Project

The Rise and Fall of Public Institutions

Goal: Modern society depends on well-functional institutions. When these institutions fall apart or disappear, society unravels. The design and maintenance of institutions is therefore a critical task of political and administrative elites.

We know very little about the drivers of successful institutionalization. We know even less about the factors and strategies that help keep these institutions in place (without becoming sclerotic and dysfunctional). We do not know much about the secrets of successful institution building.

In a time when public institutions everywhere have become subject of quick erosion, these insights are needed more than ever. This project aims to revive the study of public institutions, building on the work started early on in the previous century. It also seeks to modernize the study of public institutions, making use of new methodologies and interdisciplinary insights.

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Project log

Paul 't Hart
added a research item
Journalists, politicians, watchdog institutions, and public administration scholars devote considerable energy to identifying and dissecting failures in government. Studies and case-studies of policy, organizational and institutional failures in the public sector figure prominently in public administration curriculums and classrooms. Such a focus on failures provides students with cautionary tales and theoretical tools for understanding how things can go badly wrong. However, students are provided with less insights and tools when it comes to identifying and understanding instances of success. To address this imbalance, this article offers students a framework to systematically identify, comprehensively assess and carefully interpret instances of successful public governance. The three-stage design of the funnel introduces students to relevant debates and literatures about meaningful public outcomes, the prudent use of public power, and the ability to sustain performance over time. The articles also discusses how this framework can be used effectively in classroom settings, helping teachers to stimulate reflection on the key challenges of assessing and learning from successes.
Sanneke Kuipers
added a research item
Research on organizational crisis emanates from multiple disciplines (public administration, international relations, political science, organization science, communication studies), yet basically argues that three main categories of crises exist: • Crises in organizations: often tangible, immediate threats or incidents that completely upset an organization’s primary process or performance, while both cause and problems are more or less confined to the organization and those affected by its malperformance. • Crisis to the organization: a threat or damage occurs outside of the organization at hand but implicates the organization by attribution of responsibility or culpability (for causing the problems or allowing them to occur). • Crisis about the organization, or institutional crisis: even without a tangible threat or damage, in a short period of time the organization’s perceived performance deficit becomes so deeply problematic that the organization itself is subject to intense scrutiny and criticism. Previously agreed-on values and routines, the structure, and policy philosophy of the organization are no longer seen as adequate or legitimate. The three types of organizational crises tend to have not only different causes but also different implications as to the commensurate crisis response, both functionally and politically. There is no single best response to organizational crises: appropriate responses are both commensurate to the crisis type at hand and to different phases of a crisis. Still, discerning between crisis typologies opens a research agenda to provide a better understanding of the relation between the internal and external dynamics of a crisis.
Paul 't Hart
added 3 research items
This open access book presents case studies of twelve organisations which the public have come to view as institutions. From the BBC to Doctors Without Borders, from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra to CERN, this volume examines how some organisations rise to prominence and remain in high public esteem through changing and challenging times. It builds upon the scholarly tradition of institutional scholarship pioneered by Philip Selznick, and highlights common themes in the stories of these highly diverse organizations; demonstrating how leadership, learning, and luck all play a role in becoming and remaining an institution. This case study format makes this volume ideal for classroom use and practitioners alike. In an era where public institutions are increasingly under threat, this volume offers concrete lessons for contemporary organisation leaders. Arjen Boin is Professor of Public Institutions and Governance at the Department of Political Science, Leiden University, Netherlands. Paul ‘t Hart is Professor of Public Administration at the Utrecht School of Governance, Utrecht University, Netherlands. Lauren A. Fahy is a PhD Fellow at the Utrecht School of Governance, Utrecht University, Netherlands.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is the world’s most formidable centre for particle physics. Its mission is radically ambitious: uncovering what the universe is made of and how it works. It advances that mission by providing particle accelerator facilities that enable world-class research in fundamental physics, bringing together scientists from all over the world to push the frontiers of science and technology. It has become widely recognized as one of the most successful cross-national collaborative research organizations of all times. Smart institutional design, good governance, resourceful leadership and resilient collaboration have underpinned the strong sense of interdependence, entrenched norms of mutual respect, trust, empathy and consensual decision-making that have allowed it to thrive.
It’s an institution —a phrase we have all come across or may have used. We intuitively understand what it means. There is something special, perhaps mythical, about them. We value these institutions. We may even find it hard to imagine a life without some of these institutions. In this chapter, we offer a definition of institutions and introduce our theoretical framework (based on the work of Philip Selznick). We introduce the case studies in this book and identify patterns of institution building.
Arjen Boin
added a research item
Het kan de meest succesvolle organisaties overkomen. Een incident, een filmpje dat viral gaat op het internet. Vette krantenkoppen, jagende journalisten, verontwaardigde politici en boze burgers. De mediastorm verrast organisatieleiders. Hun verweer (“we moeten eerst het onderzoek afwachten”) maakt weinig indruk, of leidt tot hoongelach op sociale media. Het is de perfect storm. De reactie van de organisatieleiding zal in belangrijke mate bepalen hoe de organisatie zo’n institutionele crisis doorstaat. Dit boek bestudeert de institutionele crisis die de Politie Eenheid Den Haag in de vroege zomer van 2015 meemaakte. Het beschrijft de diepere oorzaken, de dynamiek, en de reacties van gezagsdragers. Het formuleert concrete strategieën die de kans op een institutionele crisis verminderen en het reactievermogen vergroten.
Arjen Boin
added 8 research items
This book applies Selznick's theory of institutional leadership to explain why the Federal Bureau of Prisons was highly institutionalized and the Dutch prison system scored much lower on the institutionalization ladder in the late 1990s. It produces an effective framework to analyze institutional trajectories.
This article develops a conceptual framework for the analysis of institutional crises in policy sectors. Institutional crises are periods in which a policy sector experiences major legitimacy shortfalls, i.e. when its established policy frames, organizational structures and modes of decision-making and service delivery are being fundamentally criticized by political actors within and outside the sector. The framework outlines how institutional crises can be identified, why they develop, what types of response policy-makers may seek to develop when confronted with an institutional crisis, and what kinds of outcome might result from these periods in which the institutional make-up of a policy sector is in a state of flux. The usefulness of the framework is illustrated by applying it to the case of national asylum policies in Europe.
Sanneke Kuipers
added a research item
Why do some public organizations survive for many decades, whereas others are terminated within a few years? This question of organizational survival has long intrigued public administration scholars. To explain longevity, public administration research has focused on organizational design features and adaptive capacities. The results have been inconclusive. This article explores an additional explanation for survival and demise: the density dependence theory as formulated in the field of organizational ecology. The underlying premise of this theory is that certain environments can only sustain a certain number of similar‐type organizations. A rising number of organizations fuels competition for scarce resources, which inevitably leads to the demise of organizations. Density theory has often been tested in the business literature, but has been rarely applied to public sector organizations. In this article, we test whether this theory can help explain organizational survival in a population of US federal independent public agencies (n = 142). Our results show that density matters. This is good news for public administration research: the inclusion of density boosts the explanatory power of traditional variables such as design and adaptation.
Sanneke Kuipers
added 2 research items
This chapter studies the institutionalization trajectories of two US agencies: the Tennessee Valley Authority and the New York Port Authority. We examine whether path dependency affected the institutionalization of these agencies.
Arjen Boin
added 16 research items
Public administration scholars tend to take for granted that organizational adaptation is important. This common notion that public organizations must adapt to stay alive has not been put to the test in the field of public administration, however. Intriguingly, organization ecologists find that adaptation does not matter and might even be counterproduc-tive for individual organizations. They argue that the absence of adaptation—which they refer to as structural inertia— actually enhances the likelihood of survival. But organization ecologists focus mostly on nonpublic organizations. This prompts the question whether adaptation in public organizations really matters. In this article, we test these contrasting claims (while controlling for design features) on a population of U.S. federal independent public agencies (n 5 142). Our findings suggest a subtle narrative. We conclude that proac-tive adaptation increases termination hazards. But inertia does not seem to significantly enhance survival chances.
Organizational scholars have shown a growing interest in drawing on the philosophy of Pragmatism to address contemporary problems and theoretical questions. We elucidate Pragmatism’s core ideas and show their uniqueness and relevance to the field. We present Pragmatism as a problem-solving philosophy that builds on a rich and behaviorally plausible model of human nature, views reality in terms of processes and relations, and highlights the interplay of meaning and action. We demonstrate how Pragmatist ideas can help transcend the perennial problem of agency and structure and illustrate how these ideas might contribute to one specific domain of research on categories and categorization. More generally, Pragmatism is well suited to understanding the contemporary challenges of change and complexity especially as they play out across multiple levels of analysis. We argue that Pragmatism provides a ‘third way’ between rational and structural approaches and represents a living school of organization theory in its own right.
Arjen Boin
added a project goal
Modern society depends on well-functional institutions. When these institutions fall apart or disappear, society unravels. The design and maintenance of institutions is therefore a critical task of political and administrative elites.
We know very little about the drivers of successful institutionalization. We know even less about the factors and strategies that help keep these institutions in place (without becoming sclerotic and dysfunctional). We do not know much about the secrets of successful institution building.
In a time when public institutions everywhere have become subject of quick erosion, these insights are needed more than ever. This project aims to revive the study of public institutions, building on the work started early on in the previous century. It also seeks to modernize the study of public institutions, making use of new methodologies and interdisciplinary insights.