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ECPR Journals Virtual Special Issue

Understanding Success in Government

Workshop Number
Workshop Director
Stefanie Beyens
University of Utrecht
Workshop Co-Director
Allan McConnell
University of Sydney

Pessimism abounds in contemporary discourse about the performance of governments and the services they deliver. Strong critiques of the status quo (the ‘political system’, the ‘government’ and the allegedly aloof, incompetent and/or corrupted elites that run it) and the allegedly abysmal outcomes for ordinary citizens have seen populist leaders and parties on the march throughout the Western world. In academia, this focus on failure is echoed in a large body of research in public policy and public management research, from Hall’s (1982) classic Great Planning Disasters and Bovens and ‘t Hart’s (1996) Understanding Policy Fiascos to contemporary accounts of government, policy, project and agency failures, scandals and blunders (Allern and Pollack, 2012; Crewe and King, 2013; Schuck, 2014; Opperman and Spencer, 2016; Light, 2015). Consequently, the institutional, behavioural, political and media dynamics contributing to the occurrence and escalation of failure are increasingly well understood. In many parts of the world, however, the bulk of public projects, programs and services perform adequately and sometimes incredibly successfully. Major accomplishments, striking successes in difficult circumstances and effective ‘public value creation’ in and by governments – have generally been by-passed by political science (some exceptions are McConnell, 2010 and Moore, 2013).

It is difficult to fully comprehend successful government performance when media, political academic discourse on politics and governance is saturated with accounts of shortcomings and failures. We do not want to wish away such failures and critical analysis. They are facts of political life. But we do want to help shine a light on the flip side i.e. ‘what works’ and what makes it work. Therefore, this workshop aims to switch the focus towards the conceptual, methodological and theoretical challenges of studying what can be considered ‘successful’ instances of government: public policies, programs, agencies and networks. Success, like ‘failure’, is not just a matter of fact but one of perceptions, values, and interests. Labelling a policy or agency as successful depends on which stakeholders are involved in the process and on the positions they take, it is contingent upon the purposes, timing and time horizons of the evaluator, the choice/weighting of criteria used, the political context in which the assessment takes place, and a range of others factors (Bovens and ‘t Hart, 1996; McConnell, 2010). It is important to acknowledge that performance (in the sense of ‘delivering the goods’) is not the only factor that feeds into perceptions of success. In the remainder of this proposal we explore some of the theoretical dimensions of success that we seek to cultivate in this workshop – the existing work on measuring performance, the importance of legitimacy, the question of endurance – followed by a discussion of the methodological challenges of success and a call for empirical work to address these questions and challenges.

1. What is successful performance and what are the key factors that produce such success? Previous work on public policy and agency success can be a guiding light, while at the same time we are open to new ways of thinking and/or refinement of existing insights. On the nature of successful performance, it is possible to recognise success when we see it it? Does it mean hitting all targets? Doing better than before? Doing better than other jurisdictions dealing with similar problems? These are just a few of the possible measures of performance success. Regardless, if success is achieved, what are the crucial factors that helped produce this success? Good policy design? Astute consultation? Strong leadership? Effective institutional design? Effective implementation? Public service training and skills? Joined-up thinking? Collaboration across public, private and NGO sectors? Learning from other jurisdictions?

It is useful to note that the study of public policy and the public sector – as well as practices are replete with ‘recipes’ for success. For example, the league-table approach of measuring success (mostly seen as performance, or effectiveness and efficiency), is based on the New Public Management paradigm. NPM itself has been criticized for putting too much emphasis on easy-to-measure yet overpowering performance targets and incentives, thereby forgetting the ‘public’ part of public service and creating the impression that private sector recipes are universally applicable (Stoker, 2006). It follows that scholarship based on these parameter-driven conceptions of performance has been said to be too focused on output indicators and to contain mostly thin descriptions (Bevir and Rhodes, 2010). The paradigm currently favoured by both the academic and the practitioner community is a clear reaction to NPM: it steers clear of a business-like rigid focus on efficiency and instead emphasizes a broader logic of evaluating political office-holders, public agencies and programs: public value (Moore, 2013). Public value management (PVM) expects state intervention in the form of public services to create value as a way of legitimizing it (Stoker, 2006). The new paradigm also has its critics, questioning its apparently subjective assessment of outcomes (Brodsky, 2014), the consequences of unequal access to the kinds of deliberative procedures so strongly hailed by public value management, or the political role accorded to unelected public managers in positing what is to be considered valuable (Dahl and Soss, 2014).

We are interested, therefore, in serious and insightful reflection on ‘what works’ rather than simply attributing ‘success’ to the latest fad or fashion.

2. How important is legitimacy in assessing whether an agency or policy is successful? For example, one can imagine in principle a policy that is successfully implemented and meets all its goals, but is nevertheless widely considered to be illegitimate. Such illegitimacy may stem from a belief that the policy intervention is simply morally wrong (for example, banning smoking, or introducing food welfare debit cards for those on welfare who seemingly cannot be trusted to avoid alcohol when spending their welfare benefits) or the illegitimacy may stem from the view that the policy process breached legal or constitutional conventions. The relationship between (a) the substantive aspects of a policy or an instiuution and the degree to which they ‘perform’ and (b) the symbolic aspects where legitimacy comes into play, is an important issue – we just don’t know yet how important.

We are keen therefore, to learn from contributions that explore the role of legitimacy in helping produce successful policies and/or institutions. The issues are particularly interesting because it is more difficult to find adequate measures for legitimacy than for performance. Whether or not policy outcomes are deemed legitimate depends on the process through which they were delivered (constitutional, just, evidence-based, see McConnell, 2010), the value accorded to the institutions that deliver the policy and if the practices are considered to be appropriate (March and Olsen, 1989). Broadly speaking, there are two lenses through which legitimacy of agencies can be studied, strategic (where individual agency is the focus) or institutional (where context is focus), but usually both are combined, acknowledging the dual nature of the concept: an organisation can objectively have a certain level of legitimacy, but it is always bestowed subjectively (Suchman 1995).

It is interesting to note that the concepts of legitimacy and reputation are not interchangeable, according to Maor (2015): the latter is a relative attribute, meaning an agency’s reputation is made in relation to how its peers are doing, whereas an organisation has a high level of legitimacy if it shares the norms and meets the expectations of the society it functions in (Deephouse and Carter, 2005). Carpenter (2010) argues that an agency’s reputation can be measured on a number of indicators – performative, moral, technical, legal-procedural reputation. Suchman’s conceptualisation of legitimacy (1995) also claims it to be multifaceted, with pragmatic, moral, and cognitive components. If one factors in the different stakeholders and audiences that can imbue policies and agencies with a good reputation or a high level of legitimacy, a complicated picture emerges of how it relates to effectiveness (is it a by-product, or rather a necessary condition) and, ultimately, success. This workshop would provide an excellent opportunity to tease out these intricate relations theoretically and/or assess them empirically. We are particularly keen to learn more and indentify means which facilitate legitimacy. Many decades ago, for example, ‘consultation’ was a means of (at least in part) enabling legitimacy. Yet from Arnstein onwards there have beem many critiques of consultation as little more than tokenism, and a normative move towards legitimacy stemming from ‘co-production’ and the combnined efforts of citizens/users and public authorities. Again, therefore, we are interested in ‘what works’ and why it works.

3. What role does temporality play in policy and/or agency success? Many of us think of ‘success’ as a definitive state of affairs, yet the passage of time may alter our perceptions as well as the substantive impact of policy or agency. Many issues emerge once we begin to think of the issue of temporality. How long should policies endure or have an impact to be called successful? Is sheer survival a measure of success, or is success better viewed either as continual adaption adaption and change, or even as termination (‘mission accomplished). These questions also conjure up debates about the role and interpretation of institutionalization of government successes. Moreover, legitimation strategies for policies or agencies also need to be tailored to the phase in which the policy or agency finds itself in order to be effective (McConnell, 2010; Suchman 1995). This shows how the three aspects of successful governance are anything but separate; performance, legitimacy, and endurance can reinforce an/or or weaken one another.

Questions for analysis thus abound. For example:
• Successful in what regard, for whom, at which point in time, relative to what?
• Successful in actually ‘doing better’ to achieve public purposes, or primarily in making the public ‘feel better’ through more effective framing and dramaturgy?
• When comparing clearly outstanding to average and clearly failed instances of government action (programs, policies, agencies), which factors and mechanisms best explain the ‘success’ difference (e.g. Patashnik, 2008)? Is the difference best explained by luck (context, zeitgeist, chance events, crises) or skill (political and public service craftsmanship in design, timing, political management, public relations)?
• Small levels of failure are (almost) inevitable. Is there a ‘sweet spot’ where success continues, easily accommodating and not being subsumed by failure?
• Are the enablers of success easily transferable from context (problem, jurisdiction, institution) to another?
• Can success be predicted? Are some policy/instutional fields more amenable to prediction of success?

Finally, there are obvious methodological challenges to the study of success, starting with the choice between large-N efforts maybe resulting in thin descriptions and thick description in case studies that may give too much weight to anecdotal evidence. A second challenge to tackle is case selection. How should we separate great from good public policy? What distinguishes an awe-inspiring from a merely adequate public agency (e.g. Gill and Meier, 2001)? Addressing these questions will be be an important discussion topic during the workshop, especially because it ties in with how government success is defined.

Accordingly, we invite papers about the assessment, the explanation and institutional and programmatic implications of success in government/governance. These might take several forms. First, currently dominant efforts at measuring and benchmarking government performance emphasize gathering baskets of relatively easy to measure variables then simply adding up the marks (e.g. the Times Higher Education World University Rankings), sidestepping the methodologically complex and politically charged issues of criteria selection and weighting (Goderis, 2015). Can this be done better? We welcome large-N approaches to diagnosing government performance that seek to improve on current approaches. Second, most-similar/most-different comparisons of variability in policy outcomes and agency performance or reputation provide pathways to middle-range theories about key practices of e.g., policy and agency design, political decision making and coalition building, policy coordination, program implementation processes, and of framing, legitimization and branding. Expanding on current theories of success is another way to contribute to this workshop. We identify two ways of using empirical investigations as a starting point to do just that. A first way is through up-close, single or small-N case studies, which have an important role to play in increasing our understanding of high-performing, highly reputed, successfully enduring public organisations and programs (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007; Goodsell, 2011). A second path that could lead to a conceptualisation of the different factors making up success, is selecting cases where these factors do not align: a highly reputable and legitimate agency with a bad performance record; or a policy that meets all the set performance requirements yet suffers from a bad reputation with clients and/or stakeholders. Teasing out how performance and reputation/legitimacy can remain out of sync for a long time may prove a winning strategy to understand government success.

Regardless of their specific focus, we urge participants to (a) explicitly engage with literature on performance, legitimacy, and temporality/endurance; (b) engage deeply with methodological issues around success (c) go beyond merely conceptual and methodological contributions and report empirical examinations (e.g. case studies, comparative case analyses, aggregate opinion and/or performance data). Finally, we will consider forward-looking conceptual papers but they must at least engage with the ‘real world’ of policy/institutional success.

Workshop directors: Stefanie Beyens (Utrecht University) and Allan McConnell (University of Sydney)

Allern, S. and Pollack, E. (Eds.) (2012). Scandalous! The Mediated Construction of Political Scandals in Four Nordic Countries, Gothenburg: Nordicom.
Bevir, M. and Rhodes, R. (2010). The State as Cultural Practice, London: Routledge.
Bovens, M. and ‘t Hart, P. (1996). Understanding Policy Fiascoes, New Brunswick NJ: Transaction.
Brodsky, R. L. (2014). Commentary: “Public Value” and the measurement of government performance: The shift to subjective metrics. Public Administration Review, 74(4), 478-479.
Carpenter, D. P. (2010). Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Crewe, I. and King, A. (2013). The Blunders of Our Governments, London: Oneworld.
Dahl, A., and Soss, J. (2014). Neoliberalism for the common good? Public value governance and the downsizing of democracy. Public Administration Review, 74(4), 496-504.
Deephouse, D. L. and Carter, S. M. (2005). An examination of differences between organizational legitimacy and organizational reputation. Journal of Management Studies, 42(2), 329-360.
Gill, J., & Meier, K. J. (2001). Ralph's Pretty‐Good Grocery versus Ralph's Super Market: Separating Excellent Agencies from the Good Ones. Public Administration Review, 61(1), 9-17.
Goderis, B. (Ed.) (2015). Public Sector Achievement in 36 Countries. A Comparative Assessment of Inputs, Outputs and Outcomes.
Goodsell, C. T. (2011). Mission Mystique. Belief Systems in Public Agencies, Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Hall, P. (1982). Great planning disasters, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Light, P. C. (2014). A Cascade of Failures: Why Government Fails, and How to Stop It. Center for Effective Public Management. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Maor, M. (2015). Theorizing Bureaucratic Reputation, in: Waeraas, A. and Maor, M. (Eds.) Organizational Reputation in the Public Sector, New York: Routledge
March, J. G. and Olsen, J. P. (1989). Rediscovering Institutions. The Organizational Basis of Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster.
McConnell, A. (2010). Understanding Policy Success: Rethinking public policy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Moore, M. H. (2013). Recognizing Public Value. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Oppermann, K., & Spencer, A. (2016). Telling stories of failure: narrative constructions of foreign policy fiascos. Journal of European Public Policy, 23(5), 685-701.
Patashnik, E. (2008). Reform at Risk, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Schuck, P. H. (2014). Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Stoker, G. (2006). Public value management: a new narrative for networked governance?. The American Review of Public Administration, 36(1), 41-57.
Suchman, M. C. (1995). Managing legitimacy: Strategic and institutional approaches. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 571-610.
Weick, K. and Sutcliffe, K. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Paper List

Title Details
Bureaucratic Autonomy vs. Political Leadership: Successful Decentralization in Local Government View Paper Details
Conceptualising Success in Public Organisations: Pushing the Boundaries View Paper Details
Cooperative Public Policy in Brazil: Can National Systems of Public Policies bring Rationality to the Allocation of Federal Discretionary Grants? View Paper Details
Disproportionate Policy Response by Design: Towards a Conceptual Turn View Paper Details
Do We Know Public Governance Success when we see it? A Coneptual Exploration of the Mismatch between Agency Performance and Reputation View Paper Details
Explaining the Success of the Long-Term Governmental Parties in New Democracies: The Policy-centered and Party-centered Approaches View Paper Details
Governmental Programmatic Success in Reforming Policies and its Determinants. The Case of Governance Reforms in Higher Education in Western European Countries View Paper Details
On the Durability of Policy Reforms: A Plausibility Probe View Paper Details
Post-Legislative Guidance as a Tool to Increase Domestic Compliance with EU Law View Paper Details
Sermons, Carrots or Sticks? Explaining Successful Policy Implementation in a Low Performance Institution View Paper Details
State Capacity, Disaster Mortality and Disaster Losses: How Governments Implement Disaster Risk Reduction Policies View Paper Details
'Successful' Anti-Corruption Politics in Botswana and Singapore: Understanding how a Global 'Failure' becomes a Celebrated 'Success' in Certain Contexts View Paper Details
Successful yet Looking for Legitimacy – An Exploration of the Legitimation Strategies of Dutch Water Authorities View Paper Details
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