Research: Administrative attention amidst political failure

For the next couple of years, Joris van der Voet, Associate Professor and researcher at the Institute for Public Administration will be heading a research project on top-level bureaucrats and how they go about making choices and prioritizing issues. He has been awarded a Vidi grant by the Dutch Research Council for his research project: ‘Administrative attention amidst political failure’. The 5-year project is due to start in January 2022. ‘With this project, I don’t simply want to look into how things currently operate, but I also want to collaborate with the bureaucrats involved.’

Top-level bureaucrats operate amidst an abundance of information and unclear political objectives. Choices made by those top-level bureaucrats directly influence if and how the government responds to societal issues. Van der Voet will be investigating how bureaucrats prioritise societal issues, how they define the relevant characteristics of a problem, and how they generate policy solutions. ‘I’ll mainly be focussing on attention allocation. How do those top-level bureaucrats process information and what interests them? This is indicative for the issues they will be addressing. There has been very little research into the cognitive processes that occur prior to actually taking action. I want to develop an ‘attention based’ perspective, inspired by the political, management, and economic sciences.

‘When societal issues aren’t dealt with appropriately, bureaucrats often tend to be put under a magnifying glass. This is exactly what happened with the childcare benefits scandal in the Netherlands. But failing administrative processes such as this usually stem from failing political processes.’

New responsibilities are continuously being added to the bureaucrats’ workload

For his research, Van der Voet plans to target top-level bureaucrats at a municipal level since, according to him, they are having to deal with very complex societal issues. ‘I’ve noticed that new responsibilities are continuously being added to the bureaucrats’ workload. Including an increase in political responsibilities. They’re being flooded with information but only have limited resources. So, what do they base their decisions on? When societal issues aren’t dealt with appropriately, bureaucrats often tend to be put under a magnifying glass. This is exactly what happened with the childcare benefits scandal in the Netherlands. But failing administrative processes such as this usually stem from failing political processes.’ The Vidi grant will allow Van der Voet to assemble a team of PhD candidates and a postdoc researcher, but he is also planning to actively take part himself. ‘I’m expected to take on a more supervising role but, to me, conducting research is one of the best parts of my job, so I’m definitely planning to keep on doing that too.’

Attention allocation behavioural assessment tool

The research team plans to contact top-level bureaucrats working for Dutch municipalities as part of the project. By taking part in survey experiments, bureaucrats will be provided with genuine information regarding ongoing issues within their organisation. ‘I want to make things as realistic as possible. There’s a lot of information available in municipalities and those bureaucrats have a lot on their plates. For instance the youth services or waiting lists in the Netherlands, there are many issues that require attention. We subsequently measure how they act based on the information we’ve provided them. I’ve developed an attention allocation behavioural assessment tool that will allow me to measure in a controlled setting what they’re reading, how much time they spend reading, and in what order, in order to gain an insight in the information processing process.’

Impact

But Van der Voet plans to do more. ‘I’m not one of those researchers who simply sits around at Wijnhaven all day sending out surveys across the Netherlands. I want to involve public organisations in designing the research project, in order to create a strong hands-on contribution. I don’t just want to look at the way things currently operate, I also want to participate with those involved in the process. I’m very happy and relieved that I’ve succeeded in obtaining this grant and I’m looking forward to get cracking.’

Administrative attention amidst political failure. How top-level bureaucrats prioritize societal issues, define problems, and generate solutions

Top-level bureaucrats operate amidst an abundance of information and unclear political objectives. Their attention allocation explains if and how government responds to societal issues. Van der Voet will investigate (1) which issues bureaucrats prioritise, (2) how they define the relevant characteristics of a problem, and (3) how they generate policy solutions.

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