Politicians are supposed to represent the citizens. Yet public officials also represent groups they belong to and identify with, according to a new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
‘Public administrators are affected by their group affiliations and life experiences. If you have an immigrant background, it’s going to affect how you do your job as a public official,’ says Nazem Tahvilzadeh, researcher at the School of Public Administration and author of the thesis.
The study is based on interviews with 12 minority administrators in five municipalities. Their positions varied from local government heads and administrative directors to integration strategists. Tahvilzadeh also interviewed politicians, colleagues of the minority administrators and representatives from local organisations.
The results show that administrators represent – similar to politicians – the groups with which they identify. This representation can be observed when they support and guide certain individuals and when they try to bring issues related to integration and diversity to the political agenda. The minority administrators act this way because they care about and identify with minority groups, and because their roles as public administrators offer opportunities for advocacy. This occurs in particular when issues regarding the multi-cultural society are politicised in local politics.
‘Public officials are often portrayed as neutral and impartial in the public debate,’ says Tahvilzadeh. ‘But the results of the study clearly show that administrators often serve important political roles. Public administrators have good prospects of first affecting the decisions that are made and then influencing how they are implemented.’
Public authorities have a responsibility to promote democracy and rule of law. This implies that all citizens should be treated equally and should be given opportunities to affect their everyday lives. However, what goes on in a municipal building in the end depends on the individuals who work there.
‘My study confirms what many American studies have found, that public administrators are affected by their group affiliations and life experiences. If the public administration would consist of only Swedish-born white males from white-collar homes, then many perspectives and political interests would be absent in the political process,’ says Tahvilzadeh.
Ethnic diversity is an important factor in a democracy. And since public administrators are influencing the political process, sometimes even more than politicians, it is important that the make-up of those who work in the public sector reflects the population at large.
‘The diversity debate has for some reason focused on efficiency gains,’ says Tahvilzadeh. ‘From a democracy perspective, it is at least as important to achieve a representative administration.’