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Demographic Trends and Representative Bureaucracy: Impact on Public Administration

By Joseph Adler


Few will dispute the assertion that governments, especially at the state and local level, are in the business of providing services. How these services are delivered and by whom are not without controversy. The concepts of bureaucratic neutrality collide with calls for social equity and a representative bureaucracy. Add the rapid demographic transformation of the U.S. population to the mix and a public administration challenge is created. Should we adhere to a principle of delivering services within the confines of our agency? Or should public administrators be agents of social change? This column will look at national demographic changes, the catalyst spurring this discussion, and then the potential benefits of advocating social equity and representativeness in public administration.

Demographic Projections: A True Multicultural Society Ahead

The Census Bureau predicts that by 2043, the U.S. population will grow to nearly 400 million and become majority-minority. No single ethnic or racial group will comprise more than 50 percent. Non-white Hispanics, projected to double from 53 million in 2012, to almost 120 million by 2060, will make the biggest gains to comprise over one third of the populace. African-Americans will make some small gains—from 41 million to nearly 60 million—and Asian-Americans from 16 million to 34 million.

However, the future is already here for a number of areas. Eight major metropolitan regions have seen the proportion of non-Hispanic whites decline below 50 percent including:

  • New York.
  • San Diego.
  • Las Vegas.
  • Memphis.
  • Washington, D.C.

Montgomery County, Maryland, the second largest jurisdiction in the Washington metropolitan region, saw its white population decline from 60 percent in 2000 to 49 percent by 2011, and saw a simultaneous increase of other racial and ethnic groups.

Demographics and the Link to Public Administration

workforce 1

Given the above, a key concern is the continuing viability of government. Will government adapt to provide services in a culturally competent manner and what kinds of human resource policies (if any) need to be implemented to assure such positive outcomes? One of the theories of government administration is the existence of a corps of civil servants selected strictly on merit that follow the principles of meticulous neutrality and objectivity in carrying out their duties. Max Weber—a German sociologist who cautioned against giving public administrators too much discretion, fearing that such power would lead to bureaucratic domination of society—popularized this principle. While space limits prevent a robust discussion of Weber’s philosophy, for much of the public the mere mention of the phrase “neutral bureaucrat” conjures up cartoonish exaggerations of an impersonal, unfeeling and uncaring government employee.

More recent public administration theories reject some of the strict reliance on merit and argue for a government workforce that is reflective of the population, a representative bureaucracy. Contentious when first suggested in the 1960s and 1970s, the policy of having a diverse and culturally competent workforce (also known as passive representation) is now accepted in public administration and is endorsed by many political leaders, including the highest levels of government.

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 requires that federal agencies take proactive steps to achieve a representative workforce. Remaining controversial is the belief that public administrators should not only reflect the demographics of the population but exercise all the tools at their disposal to advocate on behalf of the traditionally underrepresented and underserved. In other words the public administrator goes from passive to active representation. Advocates for active representation theorized that the practice would lead to a more optimal delivery of services and greater acceptance of the legitimacy of government by the service recipients.

While the initial calls for public employee advocacy arose in the 1970s, it remains part of a contemporary, robust discussion on the role of public administration. Norman J. Johnson and James H. Svara wrote a chapter and edited a collection of essays and scholarly articles in the book, Justice for All: Promoting Social Equity in Public Administration. In their specific chapter, they call upon public administrators to take a wide range of steps, “…to reduce or eliminate the disparities in American society…. [and] work diligently to mitigate the unfair consequences of policy.” Johnson and Svara also task public administrators with promoting social equity, attacking disparity and advancing the interests of individuals or groups that have been marginalized in the past. 

Theory to Practice: Does Representativeness Make A Difference?
A practitioner may accept the reality that demography will reconfigure how and what services need to be administered, but may still need to convinced that a representative workforce produces better results. Early proponents of representative bureaucracy theorized that it would bring both symbolic and substantive gains. Subsequent research provided empirical evidence to the theory.

A study by J. Hindera in a 1993 Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory article titledRepresentative Bureaucracy: Further Evidence of Representation in the EEOC District Offices,” found that when services were being delivered by a representative workforce to a long neglected or underserved portion of the population positive results were produced. Similarly, a study by Kenneth J. Meier and Joseph Stewart Jr. in a 1992 American Review of Public Administration article titled “The Impact of Representative Bureaucracies: Educational Systems and Public Priorities,” found that black high school students in Florida scored higher in statewide tests, when taught by a black teacher, and they also were less likely to be disproportionately disciplined. According to Lael R. Keiser, in a 2002  titled “Lipsticks and Logarithms: Gender, Institutional Context and Representative Bureaucracy,” a similar study of math scores of girls in Texas high schools found a positive correlation when instructed by female high school teachers.

Taking a look from the service-side and affected populations, a 1996 Public Administration Review article by Gregory Thielemann and Joseph Stewart titled “A Demand Side Perspective on the Importance of Representative Bureaucracy: AIDS, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation found a strong link between the demographic makeup of the front line health care provider and clients living with AIDS. Study results indicated clients were more willing to seek services when they felt comfortable if the vendor shared the same background. More research exists, but I believe the point is made that a representative bureaucracy produces positive outcomes in terms of service delivery. 

Suggestions and Concluding Remarks

What can be concluded from this column? The most obvious takeaway is the population change confronting the United States is a major catalyst for all levels of government, especially at the state and local levels. Current policies and employee skills sets may have served well up to now, but may become obsolete and irrelevant in the future. Governments also need to be able to respond both to internal and external calls for social equity and an active representative workforce.  Public policy shapers and administrators can take a proactive approach and begin the process of modifying the current culture to one that will accommodate the needs of a changing resident base.

A number of jurisdictions in the Washington, D.C. region, including Montgomery County, Maryland, have taken steps to recognize the reality of achieving minority-majority status by actively incorporating new Americans’ into the government decision making process. Other measures focus on the ability to deliver services in a culturally competent manner by making the ability to speak a second language as part of a minimum requirement for line service position and offering voluntary incentives to employees to become certified translators in one of the top six non-English languages spoken in the jurisdiction. Recently, Montgomery County held a summit for top government managers and community leaders to seek input on the short and long-term strategic modifications necessary to provide world-class government services. These attempts certainly do not comprise the universe of what needs to be done, but they do represent a solid beginning to address the issues caused by demographic.


Joseph Adler is a member of ASPA and is a NAPA Fellow. He is the Director of Human Resources for Montgomery County, Maryland.  Adler has held a number of senior level public administrator positions in Maryland.  The views and comments expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not represent any policy positions of Montgomery County, Maryland.  He can be reached at: [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

2 Responses to Demographic Trends and Representative Bureaucracy: Impact on Public Administration

  1. Elisha Mujasi Reply

    February 13, 2017 at 4:22 am

    There is need for improvement modality and situation analysis through proper assessment of peoples needs and problems at hand.

  2. Pingback: Public Administration Research: Help or Hindrance for Practitioners? | PA TIMES Online

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