Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Government Responsiveness: A Democratic Value with Negative Externalities?

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Government Responsiveness: A Democratic Value with Negative Externalities?

Article excerpt


Responsiveness is integral to representative democracy. To ensure citizen influence outside the electoral process, representative governments maintain channels for citizen input in between elections (Pitkin 1967). The emergence of participatory arenas that welcome and encourage citi- zen involvement in policy decision making exemplifies institutional innovations that aim to bridge the gap between representatives and the represented (e.g., Fung 2006; Fung and Wright 2003). To appear effectual and legitimate, such participatory arrangements must offer the opportunity for real influence, what Carole Pateman (1970, 70-71) aptly terms "meaningful participation." From this point of view, responsiveness to citizen input on the part of politicians and public officials, especially in conjunction with participatory processes, strengthens representation and the legitimacy of the democratic system.

While both normatively compelling and essential to a Patemanian view of democratic legitimacy, however, citi- zen involvement and government responsiveness bring a host of complex issues to the fore, such as delimitation of the demos for a given issue, how to weigh public opinion against strategic planning or expert assessments, and how to aggregate irreconcilable preferences. Moreover, as explored in this article, government responsiveness is potentially at odds with political equality, a principle equally integral to democratic government.

Concerns about unequal participation and influence have long been a central theme in the scholarship on citi- zens' involvement in civic and political life. Empirical research indicates that socioeconomic resources-money, education, connections, status, and time-systematically correlate with higher rates of voter participation as well as with other forms of civic involvement (e.g., Papadopoulos and Wann 2007; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995). More recently, researchers have added to these debates by exploring whether, in the context of the United States, differences in civic voluntarism have implications for representatives' policy positions (Bartels 2008; Gilens 2012; Schlozman, Verba, and Brady 2012). Evidence suggests that policy positions of elected repre- sentatives, in fact, concur more strongly with the views of the higher income echelons than with individuals from the lowest income bracket or even the middle class; the rich, in sum, enjoy greater substantive representation than others (Page, Bartels, and Seawright 2013).

This article takes the exploration of the potential ten- sion between government responsiveness and equality of political influence one step further. While existing research focuses on the ascriptive characteristics of citi- zens who are involved in various civic activities (e.g., Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995), or the degree to which economic standing affects substantive representa- tion (Page, Bartels, and Seawright 2013), we examine whether citizens' political resources shape policy out- comes in a context conducive for citizen participation. In other words, do political resources matter not only for one's own political involvement or for the congruence between one's own views and those of one's representa- tives but also for societal outcomes?1

More precisely, the empirical analyses explore this tension in the context of land use planning in Sweden, a country with, on the one hand, a strong tradition of egali- tarianism and, on the other, extensive opportunities for citizen participation in city planning. The study examines the distribution of facilities such as homeless shelters, housing for substance abusers, criminal justice facilities, and psychiatric wards in two urban centers in Sweden. Such facilities are necessary components of societal infrastructure, but they also have negative externalities for the immediate vicinity and tend to generate local opposition (Schweitzer and Stephenson 2007, 327). Because residents comparatively stronger in political resources may be more likely to voice concerns, govern- ment responsiveness may result in the uneven distribu- tion of such facilities. …

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