Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Patterns of Politicization in 14 Democracies

Under what circumstances is politicization more likely to occur than others, and what impact does politicization have on government legitimacy and performance?

Caspar van den Berg


One of the often-cited determinants of state legitimacy and overall government performance is the interface between politicians and bureaucrats, in other words: the balance between (a) political control over the bureaucracy to ensure democratically accountable governance, and (b) the insulation from political intervention in administrative business to ensure quality and effectiveness. While increasing politicization, i.e. the existence of political elements in otherwise apolitical government bureaucracies is often reported as a general trend, our empirical knowledge as to the causes and consequences or this phenomenon is patchy and contradictory. 

This project will answer the question under what circumstances politicization is more likely to occur than others and what impact politicization has on government legitimacy and performance, by investigating four policy sectors in 14 OECD countries in Europe, North America and East Asia. 
The project is original and innovative both theoretically and methodologically. From a theoretical perspective, a broad comparative research project that connects politicization not only with its causes, but also with its consequences, is novel. A new and integrative index of politicization facilitates cross-national comparative research. A new set of hypotheses, combining country-, government- and sector-level variables, will be tested. From a methodological perspective, the application of multi-value qualitative comparative analysis (mvQCA) to politicization has not been done before and enables a larger-N approach, leading to more generalizable findings. Collaboration with international organizations and local partners in the 14 countries is a key element of the study. 

The findings will shed empirical light on the sources, incentives and impediments of civil service politicization, and its harm or benefits to ‘good governance’. This knowledge fills an important gap in the body of knowledge of Public Administration and Political Science, and will provide the policy community with better-informed avenues to respond to decreasing trust in government and decreasing policy effectiveness.


The relationship between politicians and bureaucrats is at the heart of power structures in the national state, and at the center of the study of Public Administration. A classic theme in the discipline since Max Weber’s writings on bureaucracy (1919), it is presently becoming increasingly acute as the pressure on the national executive is mounting, the instruments of national executives to respond to societal problems appear to become less effective and trust in government is dwindling (Kupchan 2012; Flinders 2014).

The ultimate question pertaining to these political-administrative relationships is: How much political control is necessary to ensure bureaucratic responsiveness to politicians (and thus warrant accountable democratic governance), and how much insulation from political intervention is necessary to ensure administrative quality and performance?

Unsurprisingly, the nature of political-administrative relations varies across time, countries and sectors. Yet, many authors have pointed to increasing politicization, i.e. the existence of political elements in what are generally considered to be insular or apolitical government bureaucracies, as a common trend (Page and Wright 1999; Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011).

Within the academic community, there are sharply contradictory views as to both what causes politicization, and as to its consequences for governance. As to the causes, some authors focus on structural characteristics such as administrative traditions (Painter and Peters, 2010), others on incentives for politicization (political control and/or the distribution of spoils, Kopecky et al. 2012), yet others see the increasing transparency and mediatization of government as a source of politicization (Aucoin 2012).

As to the consequences of politicization, some authors point to the erosion of state ability to deliver important goods and services, difficulties in recruiting the best and the brightest into government service and lower levels of trust in government (Rosen 1983, Suleiman 2003), while others emphasize that politicization simply contributes to the strengthening or restoration of government’s accountability and rightful power (see Peters and Pierre 2004).

Given the centrality of politicization for the state, politics and administration, and given its common manifestation according to many authors, the lack of generalizable empirical research is surprising. Most studies take a narrow view of politicization (Grindle [2012] looks at patronage, Meyer-Sahling and Veen [2012] at countable items), Lewis takes a broad view on politicization, but looks at the US only (2012). Suleiman looks at a multiple countries but only at the system level, not at sectors (2003). This reveals a gap in our knowledge: the causes and consequences of politicization seen from a comparative perspective of a broad range of countries.

This project aims to fill this knowledge gap guided by the following question:

Under what circumstances is politicization more likely to occur than others, and what impact does politicization have on government legitimacy and performance?

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