Political Approach to Public Administration in Iran’s Public Sector

  • Hassan DanaeefardEmail author
  • Masoumeh Mostafazadeh
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_3366-1



Politicization of public organizations refers to this fact that administrators in public sectors pay more attention to politics rather than administration.


One of the most popular approaches to public administration is political approach. Generally, political approach to public sector claims public servants should be a partial or bureaucratic advocate. Thus, politicians try to control over public administration could be a reflection of political approach. At the heart of political approach, there are politics and administration, the two simple words with a world of complexity in relation to each other that make one of the most challenging issues for political and administrative experts.

There is no doubt, every administration in every country adheres to politics, but the degree of this adherence in different countries – related to their different situations and backgrounds – is not same. It is a kind of injection of politics in administration that creates a new phenomenon: politicization. Politicization of public organizations has no exact and clear meaning, but generally it refers to this fact that administrators in public sectors pay more attention to politics rather than administration, and, in other word, politics is more dominant than administration in execution of public affairs. Also policy makers, who are expected to be worried about correct execution of public policies, spend more of their time and energy to gain assurance of public sectors’ companionship with their political priorities. Political control over public organizations seems the most clear reason for politicizing public sectors. In this way, bureaucratic meritocracy system fades out even in developed countries, so politicization could lead to change of public sector’s goals. This struggle is an avenue of discussion for scientific community of public administration, political sciences, and other related disciplines.

Politicization is not limited just to developing countries. Developed countries (e.g., Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, Britain, United States, Canada, and New Zealand) have the same experience of politicization in their managerial and political systems. As Peters and Pierre noted, unlike the use of patronage appointments in many less-developed countries (World Bank 2001), politicization in the industrialized democracies implies attempts to control policy and implementation (2004, p. 2). But whatever makes this phenomenon different in these kinds of countries is the target of that. So encounter with politicization is different in every country on the base of its political philosophy and public policies, and so it leads to various perceptions of its concept. Peters and Pierre (2004) in their book “Politicization of the Civil Service in Comparative Perspective: The Quest for Control” gathered a collection of several countries’ experience about politicization. They talk about the degree of politicization of their public service which includes processes, functions, and consequences. In this chapter Iran is the subject of the study.

Iran has one of the oldest public administration systems in the world. A rich 8000-year-old history of Iran in bureaucracy and public administration can prove this fact. Formation of administrative structures and governance mechanisms has an ancient history in Iran. The Sassanid Empire (224–651 AD) as one of the two main powers in Western Asia with an expanded governance domain made one of the powerful civilizations for Iranian. An empire with a specified hierarchy of political system includes executive, judicial, and legislative powers. Also before them the Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC) formed some important organizational and administrative principles that had significant influence on the Roman Empire’s public administration. Today’s state of Iran has used some of those old public administration traditions besides modern concepts of organization and management from around the world.

Iran with a specific nature as a developing country, generally, and as an Islamic republic, specially, attracts the interests of public administration experts from one side and political parties and policy makers from another side. Having different and specified political goals favorable to religious beliefs and traditional foundations make the governance system of this country so different. In Iran, like other countries, politics and administration are in challenge with each other. Politics’ interest in control of administration and administration’s interest in dominance over execution of public policies is an unavoidable affair in Iran.

Anyway the political orientation of public administration is a significant subject. This reality beside the importance of strategic situation of Iran needs to pay more attention to understanding the meaning and concept of politicization and its consequences for Iranian public administration. Unfortunately, the information about political decisions and appointments released in Iran is not enough and clear, so gathering data and ideas about this phenomenon is difficult. What is discussed here about politicization in Iran is the result of some available documents about appointments and suspensions, and interviews with informed experts.

Politicization: The Result of Political Approach to Public Administration

Whenever a phenomenon becomes popular gradually in a social environment, scientists of that expert area begin to research about that. Politicization is one of those subjects discussed in political and public administrative environment. The politics-administration dichotomy has had a strange history in public administration, and many authors has focused on it (e.g., Cawley 2015; Demir and Nyhan 2008; Georgiou 2014; Overeem 2005; Svara 2001; Svara and Overeem 2006). This shows politicization is a common challenge for administrative systems in almost all countries. Therefore, it is quite obvious that the theoretical understanding of the phenomenon of bureaucratic politicization is of great importance – especially where consequences of policy-making are to be expected – for scholars of public administration, policy analysts, and practitioners alike (Bauer and Ege 2012, p. 407).

According to Cooper, governments turned their focus to controlling bureaucracy. By putting individuals who share a similar political orientation in key administrative positions, the power to appoint officials became a key means for governments to increase their command over bureaucracy (2015, p. 2). Also in this way, politicization of the public administration could be a weapon that executive power uses when doubting the ideological loyalty of the civil service (Dahlström and Niklasson 2013, p. 893).

The underlying rationale is that politicians will try to compensate their loss of formal power over regulatory matters by using informal channels of influence – such as the appointment of political allies (Ennser-Jedenastik 2015, p. 6). Despite theoretical and practical importance of this phenomenon, its meaning is still under discussion. So there are many different definitions of politicization but most researchers have considered politicization as “the substitution of political criteria for merit-based criteria in the selection, retention, promotion, rewards, and disciplining of members of the public service” (Peters and Pierre 2004, p. 2) (e.g., Cooper 2015; Dahlström and Niklasson 2013; Page and Wright 1999). This definition shows politicization is recourse to partial and political criterions in public sectors’ human resources management and makes political appointment. Political appointments can be viewed as an attractive strategy to ensure that the governing party’s preferences keep influencing policy even after a power shift (Dahlström and Niklasson 2013, p. 894). Although this definition includes all kinds of countries (developing and developed countries) and political appointments are not avoidable, there is a difference. In developing countries, the purpose is just supply of jobs and positions for a group or tribe, but the purpose of politicization in developed countries is control over the execution of public policies.

The result of Imtiyaz’s research in Sri Lanka was politicization were twofold: the erosion of the secular nature of the state and its institutions such as the legislature, bureaucracy, judicial system, public education system, and the police and defense forces; and the deepening distrust of marginalized minorities, particularly the Tamils both in the state and its institutions (2014, p. 326).

It should be mentioned that bureaucracy is born of politics because it is the manifestation of those systems and structures responsible for serving citizens, and this politics determines who serves what. So those policy makers, who want to be in power through control of bureaucracy, try to enhance its efficiency and justice in services, but it does not mean that they want to throw away the meritocracy from the heart of public administration.

Applying political criterions may influence the performance administrative system. If meritocratic criterions used for selection and promotion of employees, and political criterions just used for political managers in bureaucracies, its destructive influence on the performance of administrative system is fewer. Although about professional bureaucracies there should be professional carriers for managers.

At the end of this section and beside all mentioned about public administration and politics relation a challenge would be considered. When state comes to power democratically, there should be no doubt about all decisions on structures, appointments, and people. Is meritocracy as a criterion enough for selection, retention, and promotion administrators? Shouldn’t public administrators be changed on the base of public will? Do political appointments distort bureaucracies in these cases? Is political approach to public administration required for confidence in agreeable execution of public policies? Therefore, we can note that politics-public administration dichotomy is a big challenge.

Political System and Administrative Structure in Iran

There is a separation of powers on the base of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, works under Supreme Leader’s supervision; legislature, executive, and judicial system. Another two political organs in Iran are Guardian Council and Expediency Discernment Council of the System. Islamic Consultative Assembly has no legal status without the Guardian Council. Any bill passed by the Consultative Assembly must be reviewed and approved by the Guardian Council to become law. The Guardian Council holds veto power over all legislation approved by the Consultative Assembly. Expediency Discernment Council of the System is an administrative assembly appointed by the Supreme Leader, and its true power lies more in its advisory role to the Supreme Leader.

Legislation is the responsibility of Islamic Consultative Assembly and draws the overall policy, plans, programs, and budgets of country and passes laws. Consultative Assembly also supervises executive (government) as a control institution. Judicial system in Iran is on the base of Islam teachings. The head of the judiciary is appointed by the Supreme Leader. The Minister of Justice in government owes responsibility in all matters concerning the relationship between the judiciary and executive.

The executive is the organ that exercises authority in and holds responsibility for the governance of a state. The executive executes and enforces law. The head of the executive, President of Iran is the second government official after the Supreme leader. Eighteen cabinet ministers have been proposed by president, and Islamic Consultative Assembly can reject or approve them. Also Consultative Assembly can question ministers about their performance and ministers should answer.

Political Approach to Public Administration in Iran’s Governance System

In some countries (e.g. Iran), based on political approach, by coming a new president the framework of government changes fundamentally. New president assigns new ministers; new ministers select new deputy ministers; new deputy ministers determine new general managers. Sometimes general managers change chairmen, employees, and even their secretaries. For example, Minister of Interior assigns new governors, and new governors assign new governor of a rural district. So all organizations even in the farthest villages see new managers. It is the beginning of politicization.

Taking politics away from bureaucracy seems impossible and irrational in Iran like other countries, so it seems necessary to notice some points about their relations. Descriptions and definitions about politicization look general and analysis of them seem necessary. Also looking at this phenomenon from national perspective could be one of the best ways to clear the meaning of that.

Almost all of public organizations have a degree of politicization in human resources area. Employees in public services with their different behaviors and decisions could make different degrees and various expressions of politicization. In Iran, like the United States, Germany, and France, this kind of politicization is common. Basically administrators and managers of public sectors are political people except for professional bureaucracies have no justification for politicians’ entrance. Recognition of politicization is possible by some criterions. Fundamentally the nature of political criterions about politicization is various. Somebody point to partial political loyalties as political appointment criterions, but others mention the control of public policies as political appointment criterion.

From another aspect, some duties of some public organizations are inherently political, and forming boundary between their political tasks and executive roles is difficult. Now is it right to say these kinds of organizations or ministries are politicized? For example, the ministry of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and the Ministry of Interior are the two important and strategic ministries in Iran that have the most political jobs.

Sometimes politicization occurs when a party comes to power after a long time by the imagination of public sectors’ politicization and increased amount of opposite party’s advocates in public organizations. In this case, new party may try to decrease politicization by their loyal advocate’s entry. They may imagine this is a kind of meritocracy, but is it right in practice or their work could lead to a new type of politicization. This form is popular in Iran. Every party that comes to power tries to make an unpleasant image of the previous party and by exaggerating their mistakes and failures prepare the climate for their new decisions and new people. After the change of the president, new ministers change most of the managers, directors, and administrators. Documents and interviews show more than 70% of administrators at managerial and senior levels change with new winning party entrance to public sectors.

Also new organizations and companies, new structures, new services and goods, and new jobs for recruitment of new people are not surprising in Iran’s public sectors through new government, for example, “Management and Planning Organization of Iran,” one of the largest governmental establishments in Iran formed in 1999 from merging, “Plan and Budget Organization (PBO),” and “State Organization for Administrative and Employment Affairs,” in the beginning of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency. In 2007, in third year of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency, he gave the verdict of its dissolution. Ahmadinejad formed Deputy Strategic Planning and Control and gave some parts of its duties to this new organization. In 2014, Hassan Rouhani president revived “Management and Planning organization” for the second time.

Making new rules and giving new licenses in different areas (political, social, cultural, economic, and other areas) are other instruments for politicians to control over bureaucracy. For example, in the duration of Ahmadinejad presidency, political parties and coalitions have been limited because of some problems and the most challenging subject was the House of Parties. In 2015 and by the coming of Rouhani with the political freedom slogan, the situation changed and the House of Parties that could not get the license in 2011 could work again.

Consequences of Political Approach to Iran’s Public Administration

Politicization, as explained, occurs with two different purposes: control over bureaucracy for confidence in right execution of public policy and finding jobs for advocates. In Iran as a developing country, appointing partial advocates to public jobs in senior levels is the main purpose of political interference in public administration.

Politicization is usually perceived as a negative concept and most of who studied this subject mentioned it as a phenomenon with destructive consequences (see Argyris 1986; Čehovin and Haček 2015; Cooper 2015; Senge 1990; Weiden 2011; Dahlstrom and Lapuente 2009; OECD 2004). Although politicization with the purpose of control over bureaucracy may have constructive consequences (Dekker and Hansen 2004; Mulgan 1998; Henig 2009; Imtiyaz 2014; Oyedeji 2016; Palonen 2003), expecting positive consequences from political approach to public administration in Iran would not be correct.

One of the consequences of political approach is spread of managerial bonus. It refers to special privilege political bureaucratic managers give to their loyal advocates in bureaucracy. They do it for the sustenance of their position and influence on system. This means use of national financial resources for individual goals like promotion of political position. Organizational flattery is another consequence of politicization. When the managers in public organizations judge on the base of their subjectivities and have competency nowhere in their judgments, every one try to make good relations with managers to influence that subjective image. So a culture of flattery forms in organizations that destruct ethics, humanity, and competency, and it could distort organizational performance. Increasing revenge expression is the other consequence that prevents people from criticizing each other or their supervisors and managers about their decisions and behaviors. It occurs when new managers try to suppress their opponents through human resource strategies (e.g., reward, punishment, and promotion). Organizational silence is the result of this climate. In such situations, employees and managers prefer to be silent instead of talking about their ideas, concerns, and wishes. Fear of managerial punishment permeates employees’ heart and nobody can react to events and solve the problems creatively.

Increasing political behaviors of public servants; size of government, besides decreasing acceptability of administrative system; unskilled labor proliferation; and also destroyed meritocracy in public organizations are some other destructive consequences of politicization of public administration in Iran which are the most important consequences that have been extracted by existent literature.


In almost all countries there is a degree of politicization even if they reject this claim and try to hide it. For example, a survival analysis in Denmark shows that since 1970 the risk that a top civil servant will be replaced has increased. There is no evidence of politicization in central government while city managers’ risk of replacement increases when a new mayor is appointed, representing another party and holding an absolute majority, and when the shift of mayor takes place within the same party. They result in appointments which are politicized, that is, that party criteria have been substituted for merit when it comes to selecting top civil servants (Christensen et al. 2014).

With regard to what is explained about politicization of public administration in Iran and its expressions and consequences, politicization of public administration exhibits itself more in political appointments and movements at the top levels in public sectors. Extensive amount of political decisions about selection, promotion, and movement of administrators in Iranian public sectors is a sign of important role of political approach in public administration. Although this form of politicization is difficult to prove because there is no clear and available information about them, but the facts and informal interviews can support this claim.

On the basis of Bauer and Ege (2012, p. 408) and Rouban (2012, pp. 380–390) typology, the conceptual side of politicization in Iran public administration is mainly formal or direct because it conceived of as the top-down ability of political superiors to decide about recruitment and promotion by considering nonmerit characteristics of officials. Also politicians try to apply professional politicization through to prepare a motion of censure against ministers.

Also Rouban (2012, pp. 380–391) proposed three dimensions of politicization that include: politicization as participation in political decision-making, politicization as partisan control over the bureaucracy, and politicization as political involvement. Our studies and existing documents show partisan control over the bureaucracy is popular and is the whole logic of the political system that developed in Iran in recent decades. Also all Western countries have created “political positions” to give the executive branch some means of control over public policy (Rouban 2012, p. 384).

As a conclusion, generally Iranian law allows political executives’ strong influence on staffing decisions and personnel policy in public administration, so, for example, President have no veto power in Iran, and politicians can make any decisions related to cabinet members. Politicization is a popular phenomenon in Iran’s public administration like most of other countries.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tarbiat Modares UniversityTehranIran
  2. 2.Public AdministrationUniversity of TehranTehranIran