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Representative Bureaucracy and Gender: A Gap in the Research

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel Hummel
August 3, 2018

The concept of representative bureaucracy has been around since the 1940s when Donald Kingsley published his book, Representative Bureaucracy: An Interpretation of the British Civil Service. Concerns around the representativeness of this unelected body stem from the power it has when implementing public policy. Efforts to make it reflect the clients it serves are a part of democratizing the institution.

Generally, bureaucratic representation is considered both passive and active. Passive representation is when the bureaucracy is composed of demographically similar members vis-à-vis the people in the community. Active representation occurs when those bureaucrats actually pursue the interests of those specific populations. The presence of one does not necessarily indicate the presence of the other. This is because organizational socialization can supersede some of the values and attitudes developed in particular social environments and through the unique experiences of certain groups. This is especially the case for more hierarchically structured organizations like many public bureaucracies. This lends credence to critics of representative bureaucracy who note that social backgrounds do not always lead to favorable attitudes to the groups supposedly represented by those bureaucrats.

There has been much research on this topic; however, research on gender has been limited in the literature. Despite this paucity, there appears to be an increasing interest in this topic. For example, three articles have been published recently on representative bureaucracy and gender. Interestingly, this research spans three different countries. One article published this year in the International Review of Administrative Sciences titled “Representative bureaucracy: Does female police leadership affect gender-based violence arrests?” explores the passive representation of women in senior positions in police departments throughout England and Wales. This passive representation was considered in relation to active representation via policy outcomes specifically increased arrest rates for gender-based violence. Given the critiques of representative bureaucracy this is a common line of inquiry. The authors found that the passive representation of women in those senior positions did not translate into more active representation i.e. increased arrest rates for gender-based violence.

Another article this year based in South Korea took a different line of inquiry in the journal Public Personnel Management titled, “Does increasing gender representativeness and diversity improve organizational integrity?” These authors were interested in whether an increase in female bureaucrats increases organizational integrity measured by some index. They assumed based on the literature that by increasing the representativeness of the bureaucracy the overall performance of the organization would improve through individual ethical behavior. They believed this would not only improve the integrity of the organization but would specifically increase the incidence of the internal reporting of gender-related crimes by co-workers. They found that an increase in female employees improved organizational integrity as well as increased the internal reporting of sexual harassment and violence.

Finally, an article published this year in the journal Public Administration Review also covered this topic titled, “The individual-level effect of gender matching in representative bureaucracy.” This article much like the article on the police departments was interested in gender representativeness but with a different type of public organization, a job counseling program in Denmark. Unlike the police example, the author found that job seekers were more likely to enroll in an educational program in the first six months when the bureaucrat that they consulted with was of the same gender. Further, the author found that a bureaucrat of the same gender spent more time with the job seeker than when they were of opposite genders. The take away would be that this organization should increase the representativeness of its program considering gender to ensure positive outcomes.

Based on the findings in these articles one might conclude that in certain organizations representative bureaucracy benefits clients such as the job counseling program in Denmark, but in other environments like the police departments in the U.K. there may not be any effect. The job counseling program was one-on-one with the clients and had a different orientation than the police departments. The bureaucrats in both of these organizations are prototypical street-level bureaucrats. This level of interaction is considered the most optimal for maximizing the benefits of representative bureaucracy for clients. Despite this, there were two different outcomes. It’s possible the police departments were more hierarchical with stronger socialization tendencies than the job counseling program which may be the determining factor for the different outcomes. An additional complicating factor for comparison is that the studies were in two different countries with different cultures.

The study in South Korea shows that besides the most commonly discussed benefits between the bureaucrat and the client from representative bureaucracy, there are also internal benefits to the organization. The assumption based on the results of the study would be that an increase in the number of women employed in the bureaucracy would increase organizational integrity and increase the likelihood that internal problems of sexual harassment and violence would be decreased over time. These effects merit further investigation in different contexts.

This is one of the problems. The lack of research on the topic of gender and representative bureaucracy limits the amount of consensus on this topic and thereby the organizational impetus to ensure that positions filled in the bureaucracy are representative of the community served by it. Certainly, public administration scholars can contribute more to understanding representative bureaucracy by broadening the perspective to include gender more frequently than it has in the past.


Author: Dr. Hummel is an assistant professor in the Public Administration Program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Flint. He teaches classes on budgeting and finance, inter-governmental relations and public administration. His research interests are urban resiliency / sustainability and right-sizing cities. His office # is 810-237-6560. His email is [email protected].

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