Reporting from Harvard

Adolphus Bush Hall

After the first six weeks in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I have finally ramped up my coffee consumption to normal, organ damaging levels again. It also took some time to get accustomed to a couple of things, such as not having severe fits of food envy whenever a squirrel hastily crosses my path clinging to a nut – which happens often. So, it seems like a good time to write a bit on my academic and personal experience so far during by fellowship at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University.

With its beautiful campus that takes up a good part of Cambridge, Harvard makes it easy to immerse into its microcosm. The Center has been very welcoming and is making a great effort to realize its usual top-notch event program despite the pandemic and the uncertainties it entails. There have been various events on the German elections, and I was also able to participate as speaker in a panel on the German 2021 national elections at Boston University. It is a great pleasure to attend the “Seminar on State and Capitalism since 1800” hosted by Peter Hall and Kathleen Thelen, which features highly interesting presentations and discussions.

View on Cambridge from Charles River at sunset

Among us Kennedy fellows, we are also planning to have our own seminar in which we can present and discuss our work from different perspectives – which promises to be interesting, as our backgrounds are economy, history, and political science. There is no hurry, though, as we are all still busy with various other things. Of course, current projects do not simply end when going abroad but continue to take their toll. Nonetheless, the fellowship is a fantastic opportunity to concentrate on a research project and provides the space to go down some rabbit holes one would perhaps not consider otherwise.

Walden Pond

Gladly, besides settling in and getting to work on my research project, there has been enough time to get some impressions of Boston and other parts of New England. A trip to Walden Pond and the remnants of Henry David Thoreau’s hut is clearly a must when in Boston – especially for the aficionado of simplistic home furnishings. His temporary home there really was quite small and frugal – certainly not much do to there even for Marie Kondo – and one can easily imagine his mother and his sisters feeling the need to bring him sandwiches to support his contemplation about a free and independent existence in harmony with nature.


As a group of Kennedy fellows, we also went further north to the beautiful Lake Sunapee (New Hampshire) for a hike and to see a bit more of Indian summer. Fortunately, we were blessed with great weather until the end of October. Now, I am waiting to see if the winter really is as cold as a number of people have remarked and whether it will be the ideal occasion to stock up on Harvard hoodies as that extra layer to keep me warm. But first, I am preparing to fend off possible imminent attempts of sugar-crazed youngsters to decimate my candy stash. Happy Holloween!

Pascal König

New article on the legitimacy gap of algorithmic decision-making in the public sector

A new article by Georg Wenzelburger and Pascal König has just been published in Technology in Society.

Adding to the literature on challenges of algorithmic decision-making systems, the authors draw attention to how a legitimacy gap of algorithmic decision-making in the public sector arises and how it can be addressed through stakeholder involvement.

The paper starts from the widely discussed observation in the literature that even though ADM systems in the public sector promise to enhance the performance and efficiency of government, specifically in operative or front-line decision-making, they introduce a range of challenges regarding opaqueness, unfairness, and value trade-offs. However, and moving beyond this vivid discussion on how fair, accountable and transparent ADM systems, the paper emphasizes that the advent of algorithmic decision-making in the public sector rises a much more fundamental challenge which cannot be solved by the current proposals of ethical AI: In fact, as the introduction of ADM systems enables us to obtain certain outcomes of decisions by changing decision parameters ex ante, the epistemic basis of decision-making and therefore the foundation of legitimacy of ADM systems in administrative decision-making is put into question. The authors argue that the traditional basis of legitimacy, which has guided decision-making in public management and administration so far, therefore no longer suffices.

To close this legitimacy gap, the authors propose a model for stakeholder participation in ADM system adoption and design choice, based on a critical civic society, journalism and an algorithmic literacy in the populace. The model identifies the cornerstones of a participatory stakeholder involvement process and addresses the challenges involved in this process.

Louisa Prien

Three papers on algorithms

We are happy to announce that three articles on algorithmic systems linked to the project “Deciding about, by, and together with algorithmic decision-making systems” have just been published.

The first article has appeared in European Political Science and discusses whether and where algorithms could improve decision-making in democratic politics. The paper concludes that in decision areas that are merely about finding the appropriate means for given ends, they may indeed have a place. Policy instrument choice is likely candidate in this regard. It is, however, dangerous to think one could bring algorithmic systems to the heart of political decision-making to achieve better problem-solving. One of the main objections to this possibility is that politics simply is not about problem-solving.

The second paper, published in Current Issues in Criminal Justice discusses in what sense algorithmic risk assessments provide evidence to be used in decision-making, using the example of pretrial in the US. The paper show that there is quite some variation in how existing pretrial tools are designed and point to how there is even further discretion in creating and evaluating these applications. Also, even where pretrial risk assessment tools adhere to methodological standards – and some are exemplary in this respect -, these standards may not be helpful in judging what exactly constitutes “good” decision making. In a nutshell, what counts as a good performance of a risk assessment tool depends on scholarly conventions and these conventions can serve to make comparisons between statistical models, but they cannot directly be transferred to contexts with real-world stakes of decision-making.

Finally the third paper, published in the British Journal of Criminology, looks at three US states to study why they have rolled back the implementation of pretrial risk assessment tools. The development and implementation of these tools are commonly dealt with in policy subsystems with little public attention. However, once a politicization of these tools occurs, the paper argues, this is likely to thwart their implementation. This is not so much a question of technical properties or performance that may or may not characterize these risk assessment rools. Rather, they are likely to reach high-level politics through political actors publicly linking them to ideas and concerns about opacity, fairness and public safety. Strikingly, it seems to be possible to discredit these tools along the lines of a “penal populism”, i.e. through presenting them as an approach that is weak on crime and a threat to public safety. As a result, it is the politically safer option to stick with the status quo.

Pascal König

New article on the role of artificial intelligence for democracy

How does artificial intelligence (AI) affect democracy? A recent article by Pascal König and Georg Wenzelburger published in Government Information Quarterly tackles this question. The paper highlights how the adoption of AI, with its capability of solving specialized cognitive tasks, heavily intervenes into the informational foudations of societies. In doing so, it affects information requirements that are at the basis of the democratic political process and that condition the realization of responsiveness and accountability. Drawing on systems theory, the article shows that AI can reduce or increase information deficits of both citizens and decision-makers on the input, throughout, and output level of the political system. This is illustrated by means of two contrasting scenarios that describe how AI can change the workings of democratic government.

The paper also discusses that the challenges to liberal democracy that arise with the adoption of AI in politics, despite their novel technological dimension, show considerable continuity with long-standing transparency and accountability problems. Democracy is not made obsolete in face of new possibilities of steering through AI. To the contary, the political ideas that are embodied in liberal democracy and that safeguard responsiveness and accountability already offer important answers to how the adoption of AI can strengthen democratic politics.

Realizing this outcome and avoiding a negative, possibly disruptive, impact on democracy will require institutionalizing suitable governance mechanisms. This is a challenging task, especially on the input level of politics where applications of AI already markedly intervene into processes of public opinion formation, but where the governing of such applications can also easily have adverse effects.

Pascal König

New article about the relevance of “agency” and recent developments in the literature on party politics

In his most recent article “Bringing agency back into the study of partisan politics: A note on recent developments in the literature on party politics“ Reimut Zohlnhöfer and Georg Wenzelburger present some new ideas about recent developments in the literature on partisan effects on policy-making.

The authors start from the observation that several recent studies have called for an “electoral turn” in partisan theory. These studies suggest that scholars should strive for establishing a party–voter link on the micro-level depending on the policy area at stake, because the traditionally stable relationships between parties and certain groups of voters are decreasing.

In their contribution, Zohlnhöfer and Wenzelburger add to this literature by claiming that the “electoral turn”-literature seems to downplay other sources that may be responsible for partisan effects on public policies. While they acknowledge that vote seeking motives are still important, the authors argue that political actors and their preferences should not be considered mere agents of voter preferences. Regarding the effect of partisan ideology on public policies from an “agency-based” approach, party positions and the policies parties adopt in government can also be developed on the level of party members or policy-makers themselves.

The article suggests that future research on the role of parties in policy-making should focus on a systematic assessment of the empirical implications of the model and define the conditions under which this approach works best.

Louisa Prien

Good news for anybody concerned with the state of modern democracy: New article on the voter’s reaction to social policy changes

Are voters unable to respond to policy changes or do they respond by rewarding or punishing the government?

In a recent paper, published in Governance, Georg Wenzelburger and his Co-authors Christoph Arndt and Carsten Jensen test the policy-vote link under circumstances where policymakers are clearly responsible for the events to happen, in this case changes to welfare legislation. The welfare state is an ideal area for testing this claim, as social policy issues affect life chances of many citizens. Thus, the article relates to a core aspect of the “blind retrospection perspective” that has not been put to test before.

Empirically, the study integrates existing survey data from the German Politbarometer with a unique, new dataset on legislative policy decisions regulating the generosity of old age pensions and unemployment protection (from the WSCEP project). This setup allows tracking the policy-vote link for 329,167 respondents from 1977 to 2013.

The results clearly indicate that voters react to policy changes in a meaningful way, but also that they can be distracted by high-profile, extreme events. On average, expanding generosity of old age pensions and unemployment protection leads to higher government popularity, while cutbacks have the opposite effect. Moreover, the study shows that most voters respond to policy changes within the first month or two (see Figure below).

In sum, the paper does not find support for the rather blunt notion of blind retrospection according to which voters are unable to react meaningfully to policy decisions as they lack information. Instead, voters do respond to very visible policy changes that affect their lives, but extreme events can overshadow these reactions at times. This is good news for anybody concerned with the state of modern democracy!

Louisa Prien

Disputation of Helge Staff

On 17 January, our former colleague Helge Staff visited the TU Kaiserslautern political science department. Helge, who is now working in the project “Administration and Science” (“Verwaltung und Wissenschaft”) at the University of Hannover, made his way to Kaiserslautern to complete his dissertation with the oral exam (disputatio).
We congratulate him to taking this big step and to the excellent result he achieved!

As for the work that Helge defended in the exam: His doctoral thesis deals with the political economy of private security in a way that makes both a theoretical and empirical contribution to the literature. The thesis combines policy analysis and specifically the multiple streams framework with criminological work in an innovative fashion. With its multi-method approach that integrates quantitative analysis and the qualitative method of process tracing, the study probes what determines policy choices for the privatization of security as well as which factors condition relevant policy outcomes. The results from the analyses point to the importance of government composition – which party is in government? – and to a central role played by policy entrepreneurs.

So, policy scholars and criminologists may want to look out for a significant addition to the literature on law and order policy being published in the next time.

Pascal König

Project Meeting in Birmingham

For the January meeting of the Volkswagen-Stiftung-funded project “Deciding about, by, and together with algorithmic decision making systems”, the project groups met at Birmingham University. After reflecting on the previous achievements in the project, the meeting served to place a stronger emphasis on the law perspective and to focus more on the criminal justice dimension of the project.

We took some time to discuss scenarios that the Birmingham group had prepared with great effort. They were modeled after real cases in which ADM systems are used in the British criminal justice system and underscored the importance of dealing with the ways in which ADM systems may intervene in social practices, including in very sensitive areas. These scenarios as well as presentations by Professors Karen Yeung and Wolfgang Schulz helped to sharpen our understanding of what is at stake when using ADM systems in the criminal justice process and which decisions at the various stages need to be explicitly considered. Based on this input, we talked about the next steps and action points to be tackled in the second year of the project.

Besides having a very productive meeting, we also had the chance to experience the Indian cuisine of Birmingham and we learned about Old Joe, the university’s clock tower, apparently habing been an inspiration for the work of J.R. Tolkien.

Pascal König

New article on the Appearance-Based Effects in the Elections to the U.S. House of Representatives 2016

This article considers at the impact of appearance on the US House of Representatives 2016 elections. The authors expect the perceived attractiveness, competence, or sympathy to predict the electoral success of House of Representatives candidates. Furthermore, the article raises the question of whether the effects on appearance are conditioned by the status of detention, sex and age of the candidates. If one regards the difference between the winner’s and the runner’s first votes as a dependent variable, one finds that only the attractiveness has a positive effect on the share of votes. Perceived sympathy and competence show no significant effects. These results support the work of Berggren and colleagues (2010), who also recognize attractiveness as a relevant factor. Furthermore, the results of the current article show that attractiveness plays a role especially for those candidates who have the advantage of tenure. In addition, the studies show that gender-specific differences in appearance are observed. Being sympathetic to one’s own appearance helps a candidate to compete with another woman.

For more information click here.

Daniel Meyer

New paper on digitization and democracy in Politische Vierteljahresschrift

How do digital technologies and particularly data-driven algorithmic decision-making and artificial intelligence affect democratic governance? In a recent German comment entitled “The Digital Temptation” and published in the journal Politische Vierteljahresschrift, I address this question. The article adopts a broad perspective and discusses how the emergence of an “algorithmic society” in which people increasingly delegate decisions to machines can undermine the bases of a free society. The main argument developed in the comment is that through relying more and more on such machines only because they deliver satisfactory performance prepares the ground for paternalistic forms of power and dependence in liberal democracies – an arrangement which is not markedly different from the Chinese Credit System, which uses a scoring of citizens to direct their lives toward predefined goals and values.

Pascal König