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Interview with Professor Ken Meier: 'Protests, a representative government and the role of leadership'

Professor Ken Meier is one of the most prominent researchers of the world in the field of Public Administration. Meier holds appointments as a professor of Public Administration at Cardiff School of Business (Wales), a professor of bureaucracy and democracy at Leiden University (The Netherlands), research fellow at the Danish Centre for Social Science Research (Copenhagen, Denmark) and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at American University.

Ken Meier - Professor Bureaucracy and Democracy

“Long term policy change is needed to shift away from government policies that currently contribute to greater inequality."

His work is characterized by his research on managerial networking, performance and representative bureaucracy. In his role as professor, Ken has contributed to the emancipation of women and cultural minorities and their representation in the scientific world.

In response to the death of George Floyd and the huge protests all over the world, the Leiden Leadership Centre has asked Professor Meier to give his view on the recent events. In the interview Professor Meier discusses the role of the U.S. government and political leaders in the emergence of the protests, what knowledge on representative bureaucracy can teach us on this theme, and what academia can do to promote diversity and inclusion.

1. Our first question concerns the situation in the US in particular. In response to the death of George Floyd, we have witnessed mass protests against racism and against racial violence by the police across the country.

What does PA scholarship on representative bureaucracy and street level bureaucracy teach us about discrimination and racism in/by the US police force? What are the most important insights that should be shared in order to better understand what is happening? To what extent can these insights be generalized to other parts of government?

''The public administration and policy literature in the US is limited by the lack of existing data.  There are no official requirements to report data on individuals killed by the police or charges of racism or discrimination.  Steven G. Koven (2019) The Case Against Bureaucratic Discretion, however, reports far too many of cases of abuse using media reports and court records for anyone to dispute there is a problem.  Extensive empirical work has been done on the topic of traffic stops (Epp et al. Pulled Over, among others) that consistently shows that minority drivers are more likely to be targeted than white drivers.  The discussion in this literature as well as in the broader police abuse literature debates whether the problems result from a few “bad apples” on police forces or systematic racism.  While both are likely explanations in individual cases, there is substantial evidence of systematic racism whereby procedures that appear to be neutral can disproportionately disadvantage poor and minority individuals (the use of stop and frisk techniques, minor infractions policing, excessive contact when no violation of the law is evident).''

''The processes in policing are generalizable to other US policy areas.  Institutionalized racism is clearly evident in the welfare system as demonstrated by the work of Soss, Schram and Fording.  Excellent historical policy work (Lieberman, Katznelson) demonstrates that programs such as unemployment insurance, social security, veterans’ benefits and others were specifically designed limit benefits to minorities.  Although there are cases where institutionalized discrimination has been countered to a degree (e.g., education), or original racist restrictions have been changed (social security), the problems occur to varying degrees in most if not all policy areas.''

 2.     What, in your view, is the role of government in the emergence of the mass protests following the death of George Floyd?

''The US is a federal system with both state level and local level autonomy which complicates discussing the role of the government in general.  It is clear from recent events that the federal government has not only failed in this area but has made the problems worse with both presidential rhetoric and staged publicity events such as Trumps photo op holding a Bible in from of a church after protesters were forcibly removed from the area.  Local governments who have primary responsibility for policing in the US have shown a more constructive engagement, seeking to bring citizens into dialogues about police reform and other policy decisions.  Even such efforts, however, can quickly be undercut by events as recently happened with another police shooting in Atlanta, a city that appeared to have successfully responded to the protests.  Given the variance in local governments and the massive variation in local public opinion, it is impossible to generalize about local governments.  Some appear to have done well and others have failed miserably.''

''If I might refer to my first lecture at Leiden University, it is clear that there are limits to symbolic representation.  While minority communities favor more minority police, the real concern is the disparities in treatment not the color of the police officers.  I am currently working with Andrea Headley and James Wright on a study of two of the most diverse police departments in the nation, and we finding substantial dissatisfaction with the police.  The minority community sees frequent unfair and unequal treatment of minorities, either themselves or via the media.  That matters more than how representative the police force is.''

3.     What lessons from the above insights could be applied to Europe? Could similar mechanisms play a role in government agencies in European countries, or in the Netherlands in particular?

''This is tough question; I don’t see the US as a role model.  We don’t know what works here although we do know what doesn’t work.  The best strategies at the present time appear to be engaging the protesters, looking at the issues raised, going beyond the rhetoric to see if actual reforms can be implemented.  Long term policy change is needed to shift away from government policies that currently contribute to greater inequality.  Many of the same policy concerns that disadvantage racial minorities in the US also appear in the European countries.'' 

4.     What role do political and administrative leaders have in this matter? What has been their role and/or what should they do?

''The President of the United States has demonstrated a total lack of leadership in this area, inflaming portions of the public, playing for electoral advantages, and generally tarnishing the reputation of federal agencies with their misuse.  In referring to the US Secret Service (the agency that protects the president) as the S.S., he clearly has no concept of race and race relations.  When the chief military office in the country apologizes for accompanying the president on a photo op, there clearly is a problem.  How much damage has been done to various federal agencies is unclear at this time.'

''Leadership at the local level has been mixed.  Mayors as elected officials have taken the lead and police chiefs have been at the point.  I see some strong efforts by police chiefs and mayors, but even what was exceptional leadership in Atlanta by both the mayor and the police chief was essentially wiped out by another incident.  It really does emphasize the public administration focus on environmental influences on an organization.''

5.     Diversity and inclusion are of utmost importance to academia, too, and there is still a lot of work to be done. What role, in your view, does academic leadership have in making their communities (universities, professional associations) more inclusive?

''I have a very negative view of the degree of diversity and inclusion in the profession.  We are light years away from having academic institutions representative of the public they serve in both composition and action.  The academy, in my mind, is too passive.  We will never get an inclusive faculty by passively waiting for individuals to show up.  We need for all faculty to take responsibility for increasing diversity and inclusion, not just the leadership.  Courses need to become reflective of real world problems that concern equity.''   

6.     You say that all faculty should take responsibility for increasing diversity and inclusion, not just the leadership. Do you have examples of good practices from your own experience and activities in this regard?

''Yes, faculty can work with students, seek out students from disadvantaged backgrounds, conduct research that is relevant to minority students and incorporate them into the process.''

''At Texas A&M, the Project for Equity, Representation and Governance started an undergraduate research program that employed minority students to work on research with faculty and graduate students.  As part of that process, students were encouraged to write honors theses and think about going on to graduate school.  Approximately 80% of the undergraduate research assistants went on to graduate school, some are faculty at universities in the US, others got PhDs and went to work for think tanks and government agencies that are focused on minority issues.'' 

''Individual faculty are uniquely positioned to influence the life’s chances of students.  It doesn’t matter if the faculty is a white male or something else.  All they have to do is do their job.''


Epp, C., Maynard-Moody, S., & Haider-Markel, D. (2014). Pulled over: How police stops define race and citizenship (The Chicago series in law and society 298711109). Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press.

Fording, R., Soss, J., & Schram, S. (2011). Race and the Local Politics of Punishment in the New World of Welfare 1. American Journal of Sociology, 116(5), 1610-57.

Katznelson, I. (2005). When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History Of Racial Inequality In Twentieth-Century America. New York: W.W. Norton.

Katznelson, I., Kesselman, M., Draper, A. (2006). The Politics of Power: A Critical Introduction to American Government. New York: W.W. Norton.

Koven, S. (2019). The Case Against Bureaucratic Discretion. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lieberman, R. (2005). Shaping race policy: The United States in comparative perspective. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Meier, K. (2019). Politics, Bureaucracy and Succesful Governance (Inaugural lecture). Retrieved from https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/75825/oratie-meier-total.pdf?sequence=1 on 18-06-2020.

Schram, S., Soss, J., Fording, R., & Houser, L. (2009). Deciding to Discipline: Race, Choice, and Punishment at the Frontlines of Welfare Reform. American Sociological Review, 74(3), 398-422.

Schram, S., Soss, J. & Fording, R. (2010). Race and the Politics of Welfare Reform. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Soss, J., Fording, R., & Schram, S. (2011). The Organization of Discipline: From Performance Management to Perversity and Punishment. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 21(Suppl2), I203-I232.

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