that share their characteristics) and out-group (those that do not)
members and provides evidence that shared group identity leads to positive
affect and prosocial behavior (e.g., Dasgupta, 2004; Kinder & Kam, 2010;
LeVine & Campbell, 1972; Mullen et al., 1992; Perdue et al., 1990; Tajfel et
al., 1971). This body of work would suggest that administrators may have a
greater affinity for, and therefore, be more willing to cooperate with citizens
that look like them in the coproduction of public services (e.g., Bowles &
Gintis, 2004; Hornstein, 1976; Mifune et al., 2010).
To test that expectation, we adapt a previously validated experiment test-
ing for the antecedents of cooperative behavior by adding a manipulation that
creates racial congruence or incongruence between subjects and a hypotheti-
cal partner. We field the experiment in a pool of approximately 200 public
administrators each. Results demonstrate that racial congruence significantly
influences administrators’ sympathy for and, indirectly, their willingness to
cooperate with a citizen partner. We believe the results have significant impli-
cations for scholarship on equity and coproduction, as well as practical appli-
cations related to designing and incentivizing coproduction regimes.
The rest of the paper proceeds as follows: first, we conduct a brief litera-
ture review on coproduction as the backdrop of this study, arguing that impor-
tant questions remain regarding the impact of administrator preferences on
inequities arising from the coproduction process. Next, we draw on Social
Identity Theory to develop the expectation about public administrators’

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