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2021 Conference of the ECPR Standing Group on Politics and Gender

Conceptualising Success in Public Organisations: Pushing the Boundaries

Public Policy
Allan McConnell
University of Sydney
Stefanie Beyens
University of Utrecht
Allan McConnell
University of Sydney

Research looking of successful public organisations tends to follow one of the following paths. In one strand of literature, performance and learning take centre stage: performance measures, best practices, changing to become great, designing to achieve optimum solutions. The ‘key’ to success or ‘the recipe’ for success are popular metaphors. Another strand of literature follows a more intuitive approach and aims to identify factors that, in some sort of formation, form the basis for the success of a number successful organisations. Goodsell’s ‘mission mystique’ is an example here and popular metaphors are identity, character, and mission. Yet another strand of literature takes a specific type of organisation, one that tends to function in a high-pressure environment, and makes that into an idealtype that could be emulated in other fields. Think of the high-reliability organisation that Weick and Sutcliffe described.
We do not wish to question any of the approaches above. But to further advance our understanding of success in government, we need to complement them by upturning some of the conventional wisdoms. This paper thus aims to conceptualise a ‘dark side’ of factors that also lead to success in public organisations. Two examples of factors are given here. A first one is breaching rules and not following procedure. Government bureaucracies would arguably grind to a halt if the rulebook was followed to the letter for every decision. Moreover, success has recently been measured as the extent to which public value is created (Moore): this may conflict with following a rigid protocol. A second is labelled ‘doing something’, which can be an important signal to the public that a pressing issue is being taken seriously, although actions are effectively meaningless.
We propose to conceptualise a number of these ‘dark side’ factors as a complement to current theories of successful public organisations.
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