Theoretical Perspectives on Bureaucrats: A Quest for Democratic Agents

Published date01 August 2023
AuthorAna Železnik,Danica Fink-Hafner
Date01 August 2023
Subject MatterPerspectives
Administration & Society
2023, Vol. 55(7) 1432 –1456
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997231165998
Theoretical Perspectives
on Bureaucrats: A Quest
for Democratic Agents
Ana Železnik1 and Danica Fink-Hafner1
While the relationship between bureaucracy and democracy has gained
attention in historical cycles, the literature on the roles of bureaucrats
in relation to democracy has become increasingly fragmented. Drawing
on comparisons among public administration theory and participatory,
deliberative, and collaborative democracy, this article provides typologies
that reflect the historical multiplication of the theoretically determined
roles and characteristics of bureaucracy that contribute to democracy. This
comparative analysis highlights a common democratic trend among the four
schools in adding stresses on bureaucrats’ autonomy, morality, publicity, and
direct connection to citizens, with a constant coexistence of rational and
managerial elements.
bureaucrats, public administration, participative democracy, deliberative
democracy, collaborative democracy
As democratic disaffection associated with the crisis and potential death of
liberal democracies (Corbett, 2020; Offe, 2011) has been growing since the
2000s, the need to redefine bureaucrats’ roles, characteristics, and values has
1University of Ljubljana, Slovenia
Corresponding Authors:
Ana Železnik, University of Ljubljana, Kardeljeva ploščad 5, Ljubljana 1000, Slovenia.
Danica Fink-Hafner, University of Ljubljana, Kardeljeva ploščad 5, Ljubljana 1000, Slovenia.
1165998AAS0010.1177/00953997231165998Administration & SocietyŽeleznik and Fink-Hafner
Železnik and Fink-Hafner 1433
been addressed in relation to the current problems concerning governing
(Dickinson et al., 2019; Frederickson et al., 2016; Perry & Christensen, 2015;
Peters & Pierre, 2012; Rabin et al., 2007). The call for a democratic bureau-
crat, which is relevant both theoretically and practically, is now on the agenda
more than ever, given the new complexities of the existing social and politi-
cal systems of governance in the current world (Hildreth et al., 2021), which
include the aggregation of multiple global emergencies, such as economic,
environmental, migration and health crises. It has been estimated that the
representative functions of the state, in addition to social and public pro-
grams, as well as those of elected and unelected officials, are being reduced
by the power of big capital and special interest groups, and that the bureau-
cratic capacity to fulfill citizens’ expectations has been destroyed (as shown
by reforms regarding downsizing, hollowing out, privatization, and elimina-
tion) (Wilson, 2001).
Various factors have recently been adding to the social complexity in
which bureaucrats act. Authoritarian and populist political programs and
activities challenge not only bureaucratic values relating to political neutral-
ity (Box, 2021), but also bureaucrats’ accountability relationships with politi-
cians (Wood et al., 2022). Furthermore, bureaucratic agencies have become
over-burdened and hyperresponsive (Meier, 1997), forced to deal with
increasingly complex tasks and demands from the people as well as from
politicians. In such circumstances, it is no surprise that the practice of bureau-
cracy is facing low levels of institutional trust (Torcal, 2006), and is per-
ceived as non-democratic (Brugué & Gallego, 2003) and sometimes even as
a threat to democracy (Meier & O’Toole, 2006). Indeed, historical forces,
economic trends, and changing political preferences have provoked a re-
thinking of public administration theory and practice (Roberts, 2004).
Theoretical and empirical efforts to describe the roles of bureaucrats have
significantly varied over time. They have been greatly influenced by evolv-
ing theories regarding democracy while at the same time continuously deal-
ing with general tensions between (a) rationalism and efficiency and (b)
democratic/public-oriented bureaucrats’ roles.
On one hand, rational/public choice theory and management studies have
prevailed for decades in the form of new public management (NPM)
(Osborne & Gaebler, 1992), which was criticized and partly replaced by the
theory of new public governance, based on organizational sociology and
network theory (Osborne, 2006). On the other hand, the reconciling of
bureaucracy with democracy (Etzioni-Halevey, 1983; Kirlin, 1996; Meier,
1997; Peters, 2010) has been elaborated within the theory of representative
bureaucracy and bureaucratic representation (Coleman et al., 1998; Wilson,
2001), as well as that of bureaucratic responsibility (Burke & Cleary, 1989)

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