21 August 2017 | Partisan Alignment and Delegation to the U.S. Bureaucracy, By Christine Palus & Susan Webb Yackee*

Andrew Osorio, · Categories: monthly_posts

It was a great honor to receive the Beryl Radin Award at the 2017 PMRC conference at American University in June for our article entitled, “Clerks or Kings? Partisan Alignment and Delegation to the U.S. Bureaucracy” in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory.  In this blog post, we will highlight the article’s main conclusions, as well as our indebtedness to a wonderful mentor and scholar who enabled this project.

As we all know, the legal authority of public bureaucrats to make decisions resides in the delegation of discretion from elected legislators and executives, such as the president or state governors, to administrative agents.  This delegation, many people argue, is driven by partisanship, and what has been commonly called “the ally principle.”  In other words, when legislators, executives, and agency leaders are politically aligned, there ought to be less uncertainty about bureaucratic policy decision-making, and therefore, more discretion of policymaking authority ought to be given to the bureaucracy.  In short, being of the same party ought to lead to increased trust and coherent political positions, and therefore, bureaucrats ought to given more latitude to act.

Our work, however, challenges this expectation.  We uncovered lower – not higher – levels of policy discretion during times of partisan alignment across the 50 American states and over time.  In sum, a takeaway message from our findings, then, is that agency officials may feel pressure to conform, rather than discretion to innovate, when serving under politically like-minded elected officials. Put differently, high-level administrative officials in public sector agencies, either consciously or subconsciously, may feel a heightened need to advance the priorities and goals of those who share the same political affiliation. What does this mean for government in action?  It all goes back to the notion of whether bureaucrats are acting as “clerks” or “kings.” We found that greater partisan alignment trends towards the former, not the latter, and appears to remind bureaucrats that they have obligations and constraints in place that limit their policy choices.

The data for this project originated with the late Deil S. Wright.  Deil was Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he was our mentor while in graduate school.  He passed away in 2009; yet, his legacy in the field of Public Administration continues to live on.  As part of his mentorship, he shared with us the data he collected as part of the American State Administrators Project.  This groundbreaking dataset includes surveys of state agency heads that began in the 1960s and was subsequently conducted twice every decade through 2008.  In our article, we used data from four decades, with responses from 6,000 state agency heads, to construct new measures of perceived discretion from the agency administrator’s point of view. This is quite different from most other investigations of this topic, but we argue that the perceptions of agency officials regarding their policy discretion yield a critical measure of the actual amount of discretion that an agency possesses and are associated with patterns in partisan alignment and misalignment.

Receiving the Beryl Radin Award for our work was an absolutely thrilling professional honor for us.  We are immensely grateful to Deil Wright for his mentorship and friendship.  He was an exceptional role model both in the academy and in life.  He taught us how to be teachers as well as scholars, and he encouraged us to be creative, detail-oriented, and persistent in all of our professional endeavors.  We are forever indebted to him.

* Christine Palus, Dean of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University & Susan Webb Yackee, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science at UW-Madison and recently elected Governing Board Member at PMRC.

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