Book chapter

The Organizational Basis for Public Governance (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


An organizational approach to public governance focuses on the organizational architecture of public organizations and contributes to explaining governance processes by the organizational characteristics of such organizations. The dependent variable "public governance" is defined as the process through which the steering of society takes place. Such steering of society can unfold directly ("governance") as well as indirectly ("meta-governance"), the latter denoting the process of organizing the apparatus within which governance happens. Governance is not only about making formal decisions, but also about agenda setting, development of alternative policy directions, implementation, and learning. In practice, it is about hammering out legislation, budgets, policy programs, and law application ("governance"), as well as organizing, staffing, and locating the machinery of government ("meta-governance"). Organization structure, organization demography, and organization locus make up the key independent variables. Such a partial model is not thought to provide a full account of what happens in governance processes, but the organizational factors are expected to intervene and bias governance processes systematically and significantly. Since these factors are, arguably, relatively amenable to deliberate change, they constitute at the same time potential design tools. However, rational organizational design also depends on knowledge about the conditions under which the organizational factors themselves may be changed ("meta-governance"). Knowledge about these two relationships is, arguably, ultimately a prerequisite for (rational) organizational design. Public organization literature has largely neglected theorizing meta-governance and conditions for institutional (re)design. Organizational factors may influence meta-governance in two ways: first, existing organization structures, demographics, and locations may affect reform processes; secondly, reform processes themselves may be deliberately organized on a temporary basis to achieve particular goals. Organization theory is helpful in dissecting how different ways of organizing reform processes may produce different reform trajectories and outcomes. The idea sees reform processes as decision-making processes that allocate attention, resources, capabilities, roles, and identities. Reform organizations have structures, demographics, and locations that distribute rights and obligations, power and resources, and normally do so unevenly. Yet, when considering organizational (re-)design, its limitations should be considered as well. Organizational designers might benefit from being aware of the potential stickiness of existing organizational arrangements and the influence of environmental demands, as well as temporal sorting of events. Moreover, the limits to design are greater in complex organizational orders with nested rules such as in nation states, meta-organizations, and supranational institutions such as the European Union, than in single organizations such as government ministries and agencies.