The innovative personality? Policy making and experimentation in an authoritarian bureaucracy

Date01 August 2019
AuthorReza Hasmath,Orion A. Lewis,Jessica C. Teets
Published date01 August 2019
The innovative personality? Policy making and experimentation
in an authoritarian bureaucracy
Reza Hasmath
|Jessica C. Teets
|Orion A. Lewis
University of Alberta, Canada
Middlebury College, USA
Professor Reza Hasmath, 1010 H.M. Tory
Building, Department of Political Science,
University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 2H4,
Funding information
Chiang Chingkuo Foundation for International
Scholarly Exchange; Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council of Canada
Why do local officials in an authoritarian bureaucracy experiment with policy, even
when directed not to do so by centrallevel officials? This study suggests that policy
experimentation in this institutional environment can best be understood as an inter-
action between the structure in which local officials are embedded and individual
level personality attributes. Leveraging a new data set from a series of original sur-
veys with local policy makers in mainland China, conducted between 2016 and
2018, we discern three baseline personality types: authoritarian, consultative, and
entrepreneurial. We thereafter examine the individuallevel characteristics of local
officials who will innovate irrespective of a centralization of bureaucratic power
and interests, as currently experienced under Chinese President Xi Jinping. We find
that local policy makers engage in policy innovation when they are more focused
on resolving governance problems and that increased risk reduces but does not elim-
inate their willingness to innovate. Based on these findings, we contend that future
studies of policy innovation should use an evolutionary framework to examine the
interaction between preferences and selection pressures.
authoritarian institutions, China, governance, local government, policy innovation, policy makers'
personality, risk tolerance
Although policy makers may desire to change policy, this process
often involves incremental experimentation, whereby a new policy is
tested before being adopted more broadly (Kingdon, 1995). This is
often the case because achieving policy change is difficult, but never-
theless, a worthwhile venture because it may solve governance prob-
lems by allowing policy makers to create focused policies to tackle
persistent problems (Mintrom & Norman, 2009). This is especially ben-
eficial for states deciding between different models of social services,
transitioning the economy, or bringing in voices and perspectives tra-
ditionally not represented in policy making.
Although much of the literature on policy experimentation is
based on the study of Western electoral democracies (see Roberts
& King, 1991; Shipan & Volden, 2008), scholars have increasingly
researched this topic in authoritarian states such as China (see Ham-
mond, 2013; Teets, Hasmath, & Lewis, 2017; Zhu & Zhang, 2016).
Most studies analyzing policy experimentation in authoritarian
regimes have a tendency to look at the behavior of the bureaucratic
state as the primary actor, without factoring in other actors such as
private businesses and civil society organizations in this process and
thus, mostly focus on the role of officials in promoting policy exper-
iments (see Gel'man & Lankina, 2008). These studies generally exam-
ine the structural context of local officials and draw upon Max
Weber's (1964) seminal work looking at how lower level bureaucrats
are riskadverse rule followers rather than policy innovators or prob-
lem solvers. In an authoritarian environment such as China, local pol-
icy experimentation is thus commonly explained by the preferences
and directives of centrallevel officials (Heilmann, 2008; Zhu &
Zhang, 2016).
Received: 3 December 2018 Revised: 28 March 2019 Accepted: 30 April 2019
DOI: 10.1002/pad.1854
154 © 2019 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Public Admin Dev. 2019;

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