Who are the policy workers and what are they doing?

My first paper in a new project on democratic accountability in a world of complex governance has been accepted by Public Performance Management Review.  Some of the ideas in this project were presented in my Jacob K. Javits Visiting Professorship Lecture at New York University Law School.  A fuller exposition of these ideas will appear in a book, currently under contract with Cambridge University Press.

It will appear in a symposium issue following a wonderful session at last year’s meeting of the American Society of Public Administration in Chicago organized by Kaifeng Yang and Mel Dubnick.  Here’s the abstract:

Two critical questions for the study of accountability in contemporary governance can focus attention on the citizen, rather than the official. I begin with the question of whether a citizen can identify a policy worker—that is, the bureaucrat, contractor, or other actor acting in pursuit of a legislated policy goal. I then turn to whether a citizen can evaluate policy work that is done to further a legislated policy goal. Both identification and evaluation prove tricky to assess in a great deal of policy work, leaving accountability an important, but elusive, democratic value. This paper provides a framework for analysts to understand when and why accountability works from a citizen’s perspective and what incentives policy workers and politicians have when it does.


New Research – Media Response to Agency Termination: Out with a whimper?

A second paper from my part of the Economic and Social Research Council funded Shrinking the State project has now been accepted for publication. Media Attention and the Demise of Agency Independence: Evidence from a Mass Administrative Reorganization in Britain written with my NYU Wagner colleague Andy Sinclair and USC Price doctoral student Haram Lee is forthcoming in Public Administration.  This is Haram’s first publication, so we’re very excited about that.  Here’s the abstract:

When administrative agencies are terminated, do they quietly fade from public view? On the one hand, the terminated agencies may have weak issue networks and agency reputations allowing them to lose public salience. On the other hand, strong issue networks and agency reputations may mean that termination increases attention to the agencies, making the government pay the cost of public attention generated by the actors within the issue networks. We assess these competing claims by using a unique dataset from a recent mass reorganization of independent agencies in Britain as well as data capturing media attention to agencies in major national newspapers. Using a difference-in-differences approach, we find that the agencies subject to termination experience reductions in the number of media coverage in major newspapers, disappearing from public view during the post-decision reform period.

The paper is available via SSRN.

New Research – Media Attention and Agency Termination

I am pleased to announce that my contributions to the Shrinking the State project are making their way into publication. “Mass Administrative Reorganization, Media Attention, and the Paradox of Information” with my colleague on the project and at the Wagner School, Andy Sinclair, is now forthcoming in Public Administration Review.  Here’s the abstract:

How does media attention influence government decisions about whether to terminate independent administrative agencies? We argue that an agency’s salience with partisan audiences has a direct effect, but a high media profile can disrupt normal government monitoring processes and obfuscate termination decisions. We evaluate our argument in the context of a recent mass administrative reorganization by the British coalition government using probit and heteroscedastic probit regression models. Evidence suggests that termination is less likely for agencies salient in newspapers popular with the government’s core supporters, but not those read by its minority coalition partner. We also find that agencies with greater overall newspaper salience as well as younger agencies have a higher error variance.

The paper and its supplementary appendix is available via SSRN.

New Research – Measuring Attributes with Attitudes

I am very pleased to report that a paper entitled “Measuring Agency Attributes with Attitudes Across Time: A Method and Examples Using Large-Scale Federal Surveys” and written with USC Price School Ph.D students Dyana Mason, Jennifer Connolly and David Gastwirth is forthcoming in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory.  Public management researchers are interested in many characteristics of organizations that cannot be directly captured, making aggregated attitudes from surveys an attractive proxy.  Yet difficulties in measuring meaningful attributes over time and across organizations have frequently limited statistical designs to a single organization or time. We offer a method for creating such statistical measures across agencies and time using item response theory.  Focusing our attention on U.S. federal administrative agencies, we marshal a variety of questions from surveys commissioned by the Office of Personnel Management and Merit Systems Protection Board and employ statistical models to measure three important attributes — autonomy, job satisfaction, and intrinsic motivation — for 71 agencies between 1998-2010.  Our study provides a wealth of data for quantitative public management research designs as well as an adaptable framework for measuring a wide range of concepts. A previous version of this paper won the Herbert Kaufman Award from the American Political Science Association.  We were fortunate to receive funding for this project from the Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise.  The paper is available here: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2265678.  We hope you find it of interest!

Shrinking the State

This spring, I was pleased to begin a three year project with Matt Flinders (University of Sheffield) and Chris Skelcher (University of Birmingham) that will analyze the UK Coalition Government’s major reform of ‘arm’s length bodies’ (ALBs – often called ‘quangos’). Quangos are a frequent focus for public, political and media criticism, regarded as unaccountable, wasteful and self-serving. Yet they are also indispensible to modern government, preventing ministers from becoming overloaded, bringing expert advice and management to complex policy issues, and undertaking regulatory and quasi-judicial tasks that need to be politically independent.  I have long been interested in these bodies and have analyzed patterns of discretion in Dutch and transparency in British ALBs among a series of papers on the topic.  It is a great privilege to be working with Matt and Chris on this project, as well as with our research fellows Kate Dommett and Katie Tonkiss.

The study asks a number of questions including:

  • Why have arm’s length bodies been so durable in the face of political and public hostility?
  • What are the consequences of reforming arm’s length bodies for ministers, Parliament, civil servants, and those organisations and individuals who use their services?
  • Are there other ways in which delegation of executive, regulatory, quasi-judicial or advisory authority might be designed, and what is the international experience?

As the project unfolds, I will offer some reflections and results here.

The Political Economy of Public Sector Governance

I am delighted to announce that the book I mentioned in this post is now published and available from Cambridge University Press.  Designed for students and empirical researchers, the book is meant to be a general, nontechnical introduction to core ideas in positive political theory as they apply to topics in public management and policy.

I am grateful for the endorsement of my former colleague Hal Rainey, who wrote:

“Bertelli provides a valuable resource for those who seek an improved understanding of the major ideas in the literature on the political economy of governance. He explains and applies the major concepts and theories, such as the principal-agent model, screening, signaling, and others, with effective examples. An important addition to graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses on governmental management and administration, public policy, and related topics, and for all scholars seeking a better grasp of this literature and its contributions.”

Likewise, I am indebted to Chuck Shipan for these very kind comments:

“The study of public management has undergone a revolution over the past two decades, with new approaches providing fresh insights into long-standing issues. As someone who is both firmly steeped in the traditional concerns and issues and also a major contributor to the new approaches, Tony Bertelli is the perfect person to serve as a tour guide to this revolution. The Political Economy of Public Sector Governance is lucid, engaging, and chock full of ideas for scholars and practitioners alike.”

I hope readers find the book useful and look forward to their comments.

Strategic Capacity Building

I’ve been occupied over the past few weeks with finishing a textbook, The Political Economy of Public Sector Governance, for Cambridge University Press.  I’ve been told it will be in print next summer.  The book seeks to bring core ideas from the theoretical literature of — for want of a better term — the political economy of bureaucracy literature into MPA and MPP classrooms, and also to introduce them to applied public management researchers from a variety of backgrounds who would like to learn more.  In this sense, it is a hybrid book and wound up being one of my most difficult projects. The experience led me to think very carefully about my own teaching style and to add nuance to the many reasons why I respect authors of good textbooks.  Because it also forced me to make hard choices about which studies to discuss in a limited space, it was a very helpful reflection on a body of theory that I have thought about as an applied researcher for many years.

My primary focus in such reflection was about how this literature might be useful to applied scholars and practitioners of public management.  For instance, chapter 5 concerns government contracting with the private and nonprofit sectors.  An interesting extension of the insights of two recent delegation papers regards the acquisition of expertise by contractors. The essential idea is that an administrative agency or contractor makes choices about acquiring expertise that can have incentivize a particular shape for the policy agenda.  A recent paper by Michael Ting relies on the difference between specialist agencies, who can target their capacity-building investments to a particular task, and generalist agencies that cannot. The essential insight is that specialist agencies can create incentives for the government to undertake some tasks rather than others because they have developed the capacity to provide good outcomes precisely by doing things they prefer to do. In the book, I call this process strategic capacity building. Government may consequently take on things that it might not have but for the capacity choices of contractors.   Strategic capacity building also implies that the advocacy mission of non-profit organizations and the contracting environment work together to great effect, which is something that practitioners and scholars know well.  Paul Light, for instance, has argued that organizations that engage in capacity building can enhance organizational effectiveness, which in turn inspires donors and funders to provide additional support.

A very clever and insightful paper by Steven Callander unmasks another aspect for strategic capacity building. When tasks are complex, knowledge about how to do them is difficult for others to sequester.  His argument implies that we should expect capacity acquired by contractors over time to be in regard to complex, non-invertible tasks. Such capacity cannot be easily appropriated, particularly by political principals in furtherance of their policy agendas.  Strategic capacity building can, thus, produce two interesting outcomes. First, the government does not face a true market for services when making contracting decisions. This is because the services offered by potential contractors are defined, at least in part, by their strategic capacity building choices. Second, non-invertible capacity for complex tasks permits contractors to shape policies as they desire unless those outcomes are very far from those envisioned by government, or in other words, because there is substantial policy conflict between the government and contractor.

When non-profits and private firms become involved in the contracting state, they travel (with apologies to George Krause) a two-way street of policymaking with administrative agencies and politicians.