Fresh study by SPPs’ professor Fazekas: “Career bureaucrats are key safeguards of democracy”

January 19, 2021

New research on partisan procurement in the US Federal Government by CEU SPP’s Mihály Fazekas with Carl Dahlström (University of Gothenburg) and David Lewis (Vanderbilt University) has been published by one of the most prestigious Political Science journals. On the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th President of the United States we asked him a few questions about his topical research.

SPP: Misi, your new piece on a very relevant topic of partisan favouritism in US federal contracting is just out in the American Journal of Political Science. Tell us what is the key lesson in relation to the US presidential elections?

Mihály: We looked at how the politicisation of federal agencies, in particular through political appointees to key agency positions, can lead to high risk, favouritistic contracting in the US federal government. This is based on our empirical analysis which points out that executive departments are the most likely to have contracts characterized by non-competitive procedures and outcomes, indicating favoritism. Politically responsive agencies – but only those – give out more non-competitive contracts in battleground states potentially serving electoral purposes rather than the public good.

SPP: OK, and now please tell us the practical lessons we can draw from your study.

Mihály: In the context of the US presidential elections and the subsequent contestations, our research points out that it is possible and desirable to design government agencies by limiting appointee representation in spending decisions in order to reduce political favoritism. In the context of elected officials trying to sidestep and bend the rule of law, career bureaucrats who do not yield to political pressure are key safeguards of democracy.

SPP: How do you practically use these results in the classroom to explain key public policy and political science concepts and methods? 

Mihály: This article and related research I do informs my teaching both in terms of conceptual thinking about government structure and in terms of quantitative research methods around large-scale data analysis and quasi-experimental methods. In my Public Management class, a key concept and a set of dilemmas revolve around how best to insulate permanent bureaucracies from political pressures while also keeping them responsive to democratic demands. In my Big Data class, students can lean about methods for collecting very large datasets of millions of observations using web scraping and tapping into APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to access data in the online universe.

SPP: How can students then apply those skills in practice after they graduate? 

Mihály: Understanding how to design impartial public institutions and a sensitivity to the challenges and trade-offs between political and bureaucratic logics of government are key skills our students can use when they go on to work for governments, NGOs, or public management advisory firms. Our students not only gain the theoretical and practical skills for designing and operating public organisations but they also learn how to deploy state-of-the-art Big Data methods for monitoring and adapting public institutions to new challenges.

LINK to the published paper: