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A Representative Democracy Requires a Representative Bureaucracy

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

By Rachel Robinson
February 12, 2018

As the United States pushes for greater demographic diversity of its political representatives, it must also recognize the value of having diverse agencies. WorldAtlas.com defines representative democracy as “a system of government whereby eligible members of the public are empowered to elect representatives amongst themselves to enact laws and oversee and protect their interests in government.” Through public elections and the delegation of one vote per eligible citizen, this system of government seeks to ensure that all citizens contribute equally to the election of those who represent them. Additionally, since eligibility to run for political office is no longer dependent upon land ownership, race, gender, religion or sexuality, the United States is enjoying an encouraging increase in the demographic diversity of its elected representatives. This has led to more progressive, compassionate and inclusive policies. Just as it is important to have legislatures made up of individuals who can relate to and advocate for the interests of their constituents, bureaucracies, as agents of the legislature, must also do the same.

The theory of representative bureaucracy was developed in response to accountability and legitimacy concerns inherent in our increasingly administrative state. Government agencies are political orphans as, although they are born out of the policies promulgated by elected officials, they cannot seem to find their legitimate home neatly in the legislative, judicial or executive branch. Rather, they are empowered to employ characteristics of all three. However, because their leadership and staff are unelected, bureaucracies consistently contend with issues of legitimacy and public accountability. As explained by Brandy A. Kennedy, et al. in the book Race and Representative Bureaucracy in American Policing, the theory of representative bureaucracy seeks to quell these concerns by positing t“a bureaucracy which more accurately matches the demographic makeup of its constituents will provide higher quality, more democratic, and more responsive outcomes for members of the community.”

Political theorists delineate two types of representative bureaucracy: passive and active. Passive representation describes a bureaucracy that demographically mirrors its constituents. Passive representation translates into active representation when bureaucrats produce policy outcomes that positively affect the groups they passively represent. These outcomes are symbolic as well as concrete.

Symbolically, increased diversity in bureaucracies reflects equal access to power thereby increasing public legitimacy. Kennedy proposes that this symbolism also increases constituent participation and positive interactions with bureaucrats which then leads to “coproduction” of positive outcomes. Within an agency, greater diversity can lead to prior restraint of discriminatory behavior and broaden the minds of staff and decisionmakers.

Just as politicians are the face of legislative power, bureaucrats are the face of administrative power, carrying out policies with broad discretion. The important difference is that a legislator can be held accountable by members of the electorate, whether she looks like them or not. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, are appointed and are given almost unchecked discretion in the execution of policy, especially those bureaucrats who work closely with the public.

Jason D. Rivera explains the importance of passive representativeness in Representative Bureaucracy, Street-Level Bureaucrats and Bureaucratic Discretion. He describes street-level bureaucrats as “public service workers who interact directly with citizens in the course of their jobs, and who have substantial discretion in the execution of their work.” They are, for example, teachers, police officers, prosecutors, welfare workers, health and safety inspectors, and disaster aid providers.

Unlike elected politicians, he explains, street-level bureaucrats see their constituents as individuals: “as clients, students, criminals, suspects, victims, [etc.].” Due to this intimate exposure, interactions may be laden with personal bias and emotionality that can supersede the facts of the case and cause these crucial decisionmakers to follow their value judgments rather than policy protocols when administering public services. Thus, Rivera indicates, “[they] may have a tendency to favor clients who resemble themselves and discriminate against those from different racial, social class, and/or cultural backgrounds.” Combine these unconscious instincts with such broad discretion and one can viably argue that a demographically representative bureaucracy is just as important as a politically representative legislature.

Kennedy cites many studies that brightly illuminate the point. In one study, the increase in minority teachers and administrators led to positive educational outcomes for minority students. In another, increased minority representation in federal rural housing loan programs led to an increase in loans awarded to minorities. And, finally, a greater number of minority officers at the EEOC led to more charges filed on behalf of minorities. While our politically representative democracy can create the policy protocols that make this progress possible, a demographically representative bureaucracy at the street level provides the impetus to execute these protocols to their full, inclusive potential.

Author: Rachel W. Robinson, Esq. is a prosecutor in St. Louis, Missouri and a Faculty Member of the Blockchain Research Institute. For a lively discussion on any topic, contact her at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rachel-w-robinson-esq-a69922a



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