The Consequences of Conflict: An Evaluation of Racial Disparity and Organizational Performance Erin K. Melton

The Consequences of Conflict: An Evaluation of Racial Disparity and Organizational Performance

Erin K. Melton

Published online: 14 February 2013 # Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Abstract The study of public administration is based primarily on two schools of thought; some theorists espousing political control with others supporting the inner check. Heretofore, studies have failed to examine the effects of goal conflict on relationships between political principals and bureaucratic agents. Using Texas school districts, this analysis demonstrates that goal conflict has significant effects on student performance. Goal conflict also influences relationships among school boards, teachers, and school district populations. Overall, this study advances the discipline in that it determines the ramifications of goal conflict for political princi- pals, bureaucracies, and the public being served utilizing the most common form of bureaucracy, school districts. The arguments and implications embedded in this analysis speak to the age-old public administration question of how to reconcile bureaucracy with democracy.

Keywords Goal conflict . Representation . Racial disparity . Organizational performance


According to Harold Lasswell (1936), politics is defined as the fundamental process of deciding who gets what, when and how. The nature of politics can be, and is often theoretically, likened to a game of strategic choices to achieve desired ends. The relative possession of influence is of import when determining the outcome in a struggle for power in any context. Influence can be distributed across multiple “players” in a game, and therefore, does not necessarily produce a clear winner or loser, but instead a situation wherein the leverage of a group or set of groups is critical. In politics, there exist innumerable opportunities for “players” to succeed, but

Public Organiz Rev (2014) 14:267–284 DOI 10.1007/s11115-013-0219-x

E. K. Melton (*) Department of Public Policy, University of Connecticut, 1800 Asylum Avenue, Library Building, West Hartford, CT 06117, USA e-mail:

also to fail, according to desired goals. In situations of concentrated or diluted influence among actors, what are the outcomes for a given policy area?

The nature of politics in the United States blurs the distinction between political and administrative functions (Davis 1971; Meier 1993). In the area of public admin- istration, it is assumed that the American bureaucratic system and the executive and legislative branches engage in a “game” at multiple levels across policy areas. The potentiality for the advancement of bureaucratic interests over congressional or presidential ones is fathomable. When bureaucrats are successful in advancing their own interests, what does this mean for the relationship between bureaucracy and democracy as it relates to the American public?

The literature suggests two competing schools of thought in an effort to reconcile the relationship between democratic practices and bureaucratic efficiency. One is the idea of political control, a top-down approach that calls for congressional or presi- dential commandeering and oversight of the bureaucracy. Here, the bureaucracy is assumed to observe the values of Congress or the president and consider such values indications of public preferences in order to better serve the public. The idea is that the public has elected these individuals so they must share some of their values or preferences on certain issues. The competing idea introduces the concept of the inner check. Here, bureaucrats are treated as information agents in understanding the values of the public to better serve them. Bureaucratic interaction with the public at the street-level allows for the bureaucrat to gauge the needs of the public and serve them directly without the control or influence of an elected body. The question remains, under certain conditions of goal conflict, what happens to the influence of political actors versus bureaucrats? Additionally, when goal conflict exists, does it always influence the actors involved?

The purpose of this paper is to answer the preceding research questions using a common type of bureaucracy, namely, school districts. Heretofore, research on student performance has ignored the consequences of goal dissension between the school board and teachers. Using the theory of representative bureaucracy, this analysis determines that goal conflict negatively affects school district performance on standardized testing. The findings suggest goal conflict has deleterious effects on overall student performance with differential effects for minority students in particular.

Literature Review

Control of bureaucracy theory is an approach to public administration particularly associated with matters of compliance or responsiveness. The central question of this literature is: does the bureaucracy comply with the law or with preferences of law makers and elected executives? To answer this question, control of bureaucracy theorists accept some form of the politics-administration (or policy-administration) dichotomy (Frederickson and Smith 2003).

The politics-administration dichotomy traces to the origins of modern public administration. The dichotomy was broadly accepted in American public administra- tion until the mid-1900s, when Dwight Waldo and Herbert Simon challenged the dichotomy, each for different reasons (Waldo 1946; Simon 1947). To Waldo, all

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administrative acts were undoubtedly political at a fundamental level. For Simon, it was difficult, if not impossible, to empirically unbundle politics from administration. For some time after their contributions, the dichotomy was non-existent; however, its viability reemerged and is now alive and well and found in control of bureaucracy theory (Frederickson and Smith 2003). One of the most frequently used, contempo- rary approaches to control of the bureaucracy is principal-agent theory or, more simply, agency theory.

Agency Theory

In the 1980s a framework emerged in an effort to understand the nature of the bureaucracy. This framework, titled principal-agent theory was an attempt to theorize about controlling the bureaucracy, an entity regarded as an unbridled behemoth resistant to change and control (Mitnick 1975; Wood and Waterman 1994).

Agency theory explicitly assumed that elected officials (principals), such as the president and members of Congress, had political incentives to control the bureaucracy (agents). The applicability of this theory was supported with quantitative evidence. Quantifiable outputs from bureaucracies were shown to covary consistently with the changing preferences of the president, Congress, and courts. And overhead democracy was shown to be alive and well in the United States (Wood and Waterman 1994).

Agency theory posits that the relationship between elected leaders and non-elected bureaucracies is hierarchical. This alludes to the top-down nature of the perspective in that values, demands, and preferences are filtered from Congress or the president to the bureaucracy. Charles Perrow (1986) furthered this notion by stating that the relationship of the bureaucracy to the public is similar to the concept of contracts. Bureaucracies are bound by contract to serve law and elected institutions. Concerning this conceptualization of the bureaucracy, Perrow (1986) wrote, “In its simplest form, agency theory assumes that social life is a series of contracts. Conventionally, one member, the ‘buyer’ of the goods or services, is designated the ‘principal’, and the other, who provides the goods or service, is the ‘agent’–hence the term ‘agency theory’. The principal-agent relationship is governed by a contract specifying what the agent should do and what the principal must do in return.”

The principal seeks to manipulate and shape the behavior of the agent to perform work in a manner consistent with the principal’s preferences. The ‘contractual’ agreement is one tool for accomplishing this end. However, difficulty ensues when disjunctures develop between the interests of politicians (principals) and the bureau- cracy (agents). This is problematic for two reasons: 1) bureaucracies develop separate interests through institutionalization and changing external relationships, although bureaucratic interests may in fact be divergent from politicians’ interests from the start; and 2) it is impossible to construct contractual agreements that encompass the range of contingencies between the political principal and the bureaucracy. Thus, a potentially confrontational setting develops in which the goals and objectives of principals and those of agents are often at odds (Wood and Waterman 1994).

Agency theory posits a dynamic process of continual interaction between principals and agents (i.e., evolving, persistent exchange over time). Throughout this process, bureaucracies have distinct informational and expertise advantages over politicians and elected officials. As a result, the pendulum shifts allowing for bureaucrats to have a

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considerable amount of leverage and power and thus manipulation over politicians and processes for political gain. “The key question for agency theory, then, is how politicians vested with contemporaneous legitimacy can overcome these uncertainties and the bureaucratic tendency to shirk” (Wood and Waterman 1994).

It is from these uncertainties of possible ‘shirking’ that the concept of political control is derived. According to agency theory, the way to remedy the potential consequences of uncertain bureaucratic behavior is to exert control over bureaucracy using monitoring mechanisms and incentives. This can be done because elected principals in fact create bureaucracies. They design bureaucracies with various incentive structures to facilitate effective control (McCubbins et al. 1989). The literature on political control is extensive; the following section briefly discusses that literature.

Political Control

According to one view, the bureaucracy operates with considerable independence from elected representatives. Legislators are unable or unwilling to perform mean- ingful oversight (Niskanen 1971; Dodd and Schott 1979) and the president, although perhaps effective on a few selected issues, faces severe constraints of power and resources in controlling his subordinates (Calvert et al. 1989). On the other hand, a host of studies argue that the decisions of federal agencies directly reflect the wishes of elected officials in Congress and the White House (Arnold 1979; Fiorina 1981; Moe 1985; Calvert et al. 1989). In this view, elected officials gain leverage over bureaucrats through informal oversight, using tools such as decentralized information gathering (McCubbins and Schwartz 1984; Weingast 1984; Aberbach 1987) and carefully structured administrative procedures (McCubbins 1985; McCubbins et al. 1989) to guarantee that the relevant legislative constituents are well served.

In sum, the concept of political control is the idea that political officials, such as Congress or the president, should regulate the actions of the bureaucracy in an effort to enforce Congressional or presidential preferences or bureaucratic efficiency. As agency theory suggests, it is the goal of the principal to further its interests through the actions of the agent it controls. Agency theories, and thus political control theories, assume attitude incongruence or goal conflict, wherein it is the responsibility of the principal to ensure that the agent remains aligned with the principal’s desired ends. The political control as well as principal-agent literature suggests that such control could potentially rectify the lacuna between bureaucracy and democracy in that the values and preferences of elected officials are representations of the values and preferences of the public.

“The Inner Check”

Contrary to the top-down approach of political control, proponents of the inner check argue that bureaucrats themselves should directly observe the values and preferences of the public to better serve them. Scholars arguing for the validity of the inner check contend that street-level bureaucrats are able to better gauge the needs of their constituencies as a result of both consistent interaction and closeness in proximity. This approach frequently does not include the role of the governing political entity, rather it includes the values and preferences of the bureaucrat or agency itself as an

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approach toward modeling bureaucratic outcomes and agency performance. The inner check also suggests that there are internal checks within the agency that foster positive outcomes for the public. In other words, such checks have the potential to reconcile bureaucracy with democratic practices.

Instead of being an explicit concept or terminology found in the extant literature, the idea of the inner check is conceptualized in multiple ways. For example, Larry Terry (2003) seeks to legitimate the exercise of bureaucratic leadership. By evaluating literature from legal, managerial, and institutional perspectives, he suggests that legitimacy is a prerequisite for the reconciliation of bureaucratic leadership with democratic governance. Terry offers a normative theory of bureaucratic leadership that gives administrative executives an active and legitimate leadership role in governance. His coined term, administrative conservatorship, stems from the argu- ment that administrative executives are entrusted with the responsibility of preserving the integrity of public bureaucracies and, in turn, the values and traditions of the American constitutional regime.

Commonly noted in the literature following the theoretical development of the inner check is research grounded in the theory of representative bureaucracy. The theory proposes that a bureaucracy reflecting the diversity of the community it serves is more likely to respond to the interests of all groups when making policy decisions (Krislov 1974; Selden 1997; Frederickson and Smith 2003). Representative bureau- cracy is the foundation upon which the current theoretical argument is built; it is discussed in the next section.

Theoretical Argument

Representative Bureaucracy

In an explicit attempt to address the central problem of democratic administrative theory, Dwight Waldo (1952) raised the following question: How might a theory that embraces the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of bureaucracy be reconciled with the seemingly contradictory egalitarian and ultimately inefficient values of democra- cy? The theory of representative bureaucracy responds by legitimating the political power of the bureaucracy in the context of democratic values. If bureaucracies are sensitive to a diversity of interests, and such interests are represented in bureaucratic decisions and behavior, the argument is that bureaucracy itself can be considered a representative institution (Frederickson and Smith 2003).

The first study to systematically examine the issue of public work force represen- tation was conducted by J. Donald Kingsley (1944) where he posed the argument that civil service should reflect the characteristics of the ruling social class “because the civil service must be sympathetic to the concerns of the dominant political leader- ship” (Selden 1997). Kingsley’s work was grounded on the notion that the represen- tativeness of the public bureaucracy should be measured in terms of social class.

In like manner to Kingsley, Meier (1975) focused on the American civil service, but deviated in that he measured bureaucratic responsiveness using multiple factors such as: age, father’s occupation, region of birth, and education. Contemporary scholars of representative bureaucracy address racial, ethnic, and gender-based

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representativeness (Selden 1997) of the American bureaucracy for two reasons. The first reason suggests that the literature had simply failed to incorporate these types of representation in previous studies. The second and more systematic reason is the under-representation of certain racial and ethnic groups as well as women in bureau- cracies, thereby, creating potential for these groups to be disproportionately affected by bureaucratic decision-making.

The existing literature makes apparent the linkage between passive and active representation. This linkage suggests that passive representation, or the extent to which a bureaucracy employs people of diverse demographic backgrounds, leads to active representation, or the advocacy or pursuit of policies reflecting the interests and desires of those people (Mosher 1982; Meier and Stewart 1992; Meier 1993; Selden 1997). Establishing a representative bureaucracy is not arduous in and of itself, but what are the implications of having this type of agency? Does it translate into a better relationship between bureaucratic decision-making and democratic values? More importantly, is the public better served by an agency that represents the diversity of its constituency?

Sally Selden (1997), in her work on representative bureaucracy, suggests that there are numerous benefits of establishing such an agency. First, a bureaucracy that reflects the diversity of the general population implies a symbolic commitment of equal access to power (Mosher 1982; Gallas 1985; Wise 1990; Meier 1993). Guinier (1994) main- tains that the symbolic role results from both the personal characteristics of distinctive group members, with the assumption that because of these characteristics, the bureau- cracy has had experiences in commonwith other members of that group. Second, and of greatest import to this study, is the idea that a representative bureaucracy is likely to influence what issues are placed on the political agenda (Kingdon 1984; Guy 1992). Without a diversity of interests, values, and preferences in an administrative body, certain interests or groups might be overlooked. A bureaucracy that reflects the demo- graphic composition of society will incorporate a greater spectrum of opinions and preferences into the agenda-setting and decision-making processes, and, as a result, should be more responsive to those groups (Kranz 1976). Lastly, several scholars also suggest that previously underrepresented groups will be more closely bound to the agency as their representation increases within that agency. Such increases in represen- tation likely lead to greater levels of cooperation with bureaucratic agencies. Potential clients or the public in general, may be more apt to participate in government programs when they perceive identification with members of the agency (Hadwiger 1973).

This paper uses the theory of representative bureaucracy to examine consequences of goal conflict in school districts. When a school district does not have characteristics constituting a representative bureaucracy for its respective constituency, it is conceivable that the needs of certain groups may be omitted due to differences in values and preferences (i.e., goal conflict). If goal conflict exists, what becomes of the relationship between the political principal (school board) and the bureaucracy (teachers)? School districts are an optimal venue to analyze the preceding empirical questions.

The Case for School Districts

According to Meier and O’Toole (2006), the theory of bureaucratic representation provides an attractive alternative to the principal-agent framework because it can

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offer predictions about the most crucial question in the political control puzzle: how the bureaucracy would act in the absence of political pressures. The focus of this research is predicated on that exact tenet, but is also a natural extension. In instances of goal conflict, what happens to the influence of the political-controlling entity versus the bureaucracy? Upon either dilution or concentration of influence among the school board and teachers, what are the potential outcomes for the school district, or the public being served?

School districts provide an interesting case with which to study the question of “politics versus administration” (Meier and O’Toole 2006). First, the variation of school districts permits empirical assessment across multiple racial and ethnic group composi- tions. It follows, then, that the racial composition of the school board and teachers are utilized as proxies for values and preferences in this analysis (Meier and Stewart 1992; Hindera 1993; Hero and Tolbert 1995; Kerr and Miller 1997; Selden 1997; Meier and O’Toole 2006). School districts also allow for the analyzing of numerous interactions between political actors (school board) and bureaucrats (teachers) that seek to serve the public (students; overall school district). Second, schools have multiple goals (Meier and O’Toole 2006). Here, the likelihood for goal conflict arises in that the politically- controlling entity may not seek to advance the same interests as the bureaucratic agency. The goals of these actors may differ prior to the introduction of a particular proposed policy or action. It is also true that the school board may not view the proposed policy or action in like manner to the bureaucratic agency. The theory of representative bureau- cracy comes into play here. Representative bureaucracy suggests that an entirely Anglo faculty is unlikely, but not necessarily unable, to represent the interests of both Anglo and Latino students. The theory calls for an incorporation of Latino teachers to ensure a diversity of opinions. Latinos present on the faculty, in this case, will increase the likelihood that the differential effects of education policies and practices with respect to Latino students will be considered in the policymaking process. This paper seeks to evaluate the outcome of those instances when the values or preferences of the school board (political control/influence), teachers (bureaucracy), and overall school district (public) are conflicting.

Goal Conflict

Goal conflict is the degree to which individuals feel that their multiple goals are incompatible (Locke et al. 1994). In organizational theory, the place where this particular concept is most heavily discussed, goal conflict has the potential to affect employee interaction and organizational performance (See Jehn and Bendersky 2003). The as- sumption is that goal conflict is inherent when individuals with differing preferences engage in cooperative effort (Eisenhardt 1989). Most often this literature observes how inter-organizational workings are disrupted in times of goal conflict. Existing studies fail to examine how the relationship between two actors could potentially affect a third (actor); this analysis is the first to do so. Put simply, this study attempts to evaluate goal conflict among the school board, teachers, and district population to determine how such conflict might affect students and the school district overall.

This inquiry seeks to uncover the role goal conflict among members of the district environment has on each actor’s respective influence. The next section explores the hypothetical expectations and data employed.

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Data, Measures, and Expectations

To analytically test the proposed arguments, pooled time series data from the Texas Education Agency are used (TEA). Covering 1995–2002, these annual data include over one thousand school districts as well as multiple measures relating to the composition of the district including indicators relating to size, teacher-student ratio, performance, and program expenditures. More importantly for this study, the data include demographic information on the school board, teachers, students, and overall district population.

School districts are the most common type of U.S. public bureaucracy, employing more individuals than any other type of government organization. School districts in Texas are highly diverse, as one might expect, considering the heterogeneous nature of the state. Districts in the data set cover the gamut from urban to rural, rich to poor, monoracial to multiracial.

Dependent Variables

Overall Student Pass Rate/Latino Student Pass Rate

Texas administers the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) to students in grades three through eight and as an exit exam.1 The TAAS score is the most salient of all performance measures; it is a fundamental part of the state accountability system. This particular indicator is the percentage of students who pass these tests in each school district. Passage rates are available for all students while separate indicators exist to disaggregate by racial group, gender, and socioeconomic status. The expectation is that conflict, as it is defined in this study, will adversely affect both Latino and overall student performance.

Independent Variables

Goal Conflict

The theory of representative bureaucracy suggests that Latino teachers and Latino school board members will increase the likelihood that Latino student interests are considered during the policymaking process. The mere presence of Latinos (passive representation) could lead to positive outcomes for Latino students while explicit support and advocating of Latino interests (active representation) might have even greater outcomes.

To trace this logic out further, consider Latino teachers present in the classroom. Because of shared experiences in background and culture, Latino teachers might possess a unique ability to identify as well as meet the needs of Latino students. Further, the presence of co-ethnic teachers could encourage Latino students to do better–either because of a perception of commonality or the positive role model Latino teachers might exhibit to Latino students. This simplified example evinces how Latino teachers might both actively and passively represent Latino students.

1 Beginning in spring of 2003, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) replaced the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). The data in this analysis include 1995–2002 and therefore include scores from the TAAS examination method only.

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Latino school board members, on the other hand, have a direct political influence when compared to Latino teachers. Except for cases of appointment, school board members are elected and therefore expected to represent the preferences of a constituency. Conflict between the school board and any segment of the district population is critical in that the school board is the political-controlling entity–this body establishes a vision for schools that reflects a consensus of the board, community, and district staff. The school board has a wide variety of additional responsibilities, such as adopting a balanced annual budget and issuing interim financial reports, adopting the school calendar, negotiating contracts with employee unions, approving curriculum materials and closing or constructing schools. When racial disparity is present among these bodies, it is likely that such decisions may differentially affect particular racial groups in the district.

Latino school board members, because of their unique racial experiences when compared to their White counterparts, can bring a voice of diversity to the politics of the education policy process. One would expect school board members to compre- hensively evaluate the consequences, even if unintended, of every policy. During times of board deliberation, it is plausible that a Latino school board member would shed light upon the particular ways in which a policy might affect Latino students. Such outcomes might be overlooked without the presence of Latinos on the board. In short, Latino teachers and Latino school board members can impact Latino student outcomes in both direct and indirect ways.

Arguably, using race as a proxy for values or preferences is problematic in that such measures fail to consider that an Anglo school board member might advocate for minority interests or that a minority school board member may not. Values and prefer- ences are a result of historical background, life experiences, cultural upbringing, and additional facets of identity. Such factors might include racial background, gender, class, or religion. Because it is well-established that such characteristics (at least partially) determine individual value systems, it is logical to assume that individuals who share these traits might behave similarly. Most important for this analysis is the notion that an individual is likely to actively represent for a characteristic that he or she personally possesses. Consider a policy that has distinguishable outcomes for male versus female students. The current argument suggests that a female representative might offer reasons why females would fare differently than their male counterparts. Were this representa- tive not there, these particular outcomes may not be considered. These same assump- tions of representation for values and preferences that have been constructed as a part of one’s identity might be applied to race and ethnicity–that is, we can expect Latino representatives in school districts to actively pursue strategies and policies that would positively affect Latino students as a result of their values and preferences.

This is not to say that a person lacking a particular characteristic cannot represent for that characteristic (i.e., a Black principal advocating for Anglo student interests or Anglo teachers concerned with Latino student achievement). It is to say, however, that we should expect a representative role from those who do share similar characteristics with the constituency that they serve. Essentially, these claims speak to the concept of role presented by Selden (1997) in her work on representative bureaucracy. “Roles are described as sets of expected behaviors to be performed by a person occupying a particular position” (Turner 1956; Kahn et al. 1964; Widmer 1993; Selden 1997). She suggests that leaders can potentially take on either a minority or traditional role. The minority role assumes the advocacy of minority-related issues and is concerned with

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equity while the latter is more concerned with organizational efficiency and performance. Selden notes that leaders could simultaneously exemplify qualities of both minority and traditional roles. The extant literature on representative bureaucracy conventionally uses measures of race and ethnicity as a substitute for values, preferences, and opinions. Albeit imperfect, this substitution is utilized similarly in this analysis.

Percentages of the school board, teachers, and district population that are Latino constitute an original measure of goal conflict. To examine goal conflict between the school board and teachers, for example, the percentage of Latino school board members is subtracted from the percentage of Latino teachers. Second, this result is squared and the square root is taken. Considering this analysis is concerned with modeling the effects of conflict between the school board and the district population as well as teachers and the district population, this process is repeated in like manner substituting those variables.

Essentially, this measure of goal conflict is an abbreviated form of the widely used Euclidean distance.2 Defined as the distance between objects or values that is computed as a straight line (Black 2004), Euclidean distance measures allow for the determination of how far two objects, or entities for that matter, are from each other. In this case, this measure determines how different the racial compositions are among the school board, teachers, and district populations. The condensed form of the Euclidean distance formula permits a succinct and interpretable measure of such differences.

The goal conflict variable assessing differences amongmembers of the school district populations ranges from 0 to 100, where values closer to zero indicate little to no goal conflict (racial group parity) and higher values indicate increased goal conflict (racial group disparity). Table 1 shows the descriptive statistics for this variable.

For some, it might be counterintuitive to suggest that racial group differences are equal to differences in values or policy preferences. Conflict should not be thought of as an undeniable result of racial group disparity, but instead a potentiality among members of the school district when there exists underrepresentation. Further, given that existing literature observes values and preferences in like manner, this analysis does not consider it erroneous to conceptualize goal conflict this way. Defined in this analysis as racial disparity, the primary expectation is that higher levels of conflict will negatively impact student performance.



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