Newswise – LAWRENCE – For most of the nation’s history, white men have filled the vast majority of jobs in America’s government bureaucracy. A recent way of tackling this problem has been representative bureaucracy or ensuring that governing bodies are made up of people who reflect their communities. While a positive step, continuing to avoid conversations about how race and gender have traditionally shaped public administration can limit effectiveness, new research from the University of Kansas suggests.
During the early decades of American public administration, the loot system handed out government jobs to loyalists and friends of those who had won elections. Progressive-era reformers pushed back on this, arguing that corruption should be fought by appointing politically neutral bureaucrats. Meanwhile, President Woodrow Wilson pushed to separate the federal government, leading to a normalization of white men in bureaucratic roles and the xenophobia, racism and other issues that came with it, Shannon Portillo said, professor of public affairs and administration at KU and leader. author of an article on the question, published in the journal Public Administration Examination.
Portillo and her co-authors examined representative bureaucracy theory and how it has focused almost exclusively on those who are considered “other” in the professional workforce: people of color and women. They said more research is needed on dominant whiteness and masculinity on the ground and the results they have in communities.
“We never really addressed the other side of this question. White men have been in charge almost forever,” Portillo said. “It has effects on the communities they represent, which can be beneficial or harmful. We need more empirical evidence about what happens in these situations.
The article, co-authored by Nicole Humphrey, an assistant professor at the University of Miami and alumnus of KU, and Domonic Bearfield, an associate professor at Rutgers University, acknowledged the value of representative bureaucracy but argued for further examination. Portillo cited research in the field of education that has shown that when there are more female math teachers, not only do girls’ results improve, but the results of all students improve. Similar evidence has shown that representative bureaucracy improves outcomes for all members of a community, but the question of the pros or cons of representation by predominantly white men is almost never asked.
Understanding both representative bureaucracy and traditional majority representation can be seen as understanding two sides of the same coin, she said.
“We support calls for initiatives such as increasing diversity hiring, but we need to understand why and how this matters across community bureaucracies,” Portillo said. “Furthermore, it is critical to understand what is happening in organizations where it is not happening.”
To better understand the problem, the authors wrote that first, the field must recognize that identity matters. It is also necessary to understand that the past affects what happens in bureaucracies today and how historical overrepresentation has led to current inequalities. There is a natural tendency to want to publish new or innovative findings or solutions to issues such as underrepresentation, but ignoring the status quo and how it emerged can potentially perpetuate the systems that made it dominant, wrote the authors.
For their part, the authors are responding to the call for more research on the overrepresentation of whiteness and masculinity by working on a book on the myth of neutrality. The work examines how the intention to install neutral actors in bureaucratic positions resulted in the overall assumption that the predominantly white men who received these positions were neutral. The researchers said that no one is completely neutral and that further examination of the results of historical overrepresentation would help find solutions to the problem.
“Representative bureaucracy pushes identity politics. The performance is still very good. Having a variety of perspectives produces better results,” Portillo said. “But we argue that it’s not really possible to be completely neutral. We need to take a closer look at how whiteness and masculinity shape values, practices and ideas in our field.