A Dynamic Measure of Bureaucratic Reputation: New Data for New Theory

2022, American Journal of Political Science

Bureaucratic reputation is one of the most important concepts used to understand the behaviour of administrative agencies and their interactions with multiple audiences. Despite a rich theoretical literature discussing reputation, we do not have a comparable measure across agencies, between countries, and over time. I present a new strategy to measure bureaucratic reputation from legislative speeches with word-embedding techniques. I introduce an original dataset on the reputation of 465 bureaucratic bodies over a period of forty years, and across two countries, the US and the UK. I perform several validation tests and present an application of this method to investigate whether partisanship and agency politicisation matter for reputation. I find that agencies enjoy a better reputation among the members of the party in government, with partisan differences less pronounced for independent bodies. I finally discuss how this measurement strategy can contribute to classical and new questions about political-administrative interactions.

Under Review

A Costly Commitment: Populism, Government Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy

with Massimo Morelli and Matia Vannoni
Revised & Resubmitted, American Journal of Political Science
Covered by

We study the consequences of populism for economic performance and the quality of bureaucracy. When voters lose trust in representative democracy, populists strategically supply unconditional policy commitments that are easier to monitor for voters. When in power, populists try to implement their policy commitments regardless of financial constraints and expert assessment of the feasibility of their policies, worsening government economic performance and dismantling resistance from expert bureaucrats. With novel data on more than 8,000 Italian municipalities covering more than 20 years, we estimate the effect of electing a populist mayor with a close-election regression discontinuity design. We find that the election of a populist mayor leads to more debts, a larger share of procurement contracts with cost overruns, higher turnover among top bureaucrats – driven by forced rather than voluntary departures – and a sharp decrease in the percentage of graduate bureaucrats.

A Congested Budget: The Fiscal Commons in Italian Municipalities

with Massimo Morelli

The literature on fiscal commons is unanimous on theory though discordant on findings. Theory predicts more politicians lead to inefficiently large programmes and hence overspending but findings are mixed. With novel data on Italian municipalities, we estimate the effect of the size of local councils and executive committees on a battery of planned and actual budget outcomes. We leverage a reform that introduced a new temporary population threshold where the size of local councils and executive committees changed discontinuously and estimate treatment effects with a difference-in-discontinuities design. We establish three novel results: i) more politicians lead to both more spending and more revenues, leaving deficit unchanged; ii) the effects disappear when looking at what politicians actually spend and collect; and iii) the difference between actual and planned budget is smaller in municipalities with a larger share of graduate politicians and bureaucrats, suggesting capacity deficits prevent politicians from implementing the planned budget.

Working Papers

‘Listen to me’: Ideological Agreement and Bureaucratic Influence in the Legislative Arena

The political control of the bureaucracy remains a classical topic in political science. However, little is known about its reverse: bureaucracies influencing politicians. I conceptualise bureaucratic influence as the extent to which legislators use the information produced by agencies in the legislative process. I introduce a new measurement strategy to estimate legislators’ use of bureaucratic information which employs syntactic analysis and dependency parsing and apply it to a corpus of 6.8 million speeches given by US congresspersons in floor and committee debates. Building on cheap talk models of strategic communication, I argue that legislators make greater use of bureaucratic information when ideologically closer to agencies and that agency independence – operating as a credibility-enhancing mechanism – mitigates the effect of ideological distance. I find support for bureaucratic influence being ideology-driven, while there is little evidence that agencies’ statutory independence can mitigate the effect of ideology.

Is Partisanship Bad for Bureaucratic Accountability?

Bureaucratic accountability rests on legislators’ ability to objectively evaluate the performance of bureaucracies. Yet partisanship can trigger selective accountability, whereby government legislators selectively evaluate and acquire information about bureaucracy in order to protect the image of their party. I test this argument with two studies. First, I analyse the sentiment of partisan statements about 336 agencies over 40 years in the US and the UK, estimating word-embedding models from millions of legislative speeches. I find that statements are on average 3 percentage points more positive when the legislator’s party is in power. A difference-in-differences design further shows that co-partisan legislators react more positively to scandals affecting bureaucracies. Second, I find that government legislators are less likely to acquire information from bureaucracies in congressional hearings and make less frequent use of quantitative evidence in their speeches about bureaucracies. Therefore partisanship may hinder bureaucratic accountability.