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.

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

with Massimo Morelli and Matia Vannoni
2023, 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 smaller repayments of 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.

Under Review

Polity Size and the Congested Budget: Evidence from Italian Municipalities

with Massimo Morelli
Resubmitted, Journal of Politics

Once in office, politicians propose policies aimed at winning the support of their constituencies. While this form of political activism increases with polity size – i.e., the number of politicians in government – it can also clash with capacity constraints, leading to a congestion effect whereby politicians’ plans are not enacted in practice. With novel data on Italian municipalities, we estimate the causal effect of polity size on a battery of planned and actual budget outcomes. We leverage a reform that introduced a new temporary population threshold where polity size changed discontinuously and estimate local treatment effects with a difference-in-discontinuities design. We document a congestion effect. Municipalities with larger polities have a larger planned budget which does not translate into a larger actual budget. The congestion effect decreases when bureaucratic capacity is high, proving how administrative capacity can be a binding constraint for politicians’ incentives and behavior.

The Shift to Commitment Politics and Populism: Theory and Evidence

with Massimo Morelli, Antonio Nicolò and Paolo Roberti

The decline in voters’ trust in government and the rise of populism are two concerning features of contemporary politics. In this paper, we present a model of commitment politics that elucidates the interplay between distrust and populism. Candidates supply policy commitments to mitigate voters’ distrust in government, shrinking politicians’ levels of discretion typical of representative democracies. Alongside commitments, candidates rationally choose the main strategies associated with populism, namely anti-elite and pro-people rhetoric. We match novel data on voters’ distrust towards the U.S. federal government with the Twitter activity of more than 2,000 candidates over five congressional elections and show that distrust is strongly associated with candidates’ supply of commitments and populist rhetoric, which are also effective strategies at mobilizing distrustful voters. We also show theoretically that the shift to commitment politics determines greater aversion to checks and balances, and hence even illiberal populism can emerge.

Bureaucratic Information in Congress

Due to their expertise, bureaucratic agencies produce a wealth of information that can be used by politicians when making policies. However, little is known about the extent to which members of Congress rely on bureaucratic information and what factors they consider when they do so. In this paper, I introduce a novel measure of politicians’ reliance on bureaucratic information which uses natural language processing to extract and analyze bureaucratic information used by members of Congress in 8.3 million floor and committee speeches given over the past 40 years. I find that legislators make greater use of information coming from ideologically similar bureaucracies. However, statutory features insulating agencies from political control sharply reduce the effect of ideological distance. These findings have implications for theories of separation of powers and for the use of evidence in policy-making. Institutional features granting independence to bureaucracy can depoliticize the role of bureaucratic information in policy-making.

Working Papers

Is Partisanship Bad for the Congressional Oversight of the Bureaucracy?

Congressional oversight of the bureaucracy rests on the ability of members of Congress to objectively evaluate agency performance. However, when MCs share the same political party as the President, they may take a more lenient approach toward bureaucracies, for exposing negative information about the Executive branch can tarnish their party’s image. With two studies on MCs’ information acquisition and position-taking regarding bureaucracies, I show that partisanship triggers selective oversight. I analyse the transcripts of congressional hearings and show that MCs co-partisan with the President are less inquisitive towards bureaucratic witnesses, asking fewer questions. I then use a transformer-based language model and classify the sentiment of the universe of statements given by MCs about bureaucracy in Congress and show that the probability of giving a negative statement about bureaucracy drops for President co-partisans. A difference-in-differences analysis reveals that co-partisan MCs respond more favorably to scandals affecting bureaucracies. These findings are replicated in three other countries with different political systems and administrative traditions, suggesting that partisanship plays a significant role in oversight beyond the United States.

Digging Up Trenches: Populism, Selective Mobility, and the Political Polarization of Italian Municipalities

with Frédéric Docquier, Stefano Iandolo, Massimo Morelli, and Riccardo Turati

We study the effect of local exposure to populism on net population movements by citizenship status, gender, age and education level in the context of Italian municipalities. We present two research designs to estimate the causal effect of populist attitudes and politics. Initially, we use a combination of collective memory and trigger variables as an instrument for the variation in populist vote shares across national elections. Subsequently, we apply a regression discontinuity design to estimate the effect of electing a populist mayor on population movements. We establish three converging findings. First, the exposure to both populist attitudes and policies, as manifested by the vote share of populist parties in national election or the closeelection of a new populist mayor, reduces the attractiveness of municipalities, leading to larger population outflows. Second, the effect is particularly pronounced among young, female, and highly educated natives, who tend to relocate across Italian municipalities rather than internationally. Third, we do not find any effect on the foreign population. Our results highlight a foot-voting mechanism that may contribute to a political polarization in Italian municipalities.

Work in Progress

A Complex Compromise: Ideology and Regulatory Complexity in the US Federal Bureaucracy

with Massimo Morelli and Matia Vannoni

In modern government, policy change often occurs through the rule-making activity of bureaucratic bodies, and the complexity of a rule – via exceptions and contingent statements – depends on how much bureaucrats and their political overseers have similar policy preferences. With data on campaign contributions made by US bureaucrats responsible for individual rules, we create a bureaucrat-specific measure of ideological distance from the President, which we combine with novel measures of rule-complexity that we derive applying natural language processing techniques to 57,113 rules issued between 2000 and 2023. Using presidential transitions as ``shocks” to the bureaucrat-President ideological distance, we find that the share of sentences with contingent statements in rules written by misaligned bureaucrats increases by 2 percentage points. The increased complexity is stronger under periods of divided government and when the agency of the bureaucrat is more politicized, suggesting that multiple overseers exerting tighter control over bureaucrats increase the complexity of the final compromise.