Bureaucratic Polarization

About 15 years ago, an engineer working for the government of the Brazilian state of Ceará proposed to convert an old railway passing through the middle of this state’s capital into a tram. The project was fairly simple and had the potential to improve the city’s transit. This was to be ready by 2014; in fact, it is still under construction. I went to Ceará in the summer of 2018 to study the reasons behind the delay. After interviewing politicians, high-level bureaucrats, front-line workers, activists, and scholars, I learned that the main problem was the inability of different agencies to work together—a problem often tackled in the literature through an institutional perspective (e.g., Bardach, 1998), yet not as much focused on individual actors. In my book project, I develop a novel individual-level theory of why agencies fail to cooperate in implementing policies and test my argument using a multi-method cross-national approach with original data.

Tramway in 2018. Source: Adriano Vizoni/Folhapress.

My main proposition is that bureaucrats’ interactions with public employees of other agencies create stereotypes that hinder policy implementation. In Ceará, for instance, civil servants working at the Department of Infrastructure thought that those at the Prosecutor’s Office (an oversight agency) had no technical skills and were interested only in their own popularity. The prosecutors, on the other hand, believed that the engineers dealing with infrastructure never left their offices, did not know any poor people, and were serving the interests of the local economic elite. With such stark negative attitudes, it is no surprise that on multiple occasions they failed to reach a consensus—an essential feature, since the project required their cooperation.

I have tested the generalizability of this proposition through surveys with bureaucrats from the US and the UK. Adapting a methodology common in social psychology (Bogardus, 1947) and political science (Iyengar et al., 2012), I asked respondents how much they like people in their own agencies and in different public departments. The absolute difference between these two measurements, which I call bureaucratic polarization (BP), was especially large when there was a relationship of oversight. Then, I used various econometric techniques to show that greater BP is correlated with greater expectations that cooperation will fail. Open-ended responses provided at the end of the questionnaires confirm this result. I conclude that BP is at the heart of cooperation and state capacity.

In the summer of 2019, I returned to Brazil to study another policy, that is, the depollution of a major river in the city of São Paulo. This project was initiated in 1992, but it is far from finished. Once again, I found that inter-agency bureaucratic polarization led to coordination problems. In addition to that, after interviewing former governors, high-level bureaucrats, and various other actors, I identified another problem, that of intra-agency bureaucratic polarization. That is, within a public department, bureaucrats would group themselves based on their personal characteristics and fight against those who did not belong to their group. One example of this conflict is the continuous struggle between career bureaucrats and political appointees.

Tietê River in 2016. Source: Portal Ambiente Legal.

After confirming the existence of these conflicts with a survey conducted with British bureaucrats, I followed up with additional tests to identify the negative consequences of administrative-political fights. First, I compiled 10 years of survey data that include almost 4 million responses from federal bureaucrats in the US. My econometric tests show that when civil servants perceive partisan favoritism in their agencies, their likelihood of either quitting or moving to a different agency increased considerably, on some occasions as much as three times compared to the absence of this perception. In addition, I found very similar results in a survey conducted with almost 10,000 state-level Brazilian bureaucrats. In sum, bureaucratic polarization may lead civil servants to quit their jobs.

Of course, not everyone will quit. Most, in fact, will stay. I ran survey experiments with bureaucrats from Brazil, the UK, and the US to examine the implications of polarization. For example, I apply my study of BP to episodes of democratic backsliding (Peters and Pierre, 2019). Will bureaucrats accept to implement policies with the potential of undermining democracy? Here they face the dilemma of either complying with their work obligations or going against the interests of elected officials and their loyalists (Brehm and Gates, 1999). My results show that civil servants are ready to fight for democracy against elected officials, especially if they highly identify with their workplace. This is a positive outcome of BP.

My book project consists of an in-depth investigation of the roots and consequences of intergroup conflicts in the bureaucracy. My study shows that it is possible to measure animosity in the public service and, under circumstances, predict the outcome of political processes. I do so by adapting and extending the tools of social psychology to public administration. If you are curious about this project, please contact me. I will be happy to share some of the chapters and discuss their findings.