REPGOV – Democracy from Public Administration

On January 1, 2022, I will begin work on a five-year project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) that examines why, how and whether public administration reinforces the values of representative government. I’m delighted to announce that the project, REPGOV, will be hosted by the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) in Barcelona, Spain. I owe a debt of gratitude to Jacint Jordana, Laura Chaqués Bonafont, Anna Ricart and Carlos Sanchez for making this new home for the project a reality. Silvia Cannas, Valentina Mele and Maria Cucciniello were essential to the success of the academic proposal, and I can’t thank them enough for their efforts.

REPGOV emerges from ideas at the core of Professor Bertelli’s recent book, Democracy Administered: How Public Administration Shapes Representative Government (Cambridge University Press, 2021).  The book observes that the traditional legitimating narrative of public administration confines democratic values to the relationship between political representatives, such as legislators or elected executives, and public managers.  This traditional perspective balances the accountability of public managers to political representatives, a problem of control, with the need for administration to work effectively, a problem of capability.  

Democracy Administered turns this narrative on its head by arguing and illustrating how public managers have the discretionary authority to make decisions that define—or redefine—the nature of democracy for the governments and citizens they serve.  The book presents a constructive perspective on the way that those structures of governance, from bureaucracies to performance-based organizations to participatory collaboratives to independent agencies, embody tradeoffs in democratic values.  Changing or adding structures of governance, as when performance targets or citizen participation are included in administrative decision making, can strengthen, or weaken, the values of a representative democracy.  

While institutions matter, the behavior of public administrators matters, too.  Their democratic belief systems may well be shaped by the value tradeoffs implicit in the structure of their offices, but their beliefs can also diverge from those incentivized by their organizations, and, consequently, have an independent influence on democracy.  This argument yields a value reinforcement hypothesis—democratic values in the structure and practice of public administration reflect the democratic values of a political system—that lies at the core of REPGOV. Does public administration reinforce the values of representative government? Why and how?  

The five-year REPGOV project develops and presents a unified normative and positive theory of how institutions and practices both should and do reinforce democratic values.  Theory building draws on democratic theory and formal models of politics. A mixed-methods empirical strategy qualitatively explores the mechanisms of value reinforcement in various administrative settings in contemporary Europe, employs machine learning techniques to explore the syntax of value reinforcement in laws and regulations, and experimentally examines structured choices about reinforcing values. REPGOV aims to illustrate how the democratic value trade-offs made by public administrators are an important missing link in contemporary discussions about the quality, and the nature, of representative government.