The Effects of Politicization on Performance: The Mediating Role of HRM Practices

Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2019, Vol. 39(4) 544 –569
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X18758378
The Effects of Politicization
on Performance: The
Mediating Role of HRM
Javier Fuenzalida1,2 and Norma M. Riccucci2
Since politicization persists, threatening public sector governance and management,
there is a need to further understand this phenomenon and its consequences.
Previous empirical studies conducted predominantly in the United States have found
a negative impact of politicization on performance; however, the reasons behind this
relationship remain elusive. In this article, we inquire into the effect of politicization
on organizational performance, and we propose that such influence can be explained
by a deterioration of human resource management (HRM) practices. Using data from
a national survey of municipal managers and mayors in Chile, our results confirm
the negative impact of politicization on the performance of public agencies, which is
partially mediated by politicization’s deleterious effect on their HRM practices.
politicization, performance, civil service, patronage, human resource management
The politicization of the civil service speaks to the ageless tension between politics
and administration. The dominance of political and personal loyalty over merit-based
criteria in the upper reaches of government is the foremost bureaucratic control mech-
anism used by politicians, who pursue the effective implementation of their espoused
1Center for Public Systems, Department of Industrial Engineering, University of Chile, Santiago, Chile
2Rutgers University, Newark, NJ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Javier Fuenzalida, School of Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers University, 111 Washington Street,
NJ 07102, USA.
758378ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X18758378Review of Public Personnel AdministrationFuenzalida and Riccucci
Fuenzalida and Riccucci 545
policy agenda. However, a key dilemma is how political authorities can exert such
control while ensuring that the bureaucracy preserves its capacity, professional values,
and performance standards to serve the citizenry (Svara, 2001, p. 179). Despite the
multitude of reforms fostered by governments to keep politics out, political values
continue to jeopardize the ability of nations to effectively govern and manage them-
selves (Grindle, 2012; Peters & Pierre, 2004).
In highly politicized bureaucracies such as in the United States and several Latin
American countries, there is a tendency to staff senior civil service positions with
political appointments that rely on patronage-driven criteria (Grindle, 2012; Lewis,
2008; Matheson, Weber, Manning, & Arnould, 2007). These designations generally
coexist with other mechanisms, which ultimately integrate merit and political loyalty.
In bureaucracies with stricter regulations as well as with a meritocratic and nonparti-
san tradition, politicization assumes other forms. Westminster-type governments and
French cabinet ministériels rely intensively on political advisors, who have a great
deal of influence on policy and administrative issues in public agencies (Eichbaum &
Shaw, 2007, 2008). Similarly, politicians and even bureaucrats in some Asian coun-
tries exploit procedural loopholes and hidden norms to informally bias the selection
and promotion of personnel. These include avoiding open and transparent publications
of job announcements, leaking exam questions, taking advantage from the high sig-
nificance of recommendations, or requiring prospects to affiliate the ruling political
party prior to joining the civil service (Poocharoen & Brillantes, 2013).
The persistence of politicization and the major threat it poses to public sector gov-
ernance and management reinforce the need for further inquiry here. Important con-
tributions have theoretically examined politicization (Bearfield, 2009; Peters &
Pierre, 2004; Rouban, 2007), whereas only some have empirically tested its conse-
quences, especially its deleterious impact on organizational performance (Gallo &
Lewis, 2012; Gilmour & Lewis, 2006; Hollibaugh, 2015; Lewis, 2007, 2008; Miller,
2015; Perry & Miller, 1991). Nevertheless, despite the remarkable value of these
findings, the reasons behind the negative effects of the politicization of the civil ser-
vice remain elusive; moreover, the impact of politicization on performance has been
mostly studied in the United States.1 Designing and implementing reforms to effec-
tively control politicization requires deeper insight into the areas where public agen-
cies are affected by politicization, and how it affects performance. Research findings
from lesser-developed countries are also useful in this quest, since politicization is an
extensive problem in governments with more fragile bureaucratic institutions and,
thus, represent a serious barrier for achieving development (Berman, 2015; Evans &
Rauch, 1999).
This article aims to further analyze the impact of politicization on public agencies’
performance and offers a causal mechanism for such a relationship. In particular, we
examine whether this effect is partially mediated by a deterioration of one important
dimension of organizations: their human resource management (HRM) practices.
Chile serves as the setting for this study. This developing country was selected due to
the emerging stage of its civil service. Indeed, Chile has one of the most developed and
effective civil services in Latin America but is still quite behind from its Organization

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