The Conditional Effect of Specialized Governance on Public Policy


  • Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 2003 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association and in seminars at Georgetown, Temple, MIT, the University of Michigan, and the Harris School at the University of Chicago. I am grateful to Bruce Cain, Judy Gruber, Margaret Weir, and Ray Wolfinger for their guidance in the early stages of this research and to Chris Wlezien, Pat Egan, and several anonymous reviewers for especially helpful feedback. The Institute of Governmental Studies and the Water Resources Center Archives, both at the University of California, Berkeley, assisted in obtaining the data analyzed here, and the National Science Foundation (SES-0315293) provided financial support.

Megan Mullin is assistant professor of political science, Temple University, 408 Gladfelter Hall, (025-22), 1115 West Berks Street, Philadelphia, PA 19122-6089 (


What are the policy consequences of creating functionally specialized venues for decision making? This study directly compares special districts with general purpose local governments to evaluate how specialization influences responsiveness and policy choice. Previous theorizing has assumed that specialization should have the same effect across all policy contexts. The findings presented here show instead that its effect is conditional on the status of public problems. Objective conditions related to a policy issue more strongly influence the responsiveness of multipurpose legislatures than that of special districts; thus the institutional effect of functional specialization varies with the severity of the public problem. The result is that governing structure matters most where problems are least severe. The findings demonstrate the importance of considering policy context when analyzing the effects of political institutions.