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Technocracy within Representative Democracy. Technocratic Reasoning and Justification among Bureaucrats and Politicians

By Christina Ribbhagen


The terms ‘technocracy’ and ‘technocrat’ are becoming part of common usage and it is frequently argued that technocratic decision-making is increasing due to the growing complexity of political matters. However, there is a lack of research into this matter and the concept is underdeveloped. The thesis departs from a more subtle interpretation of technocracy suggesting that technocracy is not equal to government by (technically trained) experts. The crucial issue for the definition of technocracy then is not who governs, rather it lies in the mode of politics. With this as a point of departure the overall aim of this thesis is to challenge the largely unproven assumption that technocrats can be defined by personal attributes (as educational background), as well as the traditional and commonly used measurements to identify technocratic thinking, arguing that that they are likely to produce a too simplistic picture of reality. Departing from the literature on technocracy an analytical framework is developed for exploring the presence of a techno- cratic as well as a democratic mode of reasoning and justification that allows for detecting possible nuances. Further, in order to understand variations in the mode of reasoning and justification I throughout the thesis suggest we need to consider the possible importance of different institutional contexts. Overall the thesis wishes to contribute to the old, but with continued centrality, discussion on the tension between technocracy and democracy. Resting on the claim that the degree of technocratic reasoning and justification among policy makers is one powerful determinant of the extent to which technocracy can be made compatible with (representative) democracy, I direct the search light towards two actors at the heart of policy-making – top civil servants and politicians. The thesis consists of two parts The introduction to the thesis and The Essays. There are three Essays. In Essay 1 I search for explanations to variation in technocratic thinking among bureaucrats. Contrary to previous findings, I argue that type of higher education is not a key determinant for explaining variations, instead I suggest, post-socialization, as politicisation, provides a better explanation. These suggestions are tested empirically by both re-analysing Putnam’s data from the late 1970s and analysing data from a total survey of elite bureaucrats working in the Government Offices of Sweden. Essay 2 seeks to explore the importance of different decision criteria in the minds of technocratic bureaucrats. Departing from the developed framework a questionnaire using hypothetical scenarios, each containing a different policy proposition, is designed. For each of the five scenarios technocratic bureaucrats are asked to rate the importance of ten different decision making criteria, each representing a different element of the two modes of reasoning. In Essay 3 I investigate the use of knowledge in parliamentary debate in the Swedish parliament (Riksdagen) searching for explanations for when politicians are likely to use knowledge to underpin their policy positions. The study presents empirical findings based on the analysis of the contents of 142 parliamentary debates testing a number of different hypotheses. The thesis reports several interesting findings and identifies important gaps in the field. In relation to the overall aim of the thesis the most important findings are that we need to continue to make the question of who is a technocrat into an empirical one and not base our definition on a largely unproven assumption that technocrats can be defined by personal attributes as educational background. Further, the results in this thesis suggest that technocratic and democratic modes of reasoning are not to be viewed as opposing sides of the same single dimension. Therefore, in future studies we ought to use measurements that allow the respondents to express nuances. Finally, the findings of politicians’ use of knowledge in the parliamentary debate jointly indicate that, despite the relatively favourable conditions for knowledge utilization in the Swedish case, the debate is not likely to be largely de-politicized.Abstract Essay 1: Abstract This article challenges the assertion that civil servants with technical training can be assumed to be technocrats. Contrary to previous findings, the article argues that type of higher education is not a key determinant of variations in technocratic mentality among elite bureaucrats; instead, post-socialization provides a better explanation. One suggested post-socialization mechanism is politicisation, so the more politicized a ministry is, the less technocratic the mentality of the bureaucrats working in it. These suggestions are tested empirically by both re-analysing Putnam’s data from the late 1970s and analysing data from a total survey of elite bureaucrats working in the Government Offices of Sweden. As well as demonstrating that the ‘type of training hypothesis’ is poorly supported, the empirical analysis demonstrates that the technocratic mentality of bureaucrats varies depending on ministerial affiliation. Furthermore, the level of politicisation is connected to the degree of technocratic mentality among the bureaucrats, though not exactly as hypothesized: more politicisation indeed leads to higher ‘tolerance for politics’ among bureaucrats but, counter intuitively, also makes bureaucrats more likely to advocate neutrality rather than political advocacy among civil servants. Abstract Essay 2: Departing from the claim that beliefs and values of bureaucrats are a powerful determinant of the extent to which bureaucracy can be compatible with democracy, this study sets out to increase our knowledge of public policy-making in the minds of technocratic bureaucrats, arguing that these pose the largest threat towards the compatibility of bureaucracy and democracy. Drawing on the theoretical framework of the technocratic mentality (Putnam, 1977), and the empirical studies of technocratic bureaucrats (Aberbach et al., 1990; Gregory, 1991; Putnam, 1977), this study seeks to explore the importance of different decision criteria in the minds of technocratic bureau- crats. Despite previous research, we still know little about which criteria these bureaucrats consider important when making decisions on public policy. By means of a survey using hypothetical scenarios, the empirical evidence provided demonstrates that ‘technocratic bureaucrats’ overall prefer ‘technocratic’ to ‘democratic’ criteria. At the same time they assess that the ‘democratic’ criteria will be more important. However, the study also presents more unexpected and important nuances, that technocratic bureaucrats are not equally hostile towards all democratic criteria; this is especially true considering ‘ideology’. Finally, there is no strong evidence that the rated importance varies systematically depending on policy mode. Abstract Essay 3: While previous studies have examined the use of expert knowledge in policy shaping, we still know little about the symbolic role of such knowledge in lending legitimacy to policy positions. This is especially true considering the context of party politics and political mobilization. Recent research offers several suggestions as to when politicians are likely to use expert knowledge in public policy debate. While these studies provide important theoretical insights and rich examples, further research is obviously needed. Based on previous studies, this paper presents several potential explanations of when we can expect politicians to use expert knowledge to legitimize their positions. Empirically testing the hypotheses by analysing the content of 142 legislative debates (a total of 1,183,729 words) held in the Swedish parliament suggests that many of the hypotheses are empirically supported. Perhaps the most interesting finding is that incumbents are less inclined to invoke knowledge claims in debate than are opposition members. This finding supports Bos- well’s (2009b) argument that incumbents, knowing that they can be held ac- countable for decisions made, also aware of the shortcomings of scientific research, avoid excessive reliance on expert knowledge. The analysis also reveals large differences between the parties, apart from their parliamentary roles, suggesting that party culture also ought to be considered an important factor in explaining variations in knowledge use in public policy debate

Topics: de-politicisation, politicisation, attitudes, political communication, expertise, knowledge utilization, policy type, institutional context, Government Offices, parliamentary debate, survey, hypothetical scenarios, content analysis, risk, values, interests, economic and social steering
Year: 2013
DOI identifier: 10.1177/0952076709357979
OAI identifier:

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