AJPS Early View: Politics and Administration

In the following blog post, Michael M. Ting describes his forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “Politics and Administration”:

In all modern governments, bureaucrats confront difficult allocation decisions.  Police and prosecutors must decide which cases to pursue, grant administrators must choose which programs to fund, and licensing boards must decide which applications to approve.  Decisions such as these share two common features.  First, there is asymmetric information: the “client” or potential recipient is better informed than the bureaucrat about his or her eligibility. Second, there is political control: bureaucrats receive their adjudication resources from institutions such as Congress, and these institutions may have different views than the bureaucrats about the proper distribution of government services.  The 2013 Congressional investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s screening of `Tea Party’ groups for tax exempt status illustrates both features.  By law, the IRS must judge whether applicant organizations satisfy the criteria of “social welfare organizations.”  Doing so in a thorough manner requires considerable investigative resources, but the IRS operated in a funding environment that saw Congress cut its enforcement budget every year since 2011.

Politics and Administration” shows theoretically how commonly recognized bureaucratic problems result naturally from these settings.  Programs face backlogs, agencies screen applicants with insufficient flexibility, resource constraints reduce the time spent considering each case, politicization channels benefits toward favored clients, and agencies make mistakes of commission and omission.  The predicted patterns of administrative behavior depend on the objectives of the politician and bureaucrat.  When the politician favors clients who are only marginally qualified for the government-provided good or service, she “starves” the agency, driving down per capita spending and raising error rates.  When the politician favors highly qualified clients, the agency receives more funds, raising both per capita spending and reducing error rates.  In this case the bureaucrat’s policy priorities matter.  When the bureaucrat is more interested in approving qualified clients than denying unqualified ones, she will use flexible screening techniques that also allow the politician to target favored clients.  By contrast, a bureaucrat who is more interested in denying unqualified clients will use “one size fits all” screening, which reduces error rates further at the cost of increasing backlogs.

About the Author:  Michael M. Ting is Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His article “Politics and Administration” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science and is currently available for Early View.


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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.