The roles assumed by public administrators: the link between administrative discretion and representation.

Author:Roman, Alexandru

One would be hard pressed to locate a concept that is more central to the evolution of public administration theory and practice than administrative discretion. From discussions on the democratic nature of the administrative constructs to the ones on the latest managerial technique, administrative discretion always seems to creep into the conversation. In fact, a number of the classical debates in public administration come down to questions of proper handling of administrative discretion. The Finer (1940)--Friedrich (1941) debate is a case in point. Finer (1941) asserted that administrative decision-making can be and should be clearly organized within the frame of well-designed legislative and organizational mandates. Accountability, according to Finer (1941), is a function of strong external structures. Friedrich (1940), in contrast, asserted that public administrators are more than capable of self-control and the boundaries imposed by social norms and professional values would be able to channel administrative discretion within appropriate democratic expectations. Taken together, most of the current public administration scholars tend to agree with Friedrich (1940) and have resigned to the idea that organizational constraints have significant limits in terms of imposing exacting controls on administrative behaviors. Discretionary power has been and remains a prevailing reality for many public servants and their agencies and continues to be an essential ingredient in conditioning administrative responsiveness and accountability. (1) As Wilson (1966) has once argued, for administrators "large powers and unhampered discretion" seem to be "the indispensable conditions of responsibility" (p. 373).

Yet, while the centrality of administrative discretion for public administration theory and practice is never questioned, it is rarely explicitly analyzed and receives only a limited amount empirical attention. In particular, very little is known about the effects that administrative discretion has on the roles assumed by public servants. This study was designed with the specific purpose of examining the relationship between perceived access to administrative discretion and the assumption of administrative roles. The research explores whether a public administrator who believes that he or she enjoys higher levels of administrative discretion is more likely to assume the representation role of steward of public interest. This study directly builds on the work of Selden, Brewer and Brudney (1999) and Sowa & Selden (2003). It extends their empirical conceptualizations by testing previously unexamined relationships.

From the start it should be noted that many of the studies carried under the umbrella of the theory of representative bureaucracy have a number of common limitations. First, the majority of the studies are, for obvious and necessary methodological and conceptual reasons, bounded to the organizational level (Bradbury & Kellough, 2011). Second, as a rule, the studies driven by the theory of representative bureaucracy often address policy specific outcomes; hence, their generalizability is seriously challenged by their careful selection of their eventual sampling frame. Kennedy (2013) noted that an overreliance on convenient sources of data, such as education data, is a particular weakness of research examining representation. While insightful, the findings developed in these convenient settings are limited in their generalizability and can rarely be transferred to other policy domains. Furthermore, few scholars venture into exploring representation outside of the demographic-behavior link (Kennedy, 2013). Within this context, studies that address representation on the part of administrators at the individual level and which would focus on administrative discretion, but without imposing policy specific constraints, become rather warranted. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this study, administrative discretion is regularly assumed, but rarely empirically tested. A similar condition can be identified when it comes to administrative roles. Some (Sowa & Selden, 2003, p. 707) have previously called for research that would examine the "interaction between the role accepted by the administrator and the degree of discretion perceived by that administrator." The research presented here was in large part undertaken with the scope of answering such calls.

Notwithstanding the actual empirical results, there are a number of broad, conceivably significant, contributions that this article makes. First, this study combines in a somewhat original manner insights provided by the theory of representative bureaucracy and role theory. In a sense, it adds an important twist to the traditional delimitation of representative behaviors by tracing them through administrative roles rather than through traditional demographic links. Second, this represents one of only a few studies that empirically explored representative bureaucracy questions at the individual level. Most studies examined the topic within the context of institutional level outcomes. Finally, this research was framed in a manner that does not make it policy domain dependent; meaning, that empirical results cut across policy issues. This provides the possibility to generalize part of the results to the larger context of public administration.


Based on his observation of the interaction during World War II between middle-class oriented British civil service and the ruling party, Kingsley (1944) argued that a bureaucracy that is more representative of the social classes would be more responsive to the population's needs. Soon after, American scholars picked up Kingsley's (1944) idea as a possible solution to reconciling the longstanding inherent tension between bureaucracy and democracy. Given that social class did not seamlessly translate into the American democratic narrative, American scholars moved away from social class to demographic characteristics as the primary variable of interest.

Within the American context, Levitan (1946) asserted that the actions of agencies whose workforce composition reflected the demographic makeup of the citizenry, would have an easier time being accepted and interpreted as legitimate. Referencing the ineffectiveness of external controls, Levitan (1946) also supported representativeness as an improved choice for enforcing bureaucratic accountability. The link between representativeness and legitimacy was later echoed in the works of Long (1952) and Van Ripper (1958). In fact, in his seminal article on the topic, Long (1952) went as far as to suggest that bureaucracy might be more representative than Congress.

The work of Mosher (1968) further extended the theory and to some degree provided a turning point in its development. Mosher (1968) clearly delineated the dynamics and implications behind passive (descriptive) and active representation. Mosher (1968) endorsed passive representation as a fundamental factor for public administration in a democracy. He suggested that even in the cases when passive representation might not lead to obvious democratic improvements; the mere presence of such setup in the administration provides democratic value on its own. This perspective is currently widely accepted among scholars as normatively appropriate and is always linked to a number of positive outcomes. Active representation, on the other hand, was normatively undesirable for Mosher (1968).

It may be noted that active representativeness run rampant within a bureaucracy would constitute a major threat to orderly democratic government. The summing up of the multitude of special interests seeking effective representation does not constitute the public interest. (Mosher, 1968, p. 12)

Most scholars, as Lim (2006) has noted, have shied away from joining Mosher (1968) in rejecting active representation as a desirable characteristics of bureaucracy. Many have been rather supportive, or at the very least cautiously optimistic, of the benefits of active representation.

Another important chapter in the evolution of the theory is provided by the work of Krislov (1974), who advanced the theory by constructing understandings regarding organizational socialization. For Krislov (1974), the demographic backgrounds of public administrators offered the framework within which certain values are created and espoused. In cases when the organizational demographic structures mimic the backgrounds of the population at large, the values that are shaped within organizational interactions will reflect the demands of the citizenry. Similar to Long (1952) and Van Riper (1958), Krislov (1974) supported the idea that bureaucracy, through it representational capacity, complimented and perhaps even filled the association gaps between citizens and their political structures, which are often left unmet by political institutions such as Congress. Table 1 provides a summary of the presumed direct and indirect social benefits of bureaucratic representation.

The most recent turn in the intellectual progress of the theory is in large part hedged on the idea of role acceptance. A number of scholars (Kennedy, 2013; Meier & Bohte, 2001; Kelly, 2013; Selden, 1997; Selden, Brudney, & Kellough, 1998; Sowa & Selden, 2003) have argued that role acceptance provides an enriched set of insights into understanding the representativeness of bureaucracy, which might under different conditions be missed by the traditional link between social minority and representation. Although, demographic background still remains a fundamental ingredient, scholars are now becoming open to the idea that it might not be the most critical in explaining representation; in fact, it might actually be secondary to role assumption, especially outside of policy specific questions (Kennedy, 2013). That is to say, outside of policies that specifically...

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