FRAL - Programme franco-allemand en Sciences humaines et sociales

Conditional Responsiveness in France and Germany – CondResp

Conditional responsiveness in France and Germany

The CondResp project aimed at improving our understanding of the conditions under which elected representatives in Germany and France are likely to respond to requests from their constituents. In a context of growing rejection of government parties and political elites in general, this project focused on the factors that could facilitate exchanges between elected officials and voters. The goal is to contribute to a more general reflection on the representative link in contemporary democracies.

What determines the responsiveness of politicians?

This project aims to identify the conditions of politicians's responsiveness by focusing on three main factors. The literature develops a number of hypotheses on this subject. First, the political calendar is essential: policies are more responsive closer to the elections. They are particularly reactive if these electoral results are close. Popularity figures play a similar role outside of election periods. Second, the institutional context exposes or blurs the chains of responsibility and thus facilitates or hinders responsiveness. Finally, the economic context affects reactivity insofar as a positive economic balance allows the government to relax listening and keeping promises, while an economic slowdown increases the electoral cost of non-reactivity on other issues.<br />Growing distrust in Western democracies, especially among the ruling elites, has prompted researchers to further research the relationships between voters and representatives. Responsiveness has proven to be one of the main determinants of the quality of this relationship. However, we also know that the performance of a regime can in itself generate or strengthen a feeling of trust and among voters.<br />However, existing work fails to explain the determinants of this relationship. Our work is a contribution to this research on the analytical and normative level.

Empirical work on the dynamics of policymaking shows that periods of intense change alternate with periods of less activity (Baumgartner and Jones 2005). According to this approach, decision-makers spend most of their time solving problems rather than implementing electoral programs (Adler and Wilkerson 2012). Problems are difficult to hierarchize. Politicians tend to respond to emergencies. This thesis would contradict that of constant responsiveness. We aim to solve this puzzle by trying to understand how the dynamics of policy making and responsiveness interact.
We carried out an experiment by contacting all the French and German MPs twice, in order to study their responsiveness by varying several control variables. Based on the results obtained, we decided to extend our research work in order to give a more complete picture of representative work, with a view to writing a book on representation in France and Germany. Thus, a second study concerns questions of government. We collected the questions to the government asked during the legislatures studied (the 14th in France, the 18th in Germany), in order to see if, beyond the services rendered to voters («constitution service«), the deputies asked questions particularly visible from the riding point of view. In order to better understand the place and methods of these questions, we also carried out interviews with deputies. Finally, we collected aggregated data, in order to compare the dynamics of the representative link at the level of deputies with aggregated logics. This part of the work is still in progress and the results are not yet stabilized.

The results of the main study went against our initial expectations. Indeed, the «salience« of the issue seems to work against responsiveness. Response rates were much higher in the areas we considered less important. Likewise, electoral «vulnerability« seems to work against responsiveness. On the first point, we see it as the expression of a sort of avoidance strategy in relation to overly complex questions (the economic issue) or its politically delicate character (immigration). There may be a form of strategy to minimize the effort on behalf of representatives. These results are, in any event, in contradiction with the results of comparable studies in the United States. On the second element, the effect of electoral vulnerability, the results are also counter-intuitive. Indeed, deputies who are vulnerable from an electoral point of view are also the least able to respond to requests from voters. It is as if in the hierarchy of priorities relations with individual voters, direct contact would become less important in a situation of electoral fragility, perhaps benefit from exchanges with greater visibility, such as public acts, apparitions in the media or whatever.

I consider that the study has achieved most of its objectives. We were able to test the main theses put forward in the literature and we were able to question some of these theses, so as to contribute to the knowledge of the representative link.
The contribution is multiple. First, as described among the initial objectives, we have enriched the existing literature with the addition of new cases. These new cases clearly posed a problem from the perspective of existing empirical work.
But we are not limited to the rejection of existing explanations. Rather, we have developed (and are still developing) alternative explanations that we have tested on our cases. Thus, we have shown, in particular, that in political systems where political competition is dominated by parties, reactivity is mainly at the partisan level. This is not to say that representatives are not trying to signal their attachment to their constituents, but that this attachment is more limited. It expresses itself well, as we explained above, through «constituency service«, but this type of activity is practically a luxury, reserved for those who are not in electoral danger. In other words, this type of responsiveness is more common outside the electoral period and for candidates who enjoy a comfortable margin in their constituency.
There are a number of things to clarify, however. In terms of questions to the government, we discovered that the autonomy of deputies is much less. The parties tend to provide a fairly firm framework for these relatively visible activities. And parties of course control much more, partisan positions and the legislative process itself.

Two scientific articles submitted, a book manuscript under preparation.

The basic premise of democratic governance is that government represents citizen wishes. In its simplest form, governments assess citizen wishes based on electoral outcomes and publicly expressed problems and respond to these demands by enacting laws. Citizens in turn readjust their priorities as policies change. This project examines if and when governments respond to citizen demands. Our main contention is that government responsiveness is not constant and not a given; instead it is conditioned on the electoral pressure placed on government. We conceptualize electoral pressure in two ways: proximity to the election and government approval ratings. Governments are most responsive shortly before elections and when their electoral fortunes are threatened. We focus on polls on government popularity as an indicator of government approval between elections; electoral polls are used as an indicator of closeness. Finally, we contend that economic context may disrupt the connection between citizens and government. The proposal acknowledges previous work that explores how the linkage between citizens and government is modified by political institutions, such as electoral system, the type of government, and federalism. In addition to offering a more nuanced understanding of political responsiveness, the project delivers an innovative research design. Our investigation leverages empirical insights from two sources. First, we conduct a quantitative analysis of political activities using comparative policy agendas data. We concentrate our efforts to the period between 2007-2013 in France and Germany. France and Germany are a particularly interesting comparison in this context, as both followed a similar electoral calendar with one election in 2007/2008 and another one in 2012/2013 and an upcoming election in 2017 in both countries. Both countries also had to respond to the European economic crisis. Second, we test the micro-level mechanisms at the government and citizen level. A mail survey, which entails an experimental design, investigates if elected representatives respond to different public demands. We exploit a natural experiment occurring in public opinion surveys in order to test the readjustment of citizen wishes after governmental policy change. In short, this project delivers an important contribution to the understanding of when governments listen to public demands and provides evidence for the conditionality of responsiveness in Western democracies.

Project coordination

Grossman Emiliano (Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Centre d'études européennes)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


FNSP, CEE Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Centre d'études européennes
Uni Konstanz, Politik Universität Konstanz, FB Politik- und Verwaltungswissenschaft

Help of the ANR 177,840 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: January 2016 - 36 Months

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