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Serving or Undermining Democracy? How Political Parties Hold Staffers Accountable in Belgium and the Netherlands

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Abstract

Political staffers are central actors in contemporary politics. The few top advisors that are known to the general public are just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, a diverse unelected elite operates behind the scenes of parties’ central offices, parliaments and ministerial offices. Their many tasks include managing political offices, providing communication and policy advice, assisting individual politicians and supporting party organizations. As they are closely involved in daily politics, research shows that staffers have an impact on political representation and policymaking. This seems to be odds with the core principles of representative democracy, as they have not been elected by voters. Therefore, this study examines a fundamental question about political staffers: does the political influence of this unelected elite create a democratic deficit? To address this question, I develop an innovative perspective on staffers’ democratic legitimacy by considering party loyalty as an important accountability mechanism. More specifically, I argue that a strong relationship between staffers and political parties is beneficial to the democratic process because it reduces the likelihood of staffers ‘going rogue’ by disregarding the preferences of voters and elected elites. The study takes a quantitative large-N approach by collecting original survey data among staffers from fourteen Belgian and Dutch political parties (N=1009). This extensive dataset was compiled through a challenging process of brokering access to political staffers by gaining the endorsement of senior figures within the staff hierarchy. Based on these empirical data, I conduct an in-depth analysis of staffers’ professional, voluntary, ideological and procedural relationship with political parties. The findings show that most Belgian and Dutch staffers are loyalists who faithfully support the policies of their party. Although most staffers are not directly employed by parties, they are pivotal to creating political cohesion between central offices, parliaments and ministerial offices. Moreover, they work in close tandem with the elected elites who are accountable to voters. I conclude that staffers’ involvement in politics does not create a structural democratic deficit. If voters, representatives and staffers are bound by the same set of policy preferences, even the most expeditious staffers are unlikely to hinder democratic representation. By demonstrating the relevance of staffers’ party loyalty, this PhD study adds a new perspective to the debate on staffers’ political legitimacy. However, party loyalty is only one piece of a larger puzzle and should not be treated as a substitute for formal rules or responsiveness towards elected representatives. For this reason, I advocate for a comprehensive approach to staffers’ accountability that considers legal arrangements as well as party loyalty and loyalty towards individual politicians.
Serving or Undermining Democracy?
How Political Parties hold Staffers Accountable in
Belgium and the Netherlands
Serving or Undermining Democracy? Pieter Moens
Pieter Moens
Serving or Undermining Democracy?
How Political Parties Hold Staffers Accountable in Belgium and the
Netherlands
Pieter Moens
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Bram Wauters
Co-supervisor: Prof. Dr. Nicolas Bouteca
Co-supervisor: Prof. Dr. Carl Devos
Dissertation submitted to Ghent University in partial fulfilment of the
requirements for the degree of Doctor in Political Science.
Examination board
Prof. Dr. Ronan Van Rossem (Chair)
Prof. Dr. Marleen Brans
Prof. Dr. Arco Timmermans
Prof. Dr. Rune Karlsen
Prof. Dr. Kristof Steyvers
Dr. Audrey Vandeleene
Prof. Dr. Bram Wauters (promoter)
Prof. Dr. Nicolas Bouteca (co-promoter)
Prof. Dr. Carl Devos (co-promoter)
Serving or Undermining Democracy? How Political Parties Hold Staffers
Accountable in Belgium and the Netherlands
PhD thesis, Ghent University, 2021
© Pieter Moens
Cover photo: © Jonas Roosens
Cover lay-out: Reproduct
Printing: Reproduct
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by
any means electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any
transformation storage, without written permission from the author.
Serving or Undermining Democracy?
How Political Parties Hold Staffers Accountable
in Belgium and the Netherlands
Pieter Moens
5
Dankwoord
Ik ga jullie voor mijn dankwoord meenemen doorheen de afgelopen 6 jaar. Te
beginnen bij de start van dit avontuur: de zomer van 2015. Ik had mijn droom om te
doctoreren bijna opgegeven. Ik deed nog één laatste poging en solliciteerde als
assistent Politieke Wetenschappen. Voor de eerste keer zat ik oog in oog met Bram,
Nicolas en Carl – mijn latere begeleiders. Het was meteen duidelijk dat ik een uniek
trio voor mij had. Bram wilde meer weten over mijn doctoraatsplannen: hoe zou ik
partijen overtuigd krijgen om deel te nemen aan mijn onderzoek? Nicolas stelde
vragen over mijn onderwijstaken: zag ik mezelf binnenkort lesgeven en examens
verbeteren? Ik deed mijn best om hen te overtuigen met enkele antwoorden die ik
voorbereid had om mijn enthousiasme voor onderzoek en onderwijs in de verf te
zetten. Maar die bleken niet genoeg, want al snel moest ik uit een ander vaatje tappen.
Carl voelde mij aan de tand over mijn bezoek aan Pukkelpop. Was het niet zo dat
daar veel drugs gebruikt werd? En nam ik dan ook vaak drugs? Enigszins verrast
floepte ik eruit: euh … nooit tijdens de kantooruren. Ik weet niet welk antwoord de
doorslag gaf. Ik weet enkel dat ik enkele dagen later op Pukkelpop telefoon kreeg
omdat ik de job had. Een betere plaats en een beter moment kan ik mij moeilijk
inbeelden. Ik wil hen alle drie oprecht bedanken voor de unieke kans om zes jaar
lang mijn passie en interesse te kunnen volgen. Ik heb met volle teugen genoten van
die vrijheid. Bedankt ook aan Marleen en Arco die later aansloten bij mijn
begeleidingscommissie. En tenslotte ook een dikke merci voor de andere juryleden
Ronan, Rune, Kristof en Audrey voor hun lovende feedback en de interessante
vragen.
Over naar de zomer van 2017. Na een examen met veel te veel A-antwoorden en een
stroeve conferentie bereikt mijn doctoraat een dieptepunt. Op zo’n moment ervaar
je ten volle dat doctoreren een eenzame bezigheid kan zijn. Gelukkig kon ik die
ervaring delen met een fantastische groep collega-eenzaten. Bij hen vond ik de steun
en inspiratie voor mijn remontada. Vanaf dag één had ik de briljante Benjamin aan
mijn zijde. Samen verkenden we niet alleen conferenties in het exotische Duitsland,
maar ook trouwfeesten en – hoe kon het ook anders – cocktailbars en wijnwinkels.
Hij was tegelijk mijn wandelende intellectuele inspiratiebron, een subtiele humorist
en een uitstekend sommelier. Ik weet niet hoe ik de afgelopen jaren had moeten
doorstaan zonder gezjellige Gilles. Als assistenten begrepen we als geen ander elkaars
uitdagingen. Samen konden we naar hartenlust ventileren over de wispelturigheid
van studenten, professoren en het leven – dat deed vaak echt deugd. Iets later leerde
ik ook een oerdegelijk moreel kompas van Duitse makelij kennen: rechtvaardige
Richard. Een jongen die zo “te goed voor deze wereld” is dat zijn aanwezigheid hem
letterlijk een wereldverbeteraar maakt. Maar niet alleen zij motiveerden om door te
6
zetten. Ik ga binnenkort ook met heimwee terugdenken aan de bulderlach van Nico,
het doorzettingsvermogen van Robin, het enthousiasme van Kaat, de creativiteit van
Thibaut, de ‘no nonsense’ houding van Sigrid en de fijnzinnige humor van Maxime.
Bedankt ook Kasper, Anna, Marc en Audrey voor de vele leuke lunchgesprekken.
Nu ik zelf weet wat het betekent om een doctoraat af te werken is mijn bewondering
voor jullie werk alleen maar groter geworden.
Hoe plezant het in Gent ook was, de grootste inspiratie vond ik dichter bij huis. In
de zomer van 2018 zag ik vanop de eerste rij twee moedige mensen hun gezin dichter
bij elkaar brengen. Mijn zus Kaat onderging een operatie en startte met
chemotherapie. Tijdens die zware maanden zei ze wel eens dat haar leven stilstond
terwijl dat van anderen verder ging. Maar kijk nu: getrouwd, een huis gekocht en
binnenkort begint ze aan haar eigen doctoraat. En omdat er nooit genoeg doctoraten
kunnen zijn sloeg mijn zus Melissa ook nog eens een academicus aan de haak. Mede
dankzij Michiel is Melissa vandaag meer dan ooit haar creatieve, kritische en vrolijke
zelf. Zoals altijd bleven mijn ouders, Greet en Hendrik, steeds voor ons klaarstaan
tijdens die moeilijke chemomaanden. Dankzij hun harde werk konden wij drie
zorgeloos studeren en onze interesse te volgen, een mooier cadeau bestaat er niet.
Maar ook mijn grootouders, Clémence en Nestor, zitten daar voor iets tussen. Als
kind al wist ik het: zo’n mooie grote boekenkast moest ik ooit ook zelf hebben. Naast
mijn zus toonde ook mijn schoonvader Luc zijn doorzettingsvermogen toen hij
diezelfde zomer in Noorwegen van de radar verdween. Het gevoel van opluchting
toen we hoorden dat hij gevonden was ga ik nooit vergeten. Ik ben zo blij dat Miel
nog vele jaren onnozel kan doen met zijn peter Loemek. Ook tijdens dat Noorse
avontuur zag ik een gezin sterker worden. Bedankt Luc en An dat we bij jullie altijd
welkom zijn, ook tijdens de laatste loodjes van het doctoraatswerk was dat goud
waard.
Tijdens de herfst van 2018 wachtte mij een nieuwe uitdaging. Na maanden van
voorbereiding was het moment van de waarheid gekomen en lanceerde ik mijn
bevraging. Maar na een vlotte start ging niet alleen de federale regering maar ook
mijn onderzoek in crisismodus. Wat als N-VA uit de regering stapte en alle
kabinetsmedewerkers hun job verloren? Hoe zou ik die mensen dan in godsnaam
bereiken met mijn bevraging? Gelukkig werd de val van Michel I een slow motion
crisis en ontving ik voldoende antwoorden vooraleer het echt zover was. Na veel
over en weer bellen en mailen kon ik aan de slag met de antwoorden van meer dan
1000 personen. Dank aan alle politieke medewerkers die de tijd namen om te
reageren, het heeft mij een schat aan informatie opgeleverd. Maar vooral bedankt aan
alle partijsecretarissen, fractiesecretarissen en kabinetssecretarissen die mee aan de
kar trokken. Zonder de steun van die vele contactpersonen was dit doctoraat
onmogelijk geweest. En sorry voor mijn voortdurende gestalk – het was voor de
goede zaak.
7
Een jaar later beleefde ik het mooiste moment van mijn leven. In de herfst van 2019
werd Miel geboren. Voor eventjes was die kleine baby het enige wat er bestond op
de wereld. Maar we hadden geen idee wat ons te wachten stond … want enkele
maanden later ging we allemaal in lockdown. Voor een paar maanden was ons huis
tegelijk een kantoor en een crèche. Niet altijd simpel maar ik ben ervan overtuigd dat
ik dankzij Miel een beter doctoraat geschreven heb. De uren waarin ik kon werken
waren niet alleen productiever, hij hield ons mentaal in evenwicht. Eenmaal ik mijn
bureau verliet, zorgde Miel ervoor dat ik mijn doctoraat meteen achterliet. We
hebben hem de afgelopen twee jaar van zo dichtbij zien opgroeien, dat is
onbetaalbaar. Maar hoe hard Miel ook zijn best deed, de grootste steun kwam van
natuurlijk van mijn vriendin Nena. Zeker het laatste jaar heb ik enorm op haar
kunnen rekenen. Als ik één ding heb geleerd tijdens de afgelopen jaren, dan is het
wel dat wij samen een pak dingen aankunnen. Nena, ik ben zo blij dat jij het 13 jaar
geleden zag zitten om mij en mijn slaapzak thuis af te zetten. Het heeft mijn leven
voorgoed veranderd. Ook al reisden we intussen samen de wereld rond, mijn
grootste geluk vond ik bij jou op de Zonnebloemlaan in Ternat.
En tenslotte: vandaag. Eén pandemie en één intens doctoraatsjaar later zijn we
allemaal samen in Gent beland. Het doet mij plezier om hier ook veel vrienden te
zien. Want het is niet evident om zoveel jaren later nog een goeie band te hebben
met vrienden uit het middelbaar of de leidingsploeg van de Chiro. Tijdens al die
gezellige avonden, weekends en vakanties deed ik de nodige sociale energie op om
daarna weer alleen achter mijn computer te kruipen om papers te schrijven. Bedankt
voor de vele fijne momenten, de oprechte interesse en jullie steun. Doctor Moens
kijkt al uit naar het volgende weekend.
8
9
Abstract
Political staffers are central actors in contemporary politics. The few top advisors that are known
to the general public are just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, a diverse unelected elite
operates behind the scenes of parties’ central offices, parliaments and ministerial offices. Their
many tasks include managing political offices, providing communication and policy advice,
assisting individual politicians and supporting party organizations. As they are closely involved in
daily politics, research shows that staffers have an impact on political representation and policy-
making. This seems to be odds with the core principles of representative democracy, as they have
not been elected by voters. Therefore, this study examines a fundamental question about political
staffers: does the political influence of this unelected elite create a democratic deficit? To address
this question, I develop an innovative perspective on staffers’ democratic legitimacy by considering
party loyalty as an important accountability mechanism. More specifically, I argue that a strong
relationship between staffers and political parties is beneficial to the democratic process because it
reduces the likelihood of staffers ‘going rogue’ by disregarding the preferences of voters and elected
elites.
The study takes a quantitative large-N approach by collecting original survey data among staffers
from fourteen Belgian and Dutch political parties (N=1009). This extensive dataset was compiled
through a challenging process of brokering access to political staffers by gaining the endorsement
of senior figures within the staff hierarchy. Based on these empirical data, I conduct an in-depth
analysis of staffers’ professional, voluntary, ideological and procedural relationship with political
parties. The findings show that most Belgian and Dutch staffers are loyalists who faithfully support
the policies of their party. Although most staffers are not directly employed by parties, they are
pivotal to creating political cohesion between central offices, parliaments and ministerial offices.
Moreover, they work in close tandem with the elected elites who are accountable to voters.
I conclude that staffers’ involvement in politics does not create a structural democratic deficit. If
voters, representatives and staffers are bound by the same set of policy preferences, even the most
expeditious staffers are unlikely to hinder democratic representation. By demonstrating the
relevance of staffers’ party loyalty, this PhD study adds a new perspective to the debate on staffers’
political legitimacy. However, party loyalty is only one piece of a larger puzzle and should not be
treated as a substitute for formal rules or responsiveness towards elected representatives. For this
reason, I advocate for a comprehensive approach to staffers’ accountability that considers legal
arrangements as well as party loyalty and loyalty towards individual politicians.
10
11
Samenvatting (Dutch)
Politieke medewerkers zijn centrale spelers in de hedendaagse politiek. De topmedewerkers die
bekend zijn bij het grote publiek vormen slechts het topje van de ijsberg. Onder de waterlijn bevindt
zich een diverse, onverkozen elite die achter de schermen werkt in partijhoofdkwartieren,
parlementen en ministeriële kabinetten. Deze groep bevat zowel leidinggevenden als communicatie
en beleidsadviseurs, persoonlijke medewerkers en medewerkers die partijorganisaties
ondersteunen. Onderzoek toont aan dat deze medewerkers invloed hebben op politieke
vertegenwoordiging en beleidsbepaling. Die vaststelling staat op gespannen voet met de
basisprincipes van de representatieve democratie, want medewerkers worden niet aangeduid door
kiezers. Daarom onderzoekt deze studie een fundamentele vraag over politieke medewerkers:
creëert de politieke invloed van deze onverkozen elite een democratisch deficit? Om die vraag te
beantwoorden ontwikkel ik een innovatief perspectief op de democratische legitimiteit van
medewerkers door hun partijbanden als een belangrijk verantwoordingsmechanisme te benaderen.
Ik beargumenteer dat een sterke band tussen medewerkers en politieke partijen goed is voor het
democratisch proces. Dankzij die band zullen medewerkers niet buiten de lijntjes kleuren door af
te wijken van de voorkeuren van kiezers en verkozen politici.
De studie volgt een kwantitatieve benadering door surveydata te verzamelen bij de medewerkers
van veertien Belgische en Nederlandse partijen (N=1009). Deze uitgebreide dataset is het resultaat
van een uitdagend proces waarbij deze moeilijk bereikbare populatie bereikt werd dankzij de
ondersteuning van leidinggevenden. Op basis van deze empirische data deed ik een uitgebreide
analyse van de professionele, vrijwillige, ideologische en procedurele banden tussen medewerkers
en politieke partijen. De resultaten tonen aan dat de meeste Belgische en Nederlandse medewerkers
loyale partijsoldaten zijn. Hoewel de meesten onder hen niet rechtstreeks in dienst zijn van een
partij, zorgen hun sterke partijbanden voor politieke cohesie tussen partijhoofdkwartieren,
parlementen en ministeriële kabinetten. Daarenboven werken medewerkers nauw samen met
verkozen politici die rechtstreeks verantwoording afleggen aan de kiezer.
Ik besluit dat de politieke betrokkenheid van medewerkers geen structureel democratisch deficit
creëert. Als kiezers, verkozenen en medewerkers dezelfde beleidsvoorkeuren delen is het
onwaarschijnlijk dat medewerkers vertegenwoordiging ondermijnen. Hoewel deze doctoraatstudie
een nieuw perspectief op de democratische legitimiteit van politieke medewerkers lanceert zijn
partijbanden echter slechts een deel van de puzzel. Daarom pleit ik voor een totaalbenadering die
oog heeft voor het legale kader, partijbanden en loyaliteit tegenover politici.
12
13
Table of Contents
Acknowledgements 5
Abstract 9
Samenvatting (Dutch) 11
Table of Contents 13
List of Tables 15
List of Figures 17
PART I: INTRODUCTION 19
Chapter 1. General introduction 21
Chapter 2. Theoretical framework 37
Chapter 3. Data and methodology 91
PART II: ARTICLES 129
Chapter 4. Article 1: Knowledge is Power. The Staffing Advantage 131
of the Party in Public Office.
Chapter 5. Article 2: Professional Activists? Party Activism among 175
Political Staffers in Parliamentary Democracies
Chapter 6. Article 3: Between Grassroots and Elites? Assessing 211
Congruence between Staffers and Party Members
Chapter 7. Article 4: Of Masters and Puppets. How Elected Elites 251
Hold Staffers Accountable
PART III: CONCLUSION 287
Chapter 8. General conclusion 289
14
15
List of Tables
Table 2.1. Key characteristics of Political Staffers 40
Table 2.2. Staffers’ individual tasks 42
Table 3.1. Participating parties (N=14) 106
Table 3.2. Response and representation by gender, age, party (face) and country 108
Table 3.3. Results of X²-tests comparing sample to population 110
Table 3.4. Exploratory face-to-face interviews 112
Table 4.1. Staffers’ individual qualifications 145
Table 4.2. Qualitative dimension of staffing 149
Table 4.3. Staffing advantage in the Netherlands 153
Table 4.4. Staffing advantage in Belgium 156
Table 5.1. Key characteristics of Political Staffers 178
Table 5.2. Staffers’ individual tasks 180
Table 5.3. Response and representation by gender, age, party face and country 188
Table 5.4. Understanding party activism among political staffers (N=934) 194
Table 6.1. Overview of cases 220
Table 6.2. Policy statements 221
Table 6.3. Congruence between staffers and members 225
Table 6.4. Pairwise comparison of mean positions 226
Table 6.5. Explaining progressive/cosmopolitan positions 228
Table 7.1. Variable descriptives 264
Table 7.2. Explaining ex-ante control by elected elites – recruitment 272
Table 7.3. Explaining permanent control by elected elites – monitoring 273
16
17
List of Figures
Figure 2.1. Three Faces of Party Organization (Katz & Mair, 1992) 44
Figure 2.2. The democratic chain of delegation and accountability 70
Figure 2.3. Staffers’ position within the democratic chain of delegation 72
Figure 3.1. The total survey error (Weisberg, 2016) 102
Figure 3.2. Survey introduction page 111
Figure 3.3. Survey completion time (in minutes) 114
Figure 4.1. Three Faces of Party Organization (Katz & Mair, 1992) 135
Figure 4.2. Quantitative and Qualitative dimension of Staffing 140
Figure 4.3. Quantitative staff distribution 147
Figure 4.4. Distribution of staffers’ tasks by country and government status 151
Figure 4.5. Party Faces on Quantitative and Qualitative dimension 157
Figure 5.1. Party activism among staffers 191
Figure 5.2. Staffers’ party activism by tasks, party faces and party families 192
Figure 6.1. Congruence between staffers and party members 224
Figure 7.1. Staffers’ position within the democratic chain of delegation 255
Figure 7.2. Staffers’ professional autonomy (N=992) 266
Figure 7.3. Staffers’ influence on four dimensions 268
Figure 7.4. Participation of elected elites in staff recruitment (N=998) 269
Figure 7.5. Monitoring by elected elites 270
18
19
PART I
INTRODUCTION
20
21
Chapter 1
General Introduction
“The choice of servants is of no little importance to a prince, and they
are good or not according to the discrimination of the prince. And the
first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is
by observing the men he has around him; and when they are capable
and faithful he may always be considered wise, because he has known
how to recognize the capable and to keep them faithful. But when they
are otherwise one cannot form a good opinion of him, for the prime
error which he made was in choosing them” – Niccolò Machiavelli,
1532
Nearly five centuries ago, Machiavelli argued that the selection of advisers reveals a
great deal about our political leaders’ sense of judgment (Machiavelli & Viroli, 2008
[1532]). Even back then however, political advisers already were a long-established
phenomenon. The historical record is filled with wise men who delivered advice to
rulers, including well-known figures such as Confucius, Aristotle, Rasputin and
indeed, Machiavelli himself (Goldhamer, 1978; Gouglas, Forthcoming). Although
most contemporary political advisors remain invisible to the general public, those
who whisper in the ears of powerful leaders continue to speak to our imagination. In
popular political TV-series such as The West Wing, Borgen or House of Cards,
political staffers are usually depicted as the cunning strategists who pull the levers of
power in the corridors of the nation’s capital. However, most voters are unaware of
the size and diversity of this unelected elite because media coverage is focused on
the people behind powerful leaders. The public perception of political staffers is
colored by high-profile power duo’s such as Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, Boris
Johnson and Dominic Cummings or Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Selmayr. In
22
reality however, political staffers come in all kinds and shapes, including high-flying
spin doctors as well as administrative aides and personal drivers. While some staffers
are located right at the center of executive power, others hold more peripheral
positions in the offices of backbenchers or party organizations.
Critical pieces regularly denounce the excesses of political staffing and call for
increased transparency surrounding political staffers (Lefevere, 2020; Olbrechts,
2020). As the large majority of staffers are financed by taxpayers’ money, this demand
for transparency should motivate scholars to contribute to an informed public debate
by lifting the veil on this unelected elite. Although such public concerns are
understandable and justifiable, they are just one of many reasons for studying
political staffers in depth (Brans, Meert, Moens, & Squevin, Forthcoming). Several
trends emphasize the scientific relevance of doing empirical research on this
unelected elite. Firstly, the population of staffers has grown considerably as a result
of political professionalization (Panebianco, 1988). Longitudinal studies show that
staffs of parties and parliamentary party groups have increased significantly since the
1960s (Farrell & Webb, 2002; Krouwel, 2012; Kölln, 2015). Research indicates that
this influx of staffers has particularly benefitted the elected elites that hold public
offices (Katz & Mair, 2002; Bardi, Calossi, & Pizzimenti, 2017). Secondly, this
process of professionalization had coincided with the ‘decline of membership-based
politics’ fuelled by dwindling party membership across Europe (Van Biezen, Mair, &
Poguntke, 2012; Van Biezen & Poguntke, 2014). As a result of these trends, it is
often assumed political parties have replaced the voluntary labour of activists with
the paid labour of staffers (Farell, 1996). These developments have important
implications for politics, as organizations led by professionals instead of volunteers
tend to pursue different goals and priorities (Kreutzer & Jäger, 2011; Bolleyer &
Correa, 2020; Ivanovska Hadjievska & Stavenes, 2020). Thirdly, a considerable
portion of political staff pursue elected office later on. Future Members of Parliament
(from hereon: MPs) and ministers increasingly gain experience in unelected positions
as staffers (Monroe, 2001; Cowley, 2012; Barber, 2014; O’Grady, 2019). Research
23
shows that the number of politicians with prior experience as staffers has grown in
both Belgium (Maddens, Put, & Smulders, 2014) and the Netherlands (Remkes,
2018). It is fair to say that unelected staff positions have become a training ground
for future elected officials, providing a novel, non-traditional pathway to power
(Taflaga & Kerby, 2019).
Despite their relevance to contemporary politics, political staffers are considered one
of the most under-researched fields in the study of political parties’ (Webb & Kolodny, 2006, p.
337). This is especially surprising as they appear regularly in the work of influential
theories on party organization (Michels, 1915; Panebianco, 1988; Katz & Mair, 1995).
Besides a few notable studies by party scholars (Webb & Fisher, 2003; Karlsen &
Saglie, 2017), empirical research on political staff has been driven by other disciplines.
Firstly, legislative scholars have mostly studied the roles and activities of American
congressional staffers (Salisbury & Shepsle, 1981; DeGregorio, 1988; Romzek &
Utter, 1997), as well as their impact on political representation (Johannes, 1984;
Wilson, 2013; Hertel-Fernandez, Mildenberger, & Stokes, 2018; Landgrave & Weller,
2020). Similarly, a number of studies have focused on the activities of staffers in the
European parliament (Michon, 2008; Busby & Belkacem, 2013; Pegan, 2017).
Secondly, public administration scholars have studied political advisors in ministerial
offices. Whereas ministerial staffers were traditionally studied in Napoleonic political
systems with extensive ministerial offices (Van Hassel, 1973; Rouban, 1997;
Walgrave, 2004; Pelgrims, 2006; Bioy, Eymeri-Douzans, & Mouton, 2015), the recent
rise of special advisers in Westminster countries has sparked a broader interest across
the world (Yong & Hazell, 2014; Gouglas & Brans, 2017; Ng, 2018; Shaw &
Eichbaum, 2018).
The dispersion of research across disciplines complicates our understanding of
political staffers. Firstly, the existing information about this unelected elite is
fractured. Quite understandably, legislative and public administration scholars have
exclusively focused on particular subpopulations of staffers (either parliamentary or
ministerial advisers). As a result, their findings are often confined to a particular
24
institution or a specific branch of government. While party scholars have taken a
slightly broader approach by combining staffers at party headquarters with
parliamentary staff, they have barely scratched the empirical surface because so few
studies have been done (Webb & Fisher, 2003; Karlsen & Saglie, 2017). Across the
whole spectrum of research on political staffers, many empirical blind spots persist
until today. Secondly, the dispersion of research across separate disciplines has
limited the exchange of ideas and concepts. Legislative scholars approach staffers
from the perspective of representation and study how parliamentary advisors affect
the relation between legislators and voters. Public administration scholars approach
staffers from the perspective of executive governance and are often interested in how
ministerial staffers affect the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats.
This PhD dissertation addresses a fundamental question about political staffers: does
the political influence of this unelected elite create a democratic deficit? At first sight,
staffers appear to slip through the cracks of the democratic process. Unlike elected
politicians, political staffers have not been legitimized by voters to represent people’s
preferences and devise policies. However, research indicates that staffers can have a
significant impact on political communication (Sabag Ben-Porat, Lev-On, &
Lehman-Wilzig, 2020), constituency services (Landgrave & Weller, 2020), lobbying
(Blanes i Vidal, Draca, & Fons-Rosen, 2012; McCrain, 2018), minority representation
(Rosenthal & Bell, 2003; Wilson, 2013), coalition governance (Brans, Pelgrims, &
Hoet, 2005; Maley, 2011; Askim, Karlsen, & Kolltveit, 2018) and the substance of
policy positions (Laube, Schank, & Scheffer, 2020). From a democratic perspective,
it is remarkable that unelected actors are directly involved in such a wide range of
inherently political activities. Although it is true that civil servants are not elected
either, they are embedded in a formal bureaucratic structure that guards the
boundaries between politics and administration. However, the position of staffers is
not encapsulated within formal structures of governance and accountability. In this
dissertation, I examine whether political parties informally embed political staffers
into the democratic process, thereby legitimizing their direct involvement in politics.
25
Based on survey data collected among 1009 Belgian and Dutch political staffers, I
analyse political staffers’ relationship to parties from four different angles. The first
descriptive article discusses staffers’ professional relationship to parties by addressing
the first research question: How are staffers distributed between parties’ central offices,
parliamentary party groups and ministerial offices (RQ1)? This article introduces readers to
the population of staffers by describing their qualifications and examining whether
some party faces benefit from a staffing advantage. From there on, I examine
whether staffers’ relationship to political parties can make up for a potential
democratic deficit. More specifically, I examine three mechanisms that can keep
staffers’ activities aligned with political parties: party activism, ideology and control
by elected elites. In the second article, I investigate staffers’ structural relationship to
parties by investigating their party activism. The second research question asks: How
strongly are political staffers involved as volunteers in political parties (RQ2)? In the third article,
I address staffers’ ideological relationship to parties by analysing their ideological
congruence to party members. Hence the third research question: How congruent are
the ideological positions of political staffers to the positions of party members (RQ3)? In the fourth
and final article, I discuss staffers’ procedural relationship to parties by examining
the fourth research question: How can elected elites hold political staffers democratically
accountable (RQ4)?
By focussing on the links between staffers, political parties and representative
democracy, I aim to bring together the different strands of literature on political
staffers. Both the theoretical framework and the empirical strategy reflect this
innovative approach. On the theoretical front, the dissertation aims to enrich existing
research on political staffers by bringing in the perspective of party politics. Building
on two pioneering studies (Webb & Fisher, 2003; Karlsen & Saglie, 2017), I introduce
new concepts and ideas from party politics by analysing imbalances between party
faces (Katz & Mair, 2002), situating staffers within parties’ internal opinion structure
(May, 1973) and applying the responsible party model to this unelected elite
(Thomassen, 1994; Mair, 2008). However, I take an eclectic approach by
26
incorporating insights from other disciplines. Not only do I draw from legislative
studies to conceptualize staffers’ political accountability (Romzek, 2000; Strom,
2003), I also use insights from public administration scholars to examine staffers’
party activism (Eichbaum & Shaw, 2008) and institutional differences between
ministerial offices (Brans, Pelgrims, & Hoet, 2006; Gouglas, Brans, & Jaspers, 2015).
On the empirical front, I intentionally use a holistic approach by including party staff,
parliamentary staff and ministerial staff within the population of interest. To my
knowledge, only one recent study has taken a similarly broad approach by including
staffers from different party faces (Svallfors, 2020). Compared to this study, however,
this dissertation takes a distinctly different conceptual and empirical approach.
Svallfors (2020) is interested in the work of a broad-ranging category of ‘policy
professionals’, which he conceptualizes as a ‘heterogeneous, boundary-spanning
population’ working within government offices, parliaments, parties, think tanks,
interest organizations, political consultancy and lobby firms. In contrast, this
dissertation exclusively examines the more narrowly defined population of political
staffers working in government offices, parliaments and parties’ central offices.
Although Svallfors’ (2020) eclectic theoretical framework combines insights from an
impressing array of disciplines, it does not directly address political parties as such.
In contrast, the existing literature on party politics constitutes the theoretical heart
of this dissertation.
Structure and contents of this dissertation
This dissertation was not conceived as a classic monograph but as a collection of
papers to be published as peer-reviewed journal articles. For this reason, each
empirical chapter includes its own theoretical framework, data and methods section,
empirical analysis and conclusion. These empirical chapters are bound together by
the common goal to examine the complex relationship between staffers, political
parties and representative democracy. The central aim is to find out whether the
political influence of this unelected elite of staffers creates a democratic deficit. After
27
all, staffers are closely involved in politics without having obtained an electoral
mandate from voters.
The dissertation proceeds as follows. In chapter 2, the common theoretical
framework behind the empirical articles is discussed in depth. Before focusing on
the few studies by party scholars, I first consider the principal findings and
contributions of legislative scholars and public administration scholars.
Consequently, I introduce three conceptual building blocks that sustain the
theoretical framework of this dissertation. Firstly, I develop a definition of political
staffers to clearly delineate the population of interest. Secondly, I build on the work
of Karlsen and Saglie (2017) to group staffers into six mutually exclusive categories
based on their tasks: managers, policy experts, communication experts, political
assistants, party organizers and administration and support. Thirdly, I address the
distinction between staffers working in parties’ central offices, parliament and
ministerial offices based on Katz & Mair’s (1993) seminal work on the ‘three faces
of party organization’. Lastly, I develop the central argument of this dissertation by
arguing that the involvement of unelected staffers in politics is democratically
legitimate if they are firmly embedded in political parties that are accountable to
voters. By applying the responsible party model (Thomassen, 1994; Mair, 2008) to
this unique population, I argue that political parties help to establish an essential link
between the preferences of voters, representatives and political staffers.
In the third chapter, I address the case-selection and specify the methodological
design of this study. Firstly, I discuss why Belgium and the Netherlands can be
considered as most likely cases for a strong relationship between staffers and political
parties. Both entities share important institutional characteristics that empower
strong, collective party organizations: a highly proportional electoral system that
leads to a fractured party system and requires complex coalition governance. After
describing the different methodological approaches used by earlier studies on
political staff, I argue why the chosen quantitative research design was the best suited
method to examine the relation between staffers and parties. The bulk of this
28
methodological chapter details how I dealt with the many challenges of surveying
this notoriously elusive population. Based on Weisberg’s total survey error approach
(2009), I discuss how the survey behind this research project was designed to
minimize different types of methodological errors. Importantly, I show how the lack
of population data and contact details on political staffers can be overcome by
strategically seeking the support of those who control the access to this population
in Belgium and the Netherlands: political parties.
The first empirical article of the dissertation is based on a paper that is to be
resubmitted for a second review by Government and Opposition. The article focuses on
staffers’ professional relationship to parties by addressing the following research
question: How are staffers distributed between parties’ central offices, parliamentary party groups
and ministerial offices (RQ1)? Building on the influential work of Katz & Mair’s on the
three party faces (1993, 2002), this article examines where the most (qualified)
political staffers work to determine whether some party faces enjoy a staffing
advantage over others. By taking this approach, the article makes three innovative
contributions to existing literature. Firstly, the article disentangles the concept of a
staffing advantage into two independent dimensions: a quantitative staffing
advantage (larger staff size) and a qualitative staffing advantage (highly qualified
staff). Secondly, the article considers ministerial staffers to be an integral part of a
party’s staff resources. Therefore, the article disaggregates the party in public office into
the party in parliament and the party in government. Thirdly, the article illustrates the impact
of institutional differences on party organizations by comparing the Belgian cabinet
system (extensive ministerial offices) to the Dutch non-cabinet system (limited
ministerial offices).
Next, three articles examine whether staffers’ relationship to parties can counter the
potential democratic deficit of staffers’ involvement in politics. The second empirical
article is based on a paper published online by Party Politics. It examines staffers’
voluntary relationship to parties by analysing the extent of their party activism. The
underlying idea is that a strong degree of party activism among political staffers might
29
compensate for their potential democratic deficit. Inspired by earlier studies of
political staffers by party scholars (Webb & Fisher, 2003; Karlsen & Saglie, 2017),
the article addresses the following research question: How strongly are political staffers
involved as volunteers in political parties (RQ2)? The article makes an innovative
contribution by developing a theoretical framework to explain why most political
staffers are recruited among party activists. I argue that the recruitment of staffers is
shaped by candidate preferences (supply) and party preferences (demand). Moreover,
the framework also explains why non-activists are more common among some staff
positions because the balance between supply and demand is influenced by staffers’
individual tasks as well as differences between party faces and parties.
The third empirical article is based on a paper that is to be resubmitted for a second
review by Political Studies. The article focuses on staffers’ ideological relationship to
parties by examining whether staffers’ ideological positions are congruent to those
of party members. The underlying idea is that a high degree of ideological congruence
between staffers and party members might compensate for their potential democratic
deficit. The article addresses the following research question: How congruent are the
ideological positions of political staffers to the positions of party members (RQ3)? By combining
the original survey data on staffers with party member data collected by the MAPP
project (Van Haute, Paulis, & Sierens, 2018), the article makes several innovative
contributions to the existing literature. Firstly, it applies the influential framework of
parties’ internal opinion structure (May, 1973) to a new party stratum: staffers.
Secondly, it examines congruence between staffers and party members in depth by
relying on seven concrete policy statements instead of a general left-right scale. These
separate statements allow for analysing congruence for each party on seven policy
domains. Thirdly, the article uncovers the drivers of parties’ internal incongruences
by comparing the difference between staffers and members to generational and
educational divides.
In the last empirical article, I examine staffers’ procedural relationship to parties by
analysing their interactions with elected elites. The underlying idea is that the
30
potential democratic deficit might be compensated if elected elites are able to control
the activities of political staffers. The article addresses the following research
question: How can elected elites hold political staffers democratically accountable (RQ4)? Based
on the influential theoretical frame of delegation and accountability (Strom, 2003),
the article first examines staffers’ autonomy and influence. Thereafter, it analyses the
involvement of three types of elected elites (party leaders, MPs and ministers) in the
recruitment and monitoring of staffers to see whether politicians actually have
sufficient opportunities to exert democratic control of staffers’ activities. This
innovative article directly investigates the existence of a structural accountability
deficit among staffers by bringing in new and interesting concepts from legislative
studies. Moreover, it examines whether the degree of control by elected elites is the
highest where it matters the most: among more influential and autonomous staffers.
The concluding chapter returns to the central research question of this dissertation:
does the involvement of unelected staffers in politics create a democratic deficit? By
bringing together the findings from the four empirical articles, I assess whether
staffers’ links to political parties are strong enough to legitimize their political impact
from a democratic standpoint. What are the larger implications of the existence of
this unelected elite for representative democracy in Belgium and the Netherlands?
Moreover, I reflect on the generalizability of the findings of this study beyond
Belgium and the Netherlands. To what extent can the results be transferred to
countries with similar institutional settings? Lastly, I consider how future researchers
can build on the ideas and findings of this dissertation to expand and improve our
understanding of the complex relationship between political staffers, parties and
representative democracy.
31
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37
Chapter 2
Theoretical Framework
1. Introduction
In this chapter, I develop the central argument of this dissertation by building on
research from three disciplines that have focused on political staffers: legislative
studies, public administration and party politics. Compared to the existing literature,
this PhD dissertation takes a distinctly unique approach by making two innovative
contributions. Firstly, this study breaks new theoretical ground by introducing party
loyalty as a mechanism to keep political staffers democratically accountable. In my
view, the existing literature has rightfully questioned the democratic legitimacy of
staffers’ political influence. After all, the direct involvement of staffers in political
decision-making seems at odds with principles of representative democracy (Dahl,
2008). This dissertation aims to contribute to this fascinating debate by addressing
the following central research question: does the existence of this unelected elite
create a democratic deficit? Previous studies have argued that legal arrangements
(Tiernan, 2007) and loyalty to individual elected representatives (Romzek, 2000) can
prevent staffers from overstepping their democratic boundaries. However, these
contributions have overlooked how party loyalty can also keep their actions of
aligned with the political preferences of voters and politicians.
Secondly, this study breaks new empirical ground by including staffers from
parliamentary offices, ministerial offices and parties’ central offices into one
integrated analysis. Such a broad empirical focus is rare because existing research is
scattered across different disciplines that focus on a particular subpopulation of
political staffers (e.g. ministerial advisors). However, I argue that this integrated
38
approach is enriching because it enables systematic comparison between different
types of staffers. The issue of democratic accountability affects all subpopulations.
The democratic legitimacy of their unique position has been questioned by legislative
scholars (Romzek, 2000), public administration scholars (Abbott & Cohen, 2014)
and party scholars alike (Karlsen & Saglie, 2017). I argue that party loyalty is an
accountability mechanism that can keep all types of political staffers accountable.
Although it might not always be equally strong, the relationship between staffers and
political parties is equally relevant for parliamentary staffers (Monroe, 2001),
ministerial staffers (Silva, 2017) and party staffers (Webb & Fisher, 2003) because it
has implications for democratic accountability.
To kick off this chapter, I first introduce the conceptual building blocks that give this
study its broad empirical focus. The conceptual section clarifies the empirical
boundaries of this study by introducing a definition of political staffers and
discussing the internal diversity that characterises this population. On the individual
level, I build on the work of Karlsen and Saglie (2017) to analyse differences between
staffers’ tasks. On the party face level, I draw from Katz and Mair’s (1992) seminal
work on parties’ internal organization to examine the variation between staffers from
different political offices (parliamentary office, ministerial office and central office).
The chapter then follows the distinction between party faces to dive into the existing
literature on political staffers. More specifically, I discuss the work of legislative
scholars (parliamentary staff), public administration scholars (ministerial staff) and
party scholars (party staff). For each of these subpopulations, I describe the main
findings of previous studies and specify which elements from the literature play an
important part within this dissertation. The literature review shows how these
separate disciplines have pursued their own empirical and theoretical approaches to
political staffers in relative isolation. Firstly, legislative scholars have focused on
parliamentary staffers’ impact on policy making, their relationship with elected elites
and career patterns. Secondly, public administration scholars have addressed
ministerial staffers’ demographic characteristics, their impact on the civil service and
39
how they affect governance structures. Thirdly, a limited number of party scholars
has focused on the way in which staffers have professionalized party organizations
while also observing that staffers’ professionalism can go hand in hand with activism.
Despite the lack of exchanges between these different strands of literature, however,
the political accountability of staffers is a common concern throughout the fractured
literature on this unelected elite.
This extensive overview of the existing literature provides essential context for
appreciating the original theoretical focus of this dissertation, which is presented in
the last part of the chapter. In that section, I develop the theoretical foundations of
this study by addressing how party loyalty among political staffers acts as an
accountability mechanism. Based on a principal-agent perspective, I reflect on
staffers’ position within the democratic chain of accountability (Strøm, 2000) and
apply the responsible party model (Mair, 2008) to this unique population.
2. Central Concepts
Compared to voters, elected elites or party members, political staffers do not
frequently appear in the work of political scientists. While most readers might have
a general sense of the differences between staffers and other political actors, it is not
always entirely clear who exactly belongs to this group. In this section, I
conceptualize political staffers by defining their key characteristics and discussing
two sources of internal variation: their individual tasks and the political offices in
which they operate.
2.1. Definition
The existing literature on staffers often uses diverging terminology to describe them.
This long list of terms includes (amongst others): congressional staff (Salisbury &
Shepsle, 1981b), policy entrepreneurs (Price, 1971), ministerial or special advisors
(Shaw & Eichbaum, 2018), political professionals (Panebianco, 1988) and party
employees (Karlsen & Saglie, 2017). This diverse terminology not only reflects the
40
lack of conceptual exchange between disciplines, it also illustrates how researchers
have often focused on slightly different (sub)populations. For example, some have
exclusively focused on strategic advisors within a particular political office (e.g.
parliamentary committee or ministerial office) while others have analysed all political
and technical personnel from several political offices (e.g. both party headquarters
and parliament). The differences in terminology often lead to conceptual and
empirical ambiguities and most studies lack a clear, complete definition of the
population they are studying (Pickering, Brans & Gouglas, 2019). As this dissertation
aims to bridge the gap between various disciplines, I intentionally develop a broad-
ranging definition to unite this diverse population into one overarching term: political
staffers.
Political staffers are individuals with a remunerated, unelected position
that have been politically recruited within a party’s central office,
parliamentary party group or ministerial office.
This definition of political staffers sets out four necessary conditions for belonging
to the population of interest studied in this dissertation: political staffers are
remunerated, do not get elected, are politically recruited and work inside of a political
party or public institution (Table 2.1.). In the following paragraph, I discuss these
four conditions and identify the other types of political actors they exclude.
Table 2.1. Key characteristics of Political Staffers
Criterion
Exclusion
Remuneration
Volunteers
Unelected position
Elected officials
Political recruitment
Civil servants
Inside organization/institution
Independent consultants
Firstly, political staffers receive a salary in return for their activities, which sets them
apart from volunteers like party members. Although volunteers remain relevant to
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the political process, the focus of this study is on the individuals who are directly
employed within party organizations, party groups or ministerial offices. The origin
of their salary can either be the party payroll, the parliamentary party group or a
ministerial office (Monroe, 2001; Webb & Kolodny, 2006). Secondly, political
staffers hold unelected positions, which sets them apart from elected officials like
party leaders, MPs or ministers (Svallfors, 2020). In contrast to elected elites, staffers
are appointed by party organizations or elected officials after a non-public
recruitment process. In general, they operate behind the scenes, remaining invisible
to the public at large (Laube, Schank & Scheffer, 2020). Thirdly, political staffers are
recruited on a political basis by party organizations or elected elites, which sets
them apart from civil servants (Hustedt, Kolltveit & Salomonsen, 2017). Admittedly,
the civil service can itself be subject to party patronage (Kopecký, Mair & Spirova,
2012) and a considerable portion of staffers has professional experience or future
ambitions as a civil servant (Karlsen & Saglie, 2017). However, such ‘hidden
professionals” within the civil service (Panebianco, 1988, p. 234) are excluded
because they are formally employed by the state. In contrast, political staffers are
hired directly by party organizations or politicians. Fourthly, political staffers are
employed by party organizations, parliamentary party groups or ministerial
offices, which sets them apart from external campaign consultants (Farrell, Kolodny
& Medvic, 2001) and firms who offer parties PR – and digital services (Dommett,
Kefford & Power, 2020). Although Panebianco’s seminal work on
professionalization did include such external actors, the author explicitly addressed
internal staffers as well (Panebianco, 1988, pp. 229-231).
2.2. Variation between individual staffers
The broadly defined population of political staffers includes a diverse set of
individuals, ranging from administrative clerks to spin doctors and policy wonks. To
distinguish between different groups of staffers, several authors have developed
typologies based on their roles and tasks. As the existing typologies of ministerial
staff focus on staffers in advisory roles only (Maley, 2000; Connaughton, 2010a), this
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dissertation builds on the typology proposed by Karlsen and Saglie (2017). They
describe four types of staffers based on their tasks: communication adviser, political
adviser, organizational adviser and administrative position. Using this categorization
as the conceptual backbone, I make a fine-grained distinction between six types of
staffers based on their principal activities: managers, policy experts, communication
experts, political assistants, party organizers and administration & support. As all
staffers within this study were categorized based on their job titles, table 2.2 details
which job descriptions were assigned to a particular category.
Table 2.2. Staffers’ individual tasks
Director (central office, ministerial office), party group
secretary, head of general policy (ministerial office), cabinet
secretary (ministerial office)
Policy advice (party study service, party group or ministerial
office)
experts
Director of communications, communication cell staff,
spokesperson (party leader, party group or minister), internal
party communication staff, translator, public relations staff
assistants
Personal assistant (party leader, MP or minister),
parliamentary liaison (ministerial office)
Coach of local sections/campaigns (central office), experts in
local policy (central office), assistants to party subgroups
(youth, women, elderly, ...)
& support
Finance and accounting, human resources, IT, reception,
administration, catering (central office or ministerial office),
personal driver (party leader, minister)
Managers ensure that the political machine runs smoothly. As central figureheads,
they are responsible for translating a party’s political-strategic goals into an effective