Home Blog Does Context Matter? New MPA Faculty Research on Representative Bureaucracy

Does Context Matter? New MPA Faculty Research on Representative Bureaucracy

March 02, 2022
African-American female reviewing research data on her computer

Daniel Hawes, MPA Coordinator and Associate Professor in Kent State University’s Department of Political Science, recently published a study titled “Representative Bureaucracy, Institutional Support, and Clientele Need: The Case of Undocumented Students” in the Administration and Society journal. Read a synopsis of his research and background on the subject here.1

As part of Hawes’ ongoing research on public policy outcomes for disadvantaged groups, the study illustrates Kent State University’s institutional support for research alongside its commitment to supporting student education.

In this study, he examined representative bureaucracy in the context of educational outcomes for undocumented Latino immigrant students in Texas public schools. In 1982, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of undocumented students to attend public schools in Plyler vs. Doe, a case that began in Texas.2

Hawes chose to study undocumented students because they are “statistically a minority in nearly any setting in the United States,” and they lack political representation, making bureaucratic representation practically “their only recourse for representation in public institutions.” He also had a larger reason for his choice of study subjects, eloquently described in the research report:

I selected this case because of its normative importance. The fate of immigrants has always been linked to the fate of the nation. Immigration policy is inevitably linked to economic and labor policy (and policy outcomes); thus, a better understanding of this subset of the population is imperative.

How large is the population of undocumented K-12 school students? The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute publishes statistics on various topics, including undocumented student's statistics.

The organization recently estimated that 5.2 million children under 17 live with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent. An estimated two-thirds of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. hail from Mexico or Central America.3

The following discussion of representative bureaucracy theory provides background for Dr. Hawes’ research.

What Is Representative Bureaucracy?

J. Donald Kingsley introduced the concept of “representative bureaucracy” in the 1940s, publishing the then-radical idea that the civil service would function better if those who worked in the bureaucracy were more like those served by it.

Most British civil servants were members of the upper classes, and Kingsley’s observations about bureaucratic red tape gave birth to the theory. Representative bureaucracy theory holds that the demographic characteristics of public servants influence the way they do their jobs and how well they serve the interests of different bureaucratic constituencies. Today, the benefits of representative bureaucracy in public administration are widely recognized. Any local, state or federal government agency is likely to provide an example of representative bureaucracy.

Why Is Representative Bureaucracy Good?

Because the bureaucrats share similar demographic characteristics with their constituents, representative bureaucracy improves policy outcomes. Depending on the clientele served, demographics can include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, citizenship and veteran status.

Over the last 80 years, Kingsley’s theory has influenced thinking in law enforcement, public services, education and public administration. Researchers in all these areas have contributed to a more robust theoretical framework for the effects of representation and the factors that influence them. A central refinement of the theory is that there are two types of representative bureaucracy.

What Are the Two Types of Representative Bureaucracy?

Representative bureaucracy can be passive or active. Passive representation means that the bureaucratic population shares key components of the client population’s demographic profile.

Some benefits of passive representative bureaucracy include:

  • Increased organizational awareness of the clients’ needs
  • More culturally relevant and appropriate service delivery tactics
  • Increased symbolic representation

Symbolic representation refers to the enhanced perceptions of the bureaucracy, improving organizational legitimacy and clientele participation.

Previous studies of representative bureaucracy in public administration have shown that more loans to minority homebuyers followed increases in minority staffing in a housing loan program, and more members of under-represented groups on the EEOC staff led to the filing of more EEOC violation charges.3

The EEOC and loan program results illustrate active representative bureaucracy. The transition from passive to active representation seems like a natural progression, but it doesn’t always happen, and researchers have been exploring what factors trigger active representation.

Dr. Hawes’ study of undocumented Latino K-12 students in Texas, published in December 2021, extends the empirical understanding of the factors that influence the benefits of passive representation. The study considered how critical institutional support and client needs are to the effect of passive representation and the differences in impact for different types of institutional support.

“Representative Bureaucracy, Institutional Support, and Clientele Need: The Case of Undocumented Students”

For the study, Hawes collected data from the Texas Education Agency and a purpose-built database of information about Texas Latino public school students who were identified as undocumented.

He compared results on standardized math and English language arts tests for 400,000 students with information on school funding, teacher demographics, and other school district characteristics.

The three study hypotheses include a baseline hypothesis on which the other two build. The first says that all else being equal, more passive representation will lead to improved performance for undocumented Latino students.

The second hypothesis says greater levels of institutional support in education systems will enhance the effects of passive representation.

Institutional support includes financial resources such as revenue per pupil, instructional expenditures, and bilingual /ESL expenditures. Staffing supports, including teacher-student ratio and percentages of bilingual/ESL teachers and support staff, are also included here.

Hypothesis three says, “The effects of passive representation will be greater in cases and contexts that present the greatest needs.”1

The study used several variables to measure institutional support and clientele need, along with 17 controls on student identification. Hawes explained that he uses a "random-effects, cross-sectional time-series model with fixed effects for each year and student grade level.”1

Hawes’ research strongly supported hypotheses one and three. Hypothesis two was also supported, and the research revealed an interesting nuance. Increased financial supports and teacher-student ratios increase the effect of passive representation on student scores.

Paradoxically, the percent of bilingual/ESL teachers and resources decreases the effects of representation, although they positively affect Latino undocumented student achievement.

Hypothesis three, which suggests that the teachers would concentrate on students with the greatest need, explains the decreased effect of representation in situations with increased bilingual/ESL support. Teachers focus elsewhere because the undocumented students’ instructional support needs are met through the bilingual/ESL programs.

After analysis, Hawes concludes that context does indeed matter. “When financial and staff resources are abundant, the effect of representation is more pronounced. When slack resources are absent, however, representation effects are diminished.”1

What Happens After High School

Although they face significant barriers to continuing their education, many undocumented high school students in the United States go on to college. A 2021 paper in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology reports that two percent of all postsecondary students are undocumented. That equates to 450,000 undocumented students in higher education.5

As Dr. Hawes wrote, “The fate of immigrants has always been linked to the fate of the nation.” With research like the report synopsized here, Hawes and his fellow public administration researchers are helping create better policy outcomes for immigrants and people from all walks of life.

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