Research Topics

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world”  

-Albert Einstein

An essential component of my research involves the institutional analysis in the Chinese bureaucratic setting. Specifically, I am exploring the potential pitfalls concealed in newly emerging bureaucratic phenomena, ranging from the civil service reform, a hybrid governance structure characterized by administrative subcontracts and political tournaments, to the evolving challenges faced by local administrations in implementing centrally mandated directives. My long-term vision is to provide policy solutions from the organizational and political economy perspectives premised on the recognition of China’s authoritarian nature and the immense disparities in economic development across regions. While current researchers have often pointed out numerous perils behind China’s rapid economic growth, their focus on solutions has generally come at the expense of much-needed descriptive work. It is thus my firm belief that correctly identifying and disclosing the problems associated with a variety of existing political, bureaucratic, and institutional setups is the only viable avenue for keeping central policymakers informed and accountable at the outset. Such disclosures, in theory, could engender greater responsibility to the public and help sustain China’s political and economic stability.

The first chapter of my dissertation is a case in point. By providing ample case-based evidence to illustrate the unintended consequences of China’s fiscal and personnel incentive systems, it fleshes out the divergent paths of development in different regions and appeals for the establishment of institutional safeguards against opportunistic behaviors in all levels of government. My second dissertation essay provides the first quantitative evidence affirming the media portrayal of an increasingly unhappy Chinese government workforce. Based on data gathered from two rounds of questionnaire surveys of enforcement team officials at the Guangzhou Environmental Protection Bureau (GEPB) in the years 2000 and 2014 respectively, I find that compared to the year 2000, GEPB officials’ overall levels of job satisfaction in 2014 have noticeably declined. More importantly, this decline can possibly be attributed to the ramifications of a series of civil service reforms undertaken also within the last 15 years. Drawing on semi-structured, in-depth interviews with leaders of environmental enforcement teams in all administrative districts of Guangzhou, the final empirical chapter of my dissertation systematically summarizes the factors contributing to the compromised effectiveness of local environmental enforcement. By simultaneously looking at broader institutional dilemmas inherent in local environmental management regimes, this piece advances our understanding of why the “gap between environmental regulation and regulatory enforcement”[1] stubbornly exists despite the central government’s heightened emphasis on environmental protection.

My other academic interests converge on issues of citizen participation in government. I am currently collaborating with Professors Hui Li and Terry L. Cooper on a project titled Revisiting Neighborhood Councils in Los Angeles: Board Performance and Organizational Effectiveness, which is being funded by the Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise and the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation. Established in 1999 in the City of Los Angeles as an institutional innovation in governance, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (NC) system has drawn attention both nationally and internationally. Unfortunately, the implementation of this governance reform has hardly been smooth. The changing administrative environment has resulted in fluctuating political support at the city level. Furthermore, the members of NCs at the organizational level have been disproportionately white, highly educated homeowners. The resulting socioeconomic bias calls into question the extent to which participatory institutions of this nature can fairly and effectively represent the entire communities. Given this scenario, we believe that the furtherance of NC research and practice must be built on a comprehensive, unbiased understanding of this system’s current functions and associated pitfalls. Through a carefully-designed survey submitted to leaders from a selected group of NCs, this project thus strives to conduct an independent evaluation of the effectiveness of the NC system in promoting civic engagement, resolving neighborhood issues, and advising city policies. A research paper on this project has been submitted to a refereed journal. In this paper, we argue that most NC leaders perceive their organizations as being moderately successful. To viably enhance the effectiveness of NCs, elected board members of individual NCs must focus on building internal capacities, honing external networking skills, and consistently transforming discussed ideas into doable actions.

Finally, I focus on the nature and impact of Public Service Motivation (PSM) – an academically popular concept used to represent the motivations of individuals to serve in public organizations. The importance of studying public employees’ motivation to work, on the surface, can easily be justified given the anticipated positive relationship between individuals’ PSM and their respective levels of work satisfaction and productivity (i.e., work performance). Intuitively convincing, this correlation is commonly assumed but seldom proven with credibility. The extent to which public employees’ enhanced PSM levels affect outcome variables, such as 1) job commitment and altruistic behaviors at the individual level and 2) effectiveness, cultivation of public values, and accumulation of social capital at the organizational level, remains unclear. The major difficulty lies in the fact that most existing empirical studies of PSM exploit self-reported performance/survey data, which are likely to yield biased results. To address this deficiency and thus partially answer whether individuals’ PSM functions as a socially relevant and pragmatically consequential variable, I turn to experimental inquiries for valid causal inference. The project I’m currently working on with Professor William G. Resh is a noteworthy example. In light of a “real-effort” experiment that randomly assigns varying organizational missions to a common task across subjects, we find that the effect of mission match is almost twice as strong as that of PSM on individuals’ levels of persistence in carrying out altruistic goals under conditions of negative feedback. This suggests that individuals’ narrow identification with the mission of the particular organization on whose behalf they are working functions as a far more important determinant of persistence than does a more broad-based, other-regarding orientation. More counterintuitively, the self-sacrifice dimension of PSM fails to serve as a discernible moderator that strengthens the relationship between mission match and individuals’ persistence of prosocial work effort. The co-authored manuscript resulting from this study has been accepted for publication in Public Administration Review.

In addition to converting my dissertation chapters and ongoing research projects into refereed journal articles, I plan to build on and extend my existing lines of work in a number of ways. First, an arguably key limitation in my dissertation research stems from its primary reliance on the job perceptions and assessments of GEPB (Guangzhou Environmental Protection Bureau) officials as a window of opportunity to opine on the determinants of job sentiments of Chinese public sector employees at large. To ensure that my research findings stand up to scrutiny in broader contexts, I will collect both qualitative and quantitative data from other Chinese cities with different socioeconomic landscapes or political histories. In addition, Professor Cooper and I recently joined a research project, led by Professor Thomas Bryer from the University of Central Florida, that sheds light on the problem of the democratic integration of migrants in communities. Following the deliberative model, namely the Learning and Design Forum, developed in the City of Los Angeles during the formative years of the Neighborhood Council system enacted in that city, this project specifically examines whether this very model can be applied to smooth emergent, albeit potentially troubled, relations between included-in and included-out citizens (e.g., immigrants; refugees) in cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, and Miami. Finally, I intend to continuously collaborate with Professor Resh (and his colleagues) in conducting prosocial (public service) motivation research. One of the fundamental focal points undergirding my research revolves around the question of why PSM should be anyone’s concern. Given the fact that individuals simultaneously assume multiple roles in society and are only partially invested in the rule-bound organizations for which they work, should PSM be considered as merely a “far-fetched, idealistic concept with little relationship to the harsh realities of public management practice?[2] If not, how can we account for the empirically disarrayed correlations between PSM and outcome variables? This concern can never be addressed without a more sophisticated approach to studying the individuals’ true levels of PSM. Following this rationale, Professors Resh, Marvel, and I are utilizing a validated implicit measure of prosocial motivation (I-PRO), which is largely immune to social desirability bias, to investigate whether individuals’ uninflated prosocial motivation will be crowded out by self-interest (e.g., material rewards) under various circumstances. Since research in this vein is currently in its prime, we strongly believe that our pursuit(s) will soon come to fruition.

[1] Lo, Carlos Wing-Hung, and Gerald Erick Fryxell. 2005. Governmental and Societal Support for Environmental Enforcement in China: An Empirical Study in Guangzhou. Journal of Development Studies 41(4): 561.

[2] Vandenabeele, Wouter, Gene Brewer, and Adrian Ritz. 2014. Past, Present, and Future of Public Service Motivation Research. Public Administration 92(4): 779.


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