Understanding Whether Representative Bureaucracy and Racial Resentment Impact Public Perceptions of the Distributive Justice of Government Programs

Published date01 August 2024
AuthorEllen V. Rubin,Keith P. Baker,Stephen Weinberg
Date01 August 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Understanding Whether Representative
Bureaucracy and Racial Resentment
Impact Public Perceptions of the
Distributive Justice of
Government Programs
Ellen V. Rubin
, Keith P. Baker
and Stephen Weinberg
Within the representative bureaucracy literature, scholars argue that public perceptions of government will improve when
their government looks like them. In particular, this study focuses on how the public perceives the fairness of policy outcomes,
measured as distributive justice. We test this through a survey experiment that examines how perceptionsof distributive justice are
affected by the racial diversity of government employees. Respondents are presented with a vignette about grants allocated to small
businesses, and then provided information about the racial diversity of agency employees. We further examine whether levels of
racial resentment impact the relationship between diversity in government and the perceived distributive justice of policy out-
comes. Racial resentment, frequently used in political science as a proxy for levels of prejudice, is included because reactions to
information about race and government policy are likely to shape perceptions about the legitimacy of government action and
views on representative bureaucracy. The experiment results indicate racial representation in government matters for Whites,
and these effects vary by expressed levels of racial resentment. In contrast, distributive justice perceptions of non-White respon-
dents are not changed by information on racial diversity within government agencies and do not vary by levels of racial resentment.
Representative bureaucracy, racial resentment, distributive justice, social desirability bias
In 1968, Mosher asked how we can ensure bureaucrats are
responsive to the public. Representative bureaucracy scholars
argue that bureaucrats who have characteristics that are con-
sistent with the public will have values that are consistent
with the values of the public, that these values will inf‌luence
bureaucratic behavior, and that they will thus inf‌luence policy
outcomes (Meier, 1993; Riccucci & Van Ryzin, 2017). Early
work on passive representation focused on the demographic
make-up of the bureaucracy. Scholars argue passive represen-
tation signals to the public that the agency considers a broad set
of views by virtue of a groups representation (Mosher, 1968;
Kingsley, 1944; Krislov, 1974). Advocates of passive repre-
sentation didand still doargue that the public will view
government decisions positively when government looks like
them. We empirically evaluate this claim. We focus specif‌i-
cally on public attitudes and in doing so we directly contribute
to the citizen-centric turn in public administration.
To explore the relationship between passive representation
and the publics perception of government, the study employs
an online vignette experiment to ask members of the public
whether they think a f‌ictional state grant program for small
businesses exhibits distributive justice. The goal of the
study is to test the contention that the public will view the deci-
sions of government more positively when they see a govern-
ment that looks like them. We compare the attitudes of
non-Hispanic Whites and non-Whites. For the purposes of
this study, we treat all respondents who did not identify exclu-
sively as non-Hispanic White as non-Whites. This includes
Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and Hawaiian
and Alaskan natives.
The study further considers whether prejudice alters the
relationship between government agency diversity and
Department of Public Administration and Policy, Universityat Albany, State
University of New York, Albany, NY, USA
Department of Public Administration, SUNY Brockport, State University of
New York, Rochester, NY, USA
Center for Policy Research, University at Albany, State University of
New York, Albany, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ellen V.Rubin, Department of Public Administration and Policy, University at
Albany, State University of New York, 135 Western Ave, Milne Hall 101,
Albany, NY 12222, USA.
Email: erubin@albany.edu
American Review of Public Administration
2024, Vol. 54(6) 518539
© The Author(s) 2024
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/02750740241229994
perceptions of policy outcomes. To date, prejudice has not
been included in studies of representative bureaucracy.
Prejudice is operationalized in this analysis as racial resent-
ment, which is used frequently in political science. Racial
resentment holds that White racial prejudice manifests itself
as a belief that minorities are receiving undeserved or
unearned gains (Sears & Henry, 2003). The resulting resent-
ment is also closely associated with generalized hostility
toward minorities broadly (Abramowitz & McCoy, 2019,
Davis & Wilson, 2022). This is likely to be a critical moder-
ating variable when the fairness of policy outcomes are eval-
uated. In light of protests following the deaths of Breonna
Taylor, George Floyd, and too many others, the
#BlackLivesMatter movement, debates over the composition
of US Supreme Court, and the recent overturning of aff‌irma-
tive action in college admissions, it is important that public
administration scholars give proper attention to how preju-
dice tinges public perceptions of government.
The study presented here differs from recent representa-
tive bureaucracy research in other important ways. First,
the study asks how the public perceives government policy
outputs. This is a different approach from others who ask
someone to evaluate a policy where she has personal experi-
ence interacting with the bureaucracyeither seeking or
receiving services (see Theobald & Hader-Markel, 2008;
Gade & Wilkins, 2013). It is also a different approach from
those seeking to understand how passive representation
across an organization impacts organization-level policy out-
comes (Favero & Molina, 2018; Roch & Edwards, 2017).
Second, this study evaluates responses to racial representa-
tion in government agencies, whereas other experimental
studies on representative bureaucracy have largely focused
on gender representation (Riccucci et al., 2014, Riccucci
et al., 2016). Our f‌indings suggest that, on its own, informa-
tion about racial representation in government agencies
causes minimal changes in distributive justice perceptions
on average. However, there is important heterogeneity; reac-
tions to levels of representation do depend on the respon-
dents race and level of racial resentment.
Representative Bureaucracy
Representation has been consistently described as important
for enhancing public perceptions of government. Krislov
(1974, p. 4) identif‌ied representation as a key mechanism
for building public support for government action, calling it
the oldest method of raising public support.There are dif-
ferent approaches to understanding how representation can
be secured with government. One approachtypif‌ied by
Pitkins (1967) ideas of formal representationis to focus
on formal institutions and how regulation and rules ensure
different groups can be represented in the process.
Following from this, other scholars have considered how
government negotiates with a range of represented actors
within formal consultative processes to reach consensus
(see Weber,1998 for an in-depth discussionof such negotiated
rule making processes). In these accountings, r epresentation is
secured by institutional design and collaborative governance
but this approach is largely silent on how ci tizens react to rep-
resentation and how bureaucrats themselves underst and how
they are to represent the public. Representative bureaucracy
offers an alternative perspective.Mosher (1968) discussed rep-
resentation as one potential way to enhance bureaucratic legit-
imacy: legitimacy of bureaucratic action is increased when
undertaken by a more diverse set of bureaucrats.
Representative bureaucracy scholarship considers three
different forms of representation: passive, active, and sym-
bolic. We focus on passive representation in this study and
seek to extend research on representation by empirically
examining whether information on government agency
diversity impacts the degree to which program outcomes
are viewed as exhibiting distributive justice, and whether
these justice perceptions are impacted by levels of racial
The concept of passive representation can be understood
as a descriptive measure of the degree to which the bureauc-
racy looks like its community; there is no assumption of
action under the concept of passive representation (Mosher,
1968). Passive representation was originally introduced as a
tool for increasing the likelihood that the bureaucracy
would pursue policies responsive to the needs of the
public, rather than exclusively focused on the desires of the
ruling elites (Kingsley, 1944; Mosher, 1968). This demo-
graphic representation also could increase public support
for bureaucratic actions when the public saw bureaucratic
decision makers coming from broad segments of society
(Krislov, 1974). Indeed, Long (1952) argued that the execu-
tive branch was far more likely to represent the diversity of
the general public, compared to elected off‌icials, and that
this was desirable for democracy. Headley et al. (2021)
acknowledge that demographic representation matters to
public perceptions but suggest that the actions of public off‌i-
cials matter more.
Active representation focuses on the policy outcomes
resulting from the actions of diverse bureaucrats. A
complex series of circumstances must be in place for
passive representation to transform into active representation.
First, the policy should be salient to under-represented
bureaucrats (Keiser et al., 2002). Second, the bureaucrat
should have discretion and believe that discretion can be
exercised (Sowa & Selden, 2003; Keiser et al., 2002).
Third, a critical mass of bureaucrats should identify as part
of the under-represented group (Hindera & Young, 1998),
and the bureaucrat should view her role as serving her
group (Selden et al., 1998).
Symbolic representation considers whether and how the
mere presence of a diverse bureaucracy may inf‌luence the
perceptions and behaviors of community members, without
any deliberate action from the bureaucrat (Theobald &
Hader-Markel, 2008). Scholars have suggested a variety of
Rubin et al. 519

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