Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Roles Assumed by Public Administrators: The Link between Administrative Discretion and Representation

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Roles Assumed by Public Administrators: The Link between Administrative Discretion and Representation

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

One would be hard pressed to locate a concept that is more central to the evolution of public administration theory and practice than administrative discretion. From discussions on the democratic nature of the administrative constructs to the ones on the latest managerial technique, administrative discretion always seems to creep into the conversation. In fact, a number of the classical debates in public administration come down to questions of proper handling of administrative discretion. The Finer (1940) - Friedrich (1941) debate is a case in point. Finer (1941) asserted that administrative decision-making can be and should be clearly organized within the frame of well-designed legislative and organizational mandates. Accountability, according to Finer (1941), is a function of strong external structures. Friedrich (1940), in contrast, asserted that public administrators are more than capable of self-control and the boundaries imposed by social norms and professional values would be able to channel administrative discretion within appropriate democratic expectations. Taken together, most of the current public administration scholars tend to agree with Friedrich (1940) and have resigned to the idea that organizational constraints have significant limits in terms of imposing exacting controls on administrative behaviors. Discretionary power has been and remains a prevailing reality for many public servants and their agencies and continues to be an essential ingredient in conditioning administrative responsiveness and accountability.1 As Wilson (1966) has once argued, for administrators "large powers and unhampered discretion" seem to be "the indispensable conditions of responsibility" (p. 373).

Yet, while the centrality of administrative discretion for public administration theory and practice is never questioned, it is rarely explicitly analyzed and receives only a limited amount empirical attention. In particular, very little is known about the effects that administrative discretion has on the roles assumed by public servants. This study was designed with the specific purpose of examining the relationship between perceived access to administrative discretion and the assumption of administrative roles. The research explores whether a public administrator who believes that he or she enjoys higher levels of administrative discretion is more likely to assume the representation role of steward of public interest. This study directly builds on the work of Selden, Brewer and Brudney (1999) and Sowa & Selden (2003). It extends their empirical conceptualizations by testing previously unexamined relationships.

From the start it should be noted that many of the studies carried under the umbrella of the theory of representative bureaucracy have a number of common limitations. First, the majority of the studies are, for obvious and necessary methodological and conceptual reasons, bounded to the organizational level (Bradbury & Kellough, 2011). Second, as a rule, the studies driven by the theory of representative bureaucracy often address policy specific outcomes; hence, their generalizability is seriously challenged by their careful selection of their eventual sampling frame. Kennedy (2013) noted that an overreliance on convenient sources of data, such as education data, is a particular weakness of research examining representation. While insightful, the findings developed in these convenient settings are limited in their generalizability and can rarely be transferred to other policy domains. Furthermore, few scholars venture into exploring representation outside of the demographic-behavior link (Kennedy, 2013). Within this context, studies that address representation on the part of administrators at the individual level and which would focus on administrative discretion, but without imposing policy specific constraints, become rather warranted. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this study, administrative discretion is regularly assumed, but rarely empirically tested. …

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