Delegation in Politics

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Overview: Delegation in the Politics relationship

Citizens have several ways of delegating priorities to the state. Two concepts capturing most of these options are ‘political participation’ and ‘civil society’. However, neither of these are conceptually exhaustive (i.e. they do not encompass all options), nor are they mutually exclusive (i.e. there is significant overlap between the concepts). Before presenting definitions of these terms, it is important to note that in political science, the analysis of both political participation and civil society has always been closely linked to researching democracies (dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville's ‘Democracy in America’). [1] Civil society was considered an important pillar for democratic endurance, because they foster democratic values and social trust, and build the foundation of the idea of citizenship versus one of private consumers. [2] To this day, research predominantly focuses on democracies, although there is a growing body of literature on non-democratic states and regimes in transition. This will be covered in a separate paragraph below.

Modes of Delegation

Political Participation

The most widely used definition of the term stems from Verba, Nie and Kim’s work in the 1970s:

By political participation, we refer to those legal activities by private citizens that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of governmental personnel and/or the actions they take” (p.46) [3]

The authors further explain that political participation "emphasizes a flow of influence upward from the masses; and, above all, it does not involve support for a preexisting unified national interest but is part of a process by which the national interest or interests are created” (p.47). Note that this definition excludes elites as well as professional interest and lobby groups.

The authors develop a typology of four different types of political participation, two that operate within the electoral process - (1) Voting and (2) Campaign activity - and two outside the electoral process - (3) Communal activity (both individual citizens and non-partisan groups/organizations contacting government officials to influence decisions on a broader social issue) and (4) Particularized contacts, where individual citizens contact officials on an individual, particular issue (pp.53). However, the fourth category is excluded from their subsequent analysis as it is not concerned with public outcomes.

This typology has since been revised and refined. For instance, Teorell et al. (2007) note that political participation does not necessarily have to target the government or a specific official, but can also be directed at corporations, such as by boycotting products. [4] The authors follow Brady’s (1999) definition of political participation where citizens seek to influence a political outcome rather than more narrowly the political process or personnel. [5] (Brady 1999: 737, Teorell et al. 2007: 336).

This results in 5 types of political participation, with three categories similar to Verba et al’s original distinction, (1) Voting, (2) Party activity (extending the narrower focus campaigning to more general support of and engagement in political parties), (3) Contacting (equivalent to communal activity), and two additional avenues of political expression, namely (4) Consumer participation and (5) Protest activity (Teorell et al. 2007: 343).

In a more recent study, Ekman and Amnå (2012) offer a comprehensive new typology, including a differentiation between political participation and civic engagement, where civic engagement is labeled ‘latent political participation’ because it describes pre-political or potentially political behavior rather than actual political participation (pp.291).[6] Furthermore, they distinguish between collective vs. individual actions as well as legal vs. illegal activities.[6]

Accordingly, the typologies developed by Verba et al. (1978) and Teorell et al. (2007) would fall in different, more specific buckets on the spectrum. For instance, voting would be considered a manifest, formal, individual type of political participation whereas protest action would be considered a manifest, activist, collective form of political participation.

Types and examples of political participation, synthesized and simplified from Ekman/Amnå 2012 (292 and 295)[6]
Civil participation (latent political participation) Political participation (manifest)
Social involvement (attention) Civic engagement (action) Formal political participation Activism
Legal Illegal
Individual forms Personal interest in politics and societal issues; Attentiveness to political issues; Perceiving politics as important Activities based on personal interest in and attention to politics and societal issues, e.g. writing to the editor, giving money to charity, discussing politics, reading newspapers Voting or deliberate acts of non-voting or blank-voting; Contacting political representatives Signing petitions, handing out political leaflets Civil disobedience, politically motivated unlawful acts
Collective forms Sense of belonging to a group or collective with a distinct political profile; identifying with a certain ideology or party Voluntary work in local community or charity, faith-based community work Membership and engagement in political parties, trade unions and organizations Part of social movements or networks; demonstrations, strikes and protests Civil disobedience; illegal and violent acts and protests

For the purposes of the RISE accountability framework, most activities of manifest political participation (both formal and activist) are considered relevant (i.e. voting, contacting/communal activities, membership in a party, an organization or trade union, being part of a social movement, signing petitions, taking part in demonstrations or strikes). The inclusion of consumer participation or boycotts is ambiguous as it communicates a (negative) political choice, but uses the power of consumer choice as a direct penalty rather than a delegation of policy preferences to the state.

On voting/elections

Voting is the most prominent, “most frequent and basic form of political activity. It is very simple yet its meaning is complex” (Blais 2007: 621).[7]

There are high expectations on elections to delegate and communicate political preferences, but this is limited by the very setup of elections. For one, as elections are anonymous, delegation is not made public (Teorell et al. 2007: 342). Furthermore, election results contain very little information about actual policy preferences. At best, elections offer a choice between a small number of alternatives, and results can only be seen as a general pro or con with vague messages on priorities (Teorell et al. 2007: 342). At the same time, elections are high-stakes, high-pressure moments in political systems, which combined with the low level of information gives voting “its unique characteristic as a blunt but powerful instrument of control over the government” (Verba et al, 1978: 53).

Even if delegation through elections were more explicit, election results are an aggregate of individual choices rather than an overall collective choice. This is because citizens act as many different principals rather than a unitary actor and delegate priorities to a single agent. At worst, these different principals delegate conflicting priorities to the state who may have to be selective in prioritizing delegated tasks.

Furthermore, elections are no longer a sufficient distinguishing factor between democratic and authoritarian regimes. Nowadays, elections take place almost anywhere and their existence says little about the state’s responsiveness and accountability to the electorate or how well elections are embedded in a broader culture of political participation (Carothers 2002: 15).[8] Most single-party dictatorships, but also many personalist and military dictatorships hold regular elections, but they “differ in their competitiveness, frequency and inclusiveness” (Ezrow/Frantz 2011: 68).[9]

Civil society

Civil society “involves citizens acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, passions, and ideas, exchange information, achieve mutual goals, make demands on the state, and hold state officials accountable.” (Diamond 1994: 5)[10]

As mentioned above, there is significant overlap between political participation and civil society. For instance, membership in a civil society organization (i.e. a voluntary and consensual membership in an organization pursuing some form of public good) would be considered a manifest, formal, collective type of political participation (see table above). But civil society does not comprise electoral activities such as voting or involvement in a political party because it is considered distinct from the political arena (Diamond 1994: pp.5),[10] the private sphere and (in many definitions) from the for-profit business world (Eberly 2000: 8). On the other hand, participation in a faith-based organization or charity work would be considered part of civil society but fall outside of most definitions of political participation because it pursues a social rather than political goal (but might fall under civic engagement).

For the purposes of the RISE accountability framework, civil society should only be considered relevant to the degree that it overlaps with political participation, because delegation to the state requires pursuing goals of a political nature to influence a political outcome, rather than a social, religious etc. one.

Unions and professional interest groups

Membership in unions is considered an act of political participation and in most cases falls under civil society as well. Professional lobbyists and interest groups, however, are not considered to fall under political participation, and often do not qualify for civil society either as they pursue private rather than public ends (Diamond 1994: 6, Hague/Harrop 2010: 227).[10]

In general, interest groups have several channels of influence: They can target policy-making institutions in the executive, bureaucracy, legislative and judicial branch, they can influence political parties and/or try to shape the public opinion (Hague/Harrop 2010: 234).

For the purposes of RISE research, teachers' unions as important and powerful stakeholders in the education system are the most relevant. Teacher unions can mobilize a large group of voters (i.e. teachers), translate their membership numbers into bargaining power with state officials and technocrats, block implementation of policies by going on strike, but can also be an important driver for change and innovation to refocus the education system to learning (Schneider et al. 2018 for the role of teacher unions in Ecuador,[11] Cameron/Naidoo 2018 for the role of teacher unions in South Africa,[12] Kingdon et al. 2014 on a differentiated view on the influence of teacher unions). In addition, the influence of the private sector on policy decisions may be relevant, but may not be seen to fall under Politics.

Delegation in non-democratic settings

As outlined above, most research on civil society and political participation still focuses on democracies. But authoritarian regimes also allow for at least a limited space for civil society and political participation to operate and perform the activities described above. However, society-state relations often operate under different power dynamics.

  • Elections: The importance of elections as a means for delegation in authoritarian regimes differs from those in democracies. There is a specific power dynamic between the citizens and the state for two reasons. Firstly, authoritarian states have several tools to ensure they win elections, including electoral fraud, harassment of opposition, the manipulation of electoral law, disenfranchisement or vote buying (Ezrow/Frantz 2011: pp.71).[9] Secondly, authoritarian regimes need to be less-if at all-responsive to societal demands, because they find themselves in a principal-agent relationship where the agent is more powerful than the principal, limiting the principal’s power to enforce the implementation of delegated tasks and priorities.
  • Civil society: By definition, authoritarian regimes are political systems with limited, but existing, political participation and pluralism (Linz 1964: pp.297).[13] Civil society not only exists in democracies. They have been driving forces for democratization in the 1980s and 90s, for instance in Eastern Europe, Latin America, South Korea or the Philippines (Wnuk-Lipiński 2007: 676).[14] Against this backdrop, democratization studies have uncovered the ‘chicken and egg’ problem of democracy and civil society (Wnuk-Lipiński 2007: 678).[14]
  • Public involvement as regime support: As Verba et al. (1978) explain for democracies, political participation “does not involve support for a preexisting unified national interest but is part of a process by which the national interest or interests are created” (p.47). But in the 1970s and 80s, a range of political theorists (Ginsberg 1982,[15] Weissberg 1975,[16] Wright 1976)[17] cautioned against precisely this misuse of political participation channels. They saw it as a means to increase support for and legitimacy of the ruling regime by allowing for participatory channels without giving citizens the power to actually influence policy outcomes (Finkel 1985: 893).[18] This is common in autocratic regimes (Dalton/Klingemann 2011: 331).[19] On the other hand, almost no authoritarian regime can survive on repression alone, so they have to create at least limited avenues for citizens to voice their opinion and preferences in order to create legitimacy and support for their rule (Ezrow/Frantz 2011: 55).[9] But the goal is to “minimize any threat which unregimented participation might pose to the regime” (Hague/Harrop 2010: 170).[20]


  1. de Tocqueville, Alexis (1835). Democracy in America.
  2. Eberly, Don E. (2000). The Meaning, Origins, and Applications of Civil Society, in: ibid (ed.): The Essential Civil Society Reader. Classic Essays in the American Civil Society Debate, Rowman & Littlefield, 3-29, pp.17.
  3. Verba, Sidney; Nie, Norman H. and Kim, Jae-on (1978). Participation and Political Equality: A Seven-Nation Comparison, Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Teorell, Jan; Torcal, Mariano; Montero and José Ramón (2007). Political Participation. Mapping the terrain, in: Van Deth, Jan W. et al. (eds.). Citizenship and Involvement in European Democracies: A Comparative Analysis. London/New York: Routledge, 334-357.
  5. Brady, Henry E. (1999): Political Participation, in: Robinson, John P. / Shaver, Phillip R. / Wrightsman, Lawrence S. (eds.): Measures of political attitudes. San Diego/London: Academic Press, p.737.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Ekman, Joakim / Amnå, Erik (2012): Political participation and civic engagement: Towards a new typology, in: Human Affairs, Vol. 22, 283-300.
  7. Blais, André (2007): Turnout in Elections, in: Dalton, Russell J. / Klingemann, Hans-Dieter (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior, 621-635.
  8. Carothers, Thomas (2002): The End of the Transition Paradigm, in: Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13:1, 5-21.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Ezrow, Natasha M. / Frantz, Erica (2011): Dictators and Dictatorships. Understanding Authoritarian Regimes and Their Leaders, New York/London: Continuum.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Diamond, Larry (1994): Rethinking Civil Society. Toward Democratic Consolidation. In: Journal of Democracy, Vol. 5:3, 4-17.
  11. Schneider, Ben Ross / Cevallos Estarellas, Pablo / Bruns, Barbara (2018): The Politics of Transforming Education in Ecuador: Confrontation and Continuity, 2006-17, RISE Working Paper 18/021.
  12. Cameron, Robert / Naidoo, Vinothan (2018): Education Policymaking at National Level. The Politics of Multiple Principals, in: Levy, Brian / Cameron, Robert / Hoadley, Ursula / Naidoo, Vinothan (eds.): The Politics and Governance of Basic Education. A Tale of Two South African Provinces, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 61-81 (Chapter 3).
  13. Linz, Juan (1964): An Authoritarian Regime: Spain, in: Allardt, Erik / Littunen, Yrjö (eds.): Cleavages, Ideologies and Party Systems: Contributions to Comparative Political Sociology, Helsinki: The Academic Bookstore, 291-323.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Wnuk-Lipiński, Edmund (2007): Civil Society and Democratization, in: Dalton, Russell J. / Klingemann, Hans-Dieter (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior, 675-692.
  15. Ginsberg, Benjamin (1982): The consequences of consent: Elections, citizen control and popular acquiescence. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
  16. Weissberg, Robert (1975): Political efficacy and illusion, in: The Journal of Politics, Vol. 37:2, 469-487.
  17. Wright, James (1976): The dissent of the governed. New York: Academic Press.
  18. Finkel, Steven E. (1985): Reciprocal Effects of Participation and Political Efficacy: A Panel Analysis, in: American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 29:4, 891-913.
  19. Dalton, Russell J. / Klingemann, Hans-Dieter (2011): Overview of Political Behavior: Political Behavior and Citizen Politics, in: Goodin, Robert E. (ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Political Science, 321-344.
  20. Hague, Rod / Harrop, Martin (2010): Comparative Government and Politics. An introduction. 8th edition, London: Palgrave.