This book revolves around a central puzzle: Why do some public organizations become—and remain—institutions? Our relatively small and purposefully skewed set of case studies does not allow us to systematically test hypotheses, nor to generalize insights to larger populations of organization types. That said, what we can do is inductively identify possible patterns and relate them to conventional wisdom in academic theorizing and the world of practice. In interpreting these patterns, we can discern possible scope conditions or social mechanisms that may be at play in bringing about the institutionalization (and deinstitutionalization) of public organizations. More specifically, our cases provide food for thought with regard to four often-mentioned patterns of institutionalization. To help readers interpret the case studies, we will now discuss our observations in more detail.
Pattern 1: Virtuous Cycles
In his study of highly successful corporate organizations, Jim Collins (2001, 2019) found that these organizations had one critical characteristic in common: they have in place what Collins refers to as a flywheel. Collins is, in essence, talking about what across the social sciences has been called a virtuous cycle: a set of processes that reinforce one another (Sitkin 1992; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998; Boin and Christensen 2008). Within an institution, the virtuous cycle might look like this (see Fig. 1.2):
The cycle starts with the discovery or invention of an effective, efficient and legitimate way to reconcile organizational aims with societal aspirations. This typically happens through a mix of experimentation and smart copying.
Successful practices give rise to the emergence of an internal norm: this is how we do things around here.
The internal norm makes it easier to recruit and train the right people, which facilitates cohesion and effectiveness.
Effective and dedicated people make the organization look good. This results in enhanced funding, support for the mission and strengthened autonomy.
A strong and legitimate organization performs better, which solidifies the internal norm.
Our case studies bear witness to this virtuous cycle of institutions. Consider the following three examples:
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began as an informal collaboration of scientists who worried about climate change. By establishing a network of committed and reputable scientists, they created a platform for policymakers to learn about causes and potential solutions. The IPCC established ‘input and output legitimacy of the rigorous and extensive process by which the IPCC’s teams of expert authors and peer reviewers carry out their work’ (Paglia and Parker, this volume), which increased its epistemic power and reputation. Their reports helped to spread awareness about ongoing climate change, which, in turn, led to increased demand for evidence-based science. The growing interest of policymakers (prompted by growing awareness about the threat) helped to mobilize scientists who recognized a podium for their research. The density of scientific expertise secured privileged access to policymakers, which enhanced the importance of the IPCC.
Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau (CPIB) began as a small police unit seeking to root out corruption among colleagues. When it busted a drug ring that was run by the police, the CPIB became an independent statutory authority. Its autonomy enhanced its investigative powers, which were widely and effectively applied. The success of the CPIB came to define Singapore’s status as a ‘clean’ state. Singapore’s enhanced international standing reflected back on the CPIB, which saw its autonomy and authority strengthened. Decades of successful investigations and prosecutions have embedded the institution in Singapore’s landscape (and indeed in the esteem of the international community). The CPIB’s effectiveness and Singapore’s reputation went hand in hand, reinforcing each other over the decades.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was created to address the protracted doping crisis of the 1990s. Its chances of success seemed low. But it soon began to command the respect of its stakeholders, initially by formulating standards that made sense. As governments and sports foundations began to accept the standards, they also legitimated the Agency. As the Agency gained in stature, it could enlarge its role in the global fight against doping. The enlarged role translated into visible successes, which further strengthened its reputation. Quite incredibly, the WADA managed to become an undisputed authority in the international field of sports. Its role in other sports organizations became entrenched, which further helped the standards to take root.
Pattern 2: Institution-Building Leadership
Institutionalization does not just happen; virtuous cycles do not simply materialize. This prompts the question if and to what extent the actions of leaders matter when it comes to the institutionalization process. The chapters in this book do not give rise to a new or definite take on this critical question. But they certainly provide powerful illustrations of leaders forging practices, crafting norms and protecting the identity and integrity of their organizations—and they show that this can be done in different leadership configurations and employing different leadership styles. Let’s look at some examples to illustrate this variety:
The institutional history of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra cannot be written without recognizing its early and long-serving conductor Willem Mengelberg. He was the archetypical institution builder, translating the aspirations of the founding regents into an ambitious and appealing musical vision for the orchestra. Mengelberg then translated this vision into an unprecedented and uncompromising regime of excellence that produced both classical and contemporary symphonic music, while building an international audience. By placing his orchestra squarely on the map, Mengelberg forged a broader authorizing environment for his orchestra, extending well beyond the original group of regents.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) began as a technical tribunal. It was hard to imagine at the time how this small court in Luxembourg could become an institution, creating conditions that today make European integration a seemingly one-way road. This did not happen because of one leader. It happened because a group of judges—all appointed sometime in the early 1960s—shared a vision and began to build the ECJ in light of that vision. These judges were well-known professionals who moved in the insulated elites that pushed for European integration. Without seeking the limelight, they exerted the leadership of true institution builders.
The founding Commissioner of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Allan Fels, not only brought academic expertise and long regulatory experience to the job, but also a brisk determination to give the new agency the institutional clout its predecessors had often lacked. Painstakingly independent and politically neutral, Fels used the media to create a powerful platform for the ACCC’s ‘naming and shaming’ of big corporations that engaged in anticompetitive or manipulative behaviour. In prosecuting and winning high-profile cases, he instilled professional pride in its staff and ensured the ACCC became a highly visible and impactful crusader for consumers.
Pattern 3: Mature Management of Conflict
Institution building is more than formulating an evocative mission. Professionals must be seduced and coaxed to accomplish the mission (leaders cannot do it by themselves). This can be an arduous job, as the chapters suggest. Institutions are not, by definition, happy families (certainly not all the time). A public institution must find ways to harness conflict in ways that make it smarter and stronger (Coser 1956). The chapters show how institutions do not always suppress conflict, but manage to canalize it.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) did not become a celebrated scientific institution without tension or strife. Bringing together the best scientists in the world and have them compete for funds can be a recipe for disaster. CERN developed a form of shared leadership, which allowed this international community of super-smart scientists to evolve ‘norms and practices of balance-seeking’:
Balance between funding member states and the spending CERN administrators. Balance between small and large contributors. Balance between centralized lab and infrastructure funding and bottom-up funding of the experiments. Balance between getting on with current work and preparing the ground for taking on new challenges and realizing future ambitions that are decades away. Balance between the scientists’ advances in fundamental physics and the engineers’ development of the technological tools required to test them. Balance between running a tight ship financially and maintaining the ability to respond flexibly to financial setbacks or emerging expenditures. Balance between the patience required to do the work necessary to achieve major scientific breakthroughs and the need to be seen to be active, relevant and impactful in the present vital to maintain the institution’s global public and political support base. Balance between banking on the authority of established scientific leaders and on empowering the innovative irreverence of emerging research talents. (Engelen and ‘t Hart, this volume)
The governance of the Concertgebouw Orchestra has been marked by decades of tension between protagonists of its artistic aspirations and business managers seeking to ensure the organization remained financially viable. It describes how Mengelberg, the legendary conductor, waged no-holds-barred battles with a succession of business managers and artistic directors who had the temerity of proposing pragmatic rather than ‘perfect’ options to address pressing financial challenges. It references the painful, unnecessary and politically costly estrangement of maestro Bernard Haitink from the orchestra during the latter years of his highly successful tenure. But the story also demonstrates, using Coser’s (1956) words, the positive functions of social conflict: the many conflicts resulted in a change of the governance model, which finally resolved the long-simmering tensions between artistic excellence and financial viability.
The birth of Médicins Sans Frontières was rooted in a conflict of values and criticism of the status quo in mainstream humanitarian aid organizations such as the Red Cross. Witnessing severe atrocities among civilians during the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s, doctors were forced to remain silent under the Red Cross’s principle of ‘neutrality’. This motivated a group of French doctors to set up MSF as a breakaway organization. It set the organization on a path of fierce independence, going public with inconvenient truths and occasionally engaging in very public withdrawals from theatres of conflict where the integrity of its operations was being undermined by conflicting parties. Its contrarian ethos also affected MSF’s internal culture: its policies and strategies took shape though sometimes sharp disagreements about the right thing to do in war-torn areas.
Pattern 4: Adaptive Capacity
Organizations become institutions because they somehow maintain high performance over the course of their existence. Institutions have survived many cultural, societal and political contexts changes. Institutions face constant threats to its engrained and established formula, yet manage to preserve their virtuous cycle. This requires timely, in some cases even pre-emptive, forms of adaptation to maintain the flywheel.1
Our case studies suggest how institutions manage to accomplish this. Institutions monitor the environment for new demands and potential threats; they probe the internal culture for complacency and newly emerging fault lines that have the potential to compromise the institution’s integrity and performance. Institutions maintain a culture of learning, innovation and contestation—they are ‘charged with vitality’ (Goodsell 2011a).
Rijkswaterstaat provides a fascinating case study in this regard. The traditional institution was at first reluctant to acknowledge that its technocratic paradigm of project planning and management had gone past its sell-by date as a result of changes taking place in Dutch society during the 1960s. But once its eyes were opened, it went on a learning journey that continues into the present. Rijkswaterstaat keeps trying to reconcile the traditional strength of ‘go-it-alone civic engineering’ with the ‘soft skills’ and ‘collaborative mindset’ required to thrive in a post-paternalistic era.
The European Court of Justice is another intriguing example of adaptive capacity. Just when the Court had found its institutional footing and delivered hallmark rulings that would cement European integration for decades to come, the European project itself came under intense criticism (in the 1970s). Around that time, the most influential judges in the Court were set to retire. This confluence of events created a dire need to revisit and rethink the way the Court functioned.
This brings us to what is known as the paradox of success: the capacity to adapt can be undermined by the successes of the institution. The very strength of an institutional formula sows the seeds of the institution’s demise. The operative mechanisms here are not only the kind of hubris, complacence and rigidity foreseen by Selznick (1957) as chief forces of erosion of institutional integrity. There is something much more mundane at the heart of it: the dedicated adherence to what has been proven to work well makes it seemingly unnecessary to consider alternative ways of working that may be better suited for dealing with evolving contexts and new challenges.
Figure 1.3 captures how a virtuous cycle can turn into a vicious cycle of deinstitutionalization, which can be described as follows (Masuch 1985; Boin and ‘t Hart 2000; Ansell and Bartenberger 2017):
Successful practices give rise to a strong internal culture (‘this is how we do things around here’) that makes it hard to suggest or even imagine alternative ways of working.
Institutional members do not recognize impending threats to the institutional model.
When shifting contexts and new challenges begin to undermine the effectiveness, efficiency or legitimacy of that very model, the institution doubles down on what it believes to be the best practices.
This is perceived by parts of its authorizing environment as a refusal to acknowledge the need for change.
Legitimacy declines as a result; criticism begins to mount.
The institution is at a loss of what to do, falling back on practices that are still assumed to work (but actually exacerbate the problem).
As perceptions of institutional performance continue to decline and institutions demonstrate limited or no willingness to change, conditions for an institutional crisis are created.
If allowed to continue, this process of deinstitutionalization can create an existential crisis for an institution. It requires exceptional leadership to guide the institution through such a period. For example, the so-called Climategate crisis facing the IPCC, when inaccuracies in its Fourth Assessment Report were revealed, opened up the institution to charges of bias, hidden agendas and politicization of its processes and findings. Playing into the hands of ‘climate deniers’, the crisis put pressure on the IPCC to acknowledge its fallibility, which, in turn, appeared to confirm the criticism put forward by its critics. The IPCC survived the crisis by creating procedures that enhanced the integrity of its findings and conclusions.
Anti-doping watchdog WADA was plunged into an institutional crisis of its own making. WADA had failed to detect the brazen, systematic subversion of its norms and its compliance regime by the Russian sports federations, peaking at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Its initial response to whistleblowers, which came forward from within the Russian system, was inept. It also proved unable to orchestrate support for firm sanctions. The organization compounded its problems by gullibly declaring its Russian counterpart Rusada fully compliant again in 2018, a declaration it had to retract when it transpired that the data on which the decision was based had been tampered with. But the crisis did not undermine the belief that without an institution such as WADA there can be no credible anti-doping policy.