Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, POLITICS ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 21 October 2019

Administrative Styles and Policy Styles

Summary and Keywords

There are distinct characteristics to the ways and procedures through which public administrations typically accomplish their daily tasks. The informal routines that characterize the behavior and activities of public administrations in the policymaking process are called administrative styles. They can be understood as the meso-level of organizational culture. Studying administrative styles is important for comparative research on policymaking because they capture and explain variance in policymaking and implementation beyond merely structural aspects or formal institutions. Similar to policy styles and regulatory styles, the concept of administrative styles has long been employed to describe state–society relationships. It has found to be a useful independent variable in the study various phenomena, such as divergent policy developments across European states, national idiosyncrasies in regulatory regimes or the impact of Europeanization on national administrations.

However, administrative styles can also be informative of the relationship between the bureaucracy with both their political masters and society and bureaucratic influence in policymaking. In this regard, one can distinguish two orientations underpinning administrative styles, namely positional and functional orientations characterizing informal bureaucratic routines and standard operating procedures. Depending on the prevalence of positional and functional orientations in behavioral patterns, it is possible to distinguish four ideal-typical administrative styles that apply to administrative routines of influencing the policymaking process: a servant style, an advocacy style, a consolidator style, and an entrepreneurial style. Variation in administrative styles across different organizations can be explained by two factors, namely the internal and external challenges they face. Understood this way, administrative styles could enable a comparative assessment of bureaucratic routines and influence in policymaking across different countries or sectors as well as in supra- and international bureaucracies.

Keywords: public administration and policy, bureaucratic influence, administrative culture, regulatory styles, administrative behavior, bureaucratic routines, informal institutions, policymaking


Not all public administrations work the same way. This fact is not surprising to anyone who studies bureaucracies, or, in fact, has ever dealt with one in everyday life. Administrative involvement, operations, and decision making may differ across policy sectors, countries (Peters & Pierre, 2004; Schnapp, 2004) as well as (international) organizations (Knill & Grohs, 2015). Moreover, beyond formal rules, administrations can develop a life of their own. This inner life of bureaucracies becomes visible in an informal, routinized modus operandi, which is part of their administrative culture more broadly. Not unlike people, places, or periods, administrations thus have a certain style. There are distinct characteristics to the ways and procedures through which they typically accomplish their daily tasks. Administrative styles can generally be defined as informal routines that characterize the behavior and activities of public administrations in the policymaking process (Knill, 2001). The everyday intuition that administrations can work differently in profound ways is thus actually very accurate.

Administrative styles constitute a distinctive dimension of the broader concept of administrative culture, which is generally studied at three different levels: the micro level (including the values, roles, and behaviors of individual members of the administration, as well as the attitudes of the general public towards administrations); the macro level of administrative traditions that refer the basic understanding and historical evolution of administrative systems in different political-administrative systems (e.g., Anglo-Saxon, Continental, Napoleonic, or Nordic administrative traditions); and the meso level of administrative styles, understood as the standard operating procedures of administrative behavior and decision making (Jann, 2002).

Administrative styles can be understood as a subset of policy styles (Richardson, Gustafson, & Jordan, 1982). While the latter generally describe typical process characteristics during the formulation and implementation of a policy more generally, administrative styles refer to typical interaction patterns and behavioral routines of administrative actors (i.e., specifically bureaucratic behavioral routines of shaping, drafting, and implementing public policies). While policy styles have been used to describe distinctive patterns of national policymaking, administrative styles concentrate on the role of administrations in particular, hence adopting a more narrow and focused perspective.

This article gives an overview of administrative styles as an analytical concept both in its original context and in more recent applications and developments. The styles concept has been primarily used to describe basic features of administrative behavior in the interaction between public authorities and society. Most of those “first generation” conceptualizations are thus restricted to essentially defining styles on the basis of governmental intervention patterns and administrative interest intermediation (i.e., the relationship between politics or the bureaucracy and society). However, we argue that this is only part of the story. Administrative styles can also be relevant at the interface between the political and administrative sphere and give us a sense of how actively administrations typically behave in policymaking (i.e., how influential they can potentially be). A first step toward a “second generation” conceptualization of administrative styles entails rethinking the decade-old debate about the styles concept more broadly as well its explanations.

In summarizing the debate on policy styles, it is shown that there is a shared understanding on the substance of the styles concept (see “Policy Styles and the Relationship of Politics and Society”), and that some of the common themes, as well as open questions, are reflected in the subsequent conceptualization of administrative styles (see “Administrative Styles at the Bureaucracy-Society Nexus”). The section “Common Themes in the ‘First Generation’ of Policy and Administrative Styles,” summarizes these commonalities and loose ends, which sets the stage for the suggestions made in the section “Administrative Styles and the Politico-Administrative Relationship.” Here, we propose to understand administrative styles as informative of the relationship between the bureaucracy with both their political masters and society and their influence in policymaking. Administrations’ actions can be broadly guided by two orientations: they may primarily focus on the functional aspects of policymaking, such as the effectiveness and quality of their policy output and outcomes, or rather be, above all, concerned with their own institutional standing and position. The styles concept takes those two differing orientations into account systematically and hence not only informs us about the potential policy influence of public administrations but also their underlying orientation in this regard. Depending on dominant strategic orientations shaping administrative routines four ideal types can be identified: a servant style, an advocacy style, a consolidator style, and an entrepreneurial style. We argue that the variation in administrative styles across different organizations can be explained by two factors, namely the internal and external challenges they face. The “Conclusion” section summarizes the argument and emphasizes that the “second generation” approach enables a comparative assessment of what bureaucracies actually do in their daily routines (their styles) across different countries or sectors as well as in supra- and international bureaucracies.

Policy Styles and the Relationship of Politics and Society

Policy styles, in the broadest sense, refer to interactions and behavioral patterns that usually can be observed during the formulation and implementation of a policy (Feick & Jann, 1989)

This definition points to three core features of policy styles: First, policy styles describe features of the policymaking process, not its output. This procedural element clearly differentiates the concept from “policy profiles” (Feick & Jann, 1989). Second, styles by definition are reproduced regularly, hence refer to how policy is usually made on a day-to-basis rather than to courses of action that vary with specific situational requirements. Lastly, styles can be understood as informal institutions, which develop from typical behavioral patterns in the interaction of political actors and society. We can understand them as long-term patterns of policy development, which remain relatively stable over time (i.e., traditions that are relatively resistant to change).

Within this general agreement on what “styles” are broadly, we find a number of different operationalisations and explanations of the phenomenon. Administrative styles can be considered an important element of the more general concept of policy styles. Similarly, some authors refer to styles of regulation (Vogel, 1986; Vogel & Kagan, 2004; Adam, Hurka, & Knill, 2017). However, quite logically, policy styles represent the more general term, as regulatory policies are only one kind of policy.

Several studies have provided empirical evidence for cross-country variation in policy styles, albeit from different analytical and contextual angles. Richardson et al. (1982) initially identified four country-specific policy styles: the German rationalist consensus style, the British negotiation style, the French concertation style, and the Dutch negotiation and conflict style. These styles can be explained by the interplay of two dimensions, namely the typical problem-solving approach of government (anticipatory versus reactive), and the state-society relationship (consensus versus imposition). Although this approach was criticized on varying accounts, in particular because of the rather thin dimensions used for explaining different styles, the inadequate analytical distinction between ideal types and real types of policy styles as well as the insufficient theoretical underpinning of the problem-solving approach dimension (Kjellberg, 1984), the study paved the way for subsequent research endeavors.

Several scholars have attempted to construct ideal-typical national policy styles as holistic concepts, such as the comparison between “liberal-pluralist,” “étatist,” and “corporatist” styles (van Waarden, 1995, p. 335). Liberal-pluralist styles demonstrate a preference for market solutions and open associational networks, whereas étatism prefers state solutions for policy problems with state actors dominating and neglects associational structures. Corporatist styles prefer associational solutions by the self-regulation of society (i.e., by the representatives of major interest associations). These four policy styles—again—are explained against the backdrop of two broad dimensions, namely, the extent to which interactions between public and private actors are formalized and whether societal interest groups can directly participate in the formulation and implementation of public policies (van Waarden, 1995, p. 195).

Later typologies tend to exhibit greater differentiation. Highly influential in this regard is Vogel’s (1986) analysis of national styles of regulation characterizing environmental policy in the United Kingdom and the United States. While in the British case, patterns of regulation were characterized by consensual, pragmatic, informal, and highly secretive relationships between the regulatory authorities and industry, the style of regulation in the United States was more adversarial, legalistic, formal and relied more heavily on transparent interactions (see also Knill, 1998, 2001, for a comparison of French, German, and British environmental policy approaches). Rather similar differences were reported by Kagan (2000) with regard to environmental policy in the United States and Japan. Studies of other policy areas, such as health and safety at work (Kelman, 1981; Wilson, 1989), supported these findings as well. Particularly interesting in this context is the case of Canada, which displays elements of both British and US policy styles (Howlett & Lindquist, 2004).

Administrative Styles at the Bureaucracy-Society Nexus

The discussion surrounding policy styles informed the conceptual development of administrative styles to a great extent. While policy styles refer to general process patterns, the concept of administrative styles as developed by Knill (1998, 2001) explicitly focuses on traditional behavioral patterns of a specific player in the political administrative system, namely the public administration (see also Zysman, 1994; Howlett, 2002). Both concepts are operationalized on the basis of different (but often closely related) indicators. Both policy and regulatory styles are closely related to administrative styles and are sometimes used synonymously as they basically refer to the same phenomenon, namely “a more or less consistent and long-term set of institutionalized patterns of politico-administrative relationships, norms and procedures (i.e., the standard operating procedures of policymakers and administrative actors) (Howlett, 2003, p. 474). Hence we do find common themes of the policy styles debate (i.e., informality, relative stability, and regularity) also in the administrative context.

In assessing the impact of Europeanization on national administrations, Knill (2001) relied on two analytically separate dimensions of sectoral administrative arrangements: administrative structure (structural dimension) and administrative style (behavioral dimension). Administrative styles are relatively stable behavioral orientations characterizing an organizational body (see van Waarden, 1995, p. 333). As an institutionalized informal modus operandi, they materialize as a guiding principle over time and by repetition, routinization, and subsequent internalization. Under conditions of uncertainty and complexity, individual bureaucrats develop routines for coping with shortages of knowledge, information-processing capacities, and time (Simon, 1997). At the level of the organization, such coping strategies can consolidate into patterns of problem-solving behavior. Strategies and solutions that have yielded satisfying results in the past are repeated and habitualized by members of the organization, becoming part of their specific organizational identity; in the long term, this manifests itself in informal institutions, here: style (Wilson, 1989).

Following Knill (2001), administrative styles are conceptualized along two sets of criteria, namely administrative intervention and administrative interest mediation. Administrative intervention refers to the logic, type, content, and flexibility of sectoral administrative instruments (Vogel, 1986). Administrations’ regulatory logic can either be based on an inductive case-by-case logic, in which every aspect of a given case receives careful consideration, or a more generalizing, deductive logic, which specifies rather abstract criteria for large numbers of cases. The type of intervention captures whether sectoral instruments prescribe hard command-and-control measures or rely on softer self-regulatory or voluntary means. Intervention can furthermore specify substantive or procedural requirements, thus have different content. Lastly, regulatory flexibility refers to the degree to which sectoral intervention is based on narrowly specified (as opposed to more open) frameworks. Administrative interest mediation, the second relevant set of aspects, captures patterns of institutionalized relationships between administration and society. Patterns in the relationship between public and private actors can be consensual or rather adversarial, formal or informal, closed or open to third parties, equally open to all societal actors or granting privileged access to some and characterized by rigid legalism—or a more pragmatic stance that leaves room for bargaining.

From these aspects of administrative intervention and interest intermediation patterns, one can construct two opposing ideal-typical styles that can be explained against the macro-institutional backdrop of the of state tradition, as well as the legal and political-administrative systems they are embedded in. The intervening administrative style is characterized by substantive, hierarchical, and detailed patterns of intervention, and legalistic, adversarial, formal, and closed interactions, which are accessible only to those who are directly affected and addressed. By contrast, the mediating ideal type features inductive, procedural, non-hierarchical, flexible patterns of intervention (allowing for much administrative discretion), and pragmatic, consensual, informal public-private interactions, in which transparency grants equal access to everybody.

Common Themes in the “First Generation” of Policy and Administrative Styles

Beyond the broad agreement that styles reflect informal, rather stable, routinized pattern of interacting with society on the part of political actors and the administration, the discussion of policy styles and administrative styles reveals two further commonalities. A first common feature of this research is the use of administrative styles as an independent variable. Research on administrative and policy styles has contributed to the understanding of divergent policy developments across European states (Richardson, Gustafson, & Jordan, 1982; van Waarden, 1995), the persistence of national idiosyncrasies in regulatory regimes (Vogel & Kagan, 2004), and the impact of Europeanization on national administrations (Knill, 2001). Howlett (2003) has applied the concept of administrative styles to explain the varying degrees of capacity for reform in Western administrative systems during the New Public Management reform wave of the 1990s. Where styles are the dependent variable, explanations are often rather simplistic, or seem to be chosen somewhat eclectically.

A second commonality is the controversy over variation. Do styles vary across nation- states, or policy sectors? Those questioning the assumption of general national (policy) styles, argued that since the differences across policy sectors are more visible than the differences across nations (Jann, 1983). Whereas the abovementioned studies stress the existence of national policy styles, others identified variance in sector-specific patterns or growing trends of cross-national policy convergence (Freeman, 1985; Coleman, 1994). While governments in some cases follow an anticipatory or informal approach, their activities could well be characterized by a highly formalized or reactive behavior in other sectors. At the same time, consensual interactions between state and society in one area could go hand-in-hand with adversarial patterns in other fields. The neo-corporatist literature has similarly cast some doubts on the appropriateness of characterizing nations by a single type of state-industry relationship (Atkinson & Coleman, 1989). In short, a focus on sectoral rather than national factors was advocated as a more promising and accurate way of identifying different policy styles.

Drawing on Lowi’s (1964) dictum that policy determines politics, Knill and Tosun (2012) suggested that policy-type specific cleavages will have an important impact on observable policy styles. At the same time, policy legacies can create path dependencies, as change of established patterns will coincide with high costs (both economically and in terms of institutional adjustment needs). They tentatively suggest considering national and sector-specific explanations simultaneously. These factors would then be thought of exhibiting different degrees of stability and could include socioeconomic development, cultural orientations, or legal traditions (Knill, 2001; Dyson, 2010), the polity (Ljiphart, 1994), problem type and involved actors, path dependencies, as well policy specific cleavages (Lowi, 1964). Apart from this recent suggestion and the criticism in the 1980s and 1990s, however, not much progress was made in identifying sector-specific policy styles.

This statement holds true notwithstanding the contribution of Howlett, Ramesh, and Perl (2009), who distinguish between different policy styles with regard to different stages of the policy cycle. For each stage, they identify different factors of explanatory relevance and also different process patterns. However, this scheme does not really resolve the abovementioned problems in that it is fairly complex and at the same time does not overcome the problem of rather simplistic explanations. Nevertheless, their approach constitutes and important point of departure for further research. Taking the procedural factor into account more seriously makes intuitive sense, especially when speaking of administrative styles. Administrative tasks differ widely across the policy cycle, and one should take these differences into account when studying patterns of behavior, instead of either focusing on implementation only or assume the same behavior across cases.

Administrative Styles and the Politico-Administrative Relationship

As we have seen, the analysis of administrative styles yielded a range of important insights that shed light on distinctive national patterns of administrative routines and process characteristics. We also observe that issues such as styles as a dependent variable, variation, and the process dimension remain unclear or disputed. However, it seems that the most crucial problem with existing attempts to classify national styles is that analytical dimensions are selected in a somewhat eclectic manner, with a bias toward the assessment of state-society relations. With the exception of Richardson et al. (1982), who additionally include the dimension of problem-solving approaches, the most prominent approaches attempt to define styles on the basis of patterns of governmental intervention in society and administrative interest intermediation (Vogel, 1986; van Waarden, 1992; Knill, 2001).

Administrations do not only interact with society but also with the political sphere. While this is almost a truism, this relationship is not reflected in conceptualizations of styles. Despite the fact that questions of bureaucratic autonomy and political control of the bureaucracy are essential in the scholarly debate on public administration (Aberbach, Putnam, & Rockman, 1981; Huber & Shipan, 2002; Hood & Lodge, 2006; Dahlström, Peters, & Pierre, 2011), this aspect has so far been completely neglected in the styles literature. If our research interest, however, lies on behavioral patterns and standard operating procedures in the whole course of policymaking, we should naturally take this dimension into account. This is even more important in light of the well-acknowledged finding that bureaucratic influence can reach far beyond the “street level.” Bureaucracies can be highly active in initiating the development of new policies and typically play a highly pronounced role in the drafting of policy proposals to be adopted by the legislature. In short, interacting with the context in which they are embedded and drawing on both the constraints and opportunities provided by their structural and institutional context, bureaucracies dispose of opportunities to influence the policy process. It is only in recent work on styles that this dimension has received closer attention (Cooper & Marier, 2017; Knill & Grohs, 2015).

In the following, we sketch a novel “second generation” conceptualization of administrative styles that aims to remedy these shortcomings. Above all, it is thought to overcome the systematic bias toward the analysis of state-society relationships. Furthermore, in order to fully grasp an administration’s modus operandi, one has to allow for variance and explanations beyond cross-country differences. In so doing, styles are moreover conceived of as a dependent variable. This approach allows for thinking about administrative styles beyond the nation-state. Similar to national level, international organizations dispose of bureaucratic apparatuses that can be highly active in policymaking and implementation. It has been found that administrative styles can be fruitfully applied to the supranational (Enkler et al., 2017) and international level (Knill et al., 2019).

We avoid an all too narrow focus on state-society relationships by systematically taking into account all central functions of bureaucracies in the different stages of the policymaking process, building on Howlett et al.’s (2009) idea of differentiating different factors along the policy cycle. The first stage refers to the bureaucracy’s role in the definition of policy problems and during agenda setting (i.e., policy initiation). This includes the bureaucracy’s relationship to both its political principals as well as to other external actors. The second stage is linked to style patterns that can be observed in the interaction between the bureaucracy and its political leaders. Such patterns are expected to be of particular relevance at the policy formulation (drafting) stage. Third, we focus on the interaction patterns between public administration and policy addressees (i.e., the policy implementation stage).

All throughout these three phases, it is possible to analytically distinguish between two distinctive orientations underpinning administrative behavior, namely institutional consolidation and policy effectiveness (Knill et al., 2019). If administrative styles are shaped by a positional orientation, the central objective behind administrative routines is on the question of how a certain policy will affect the autonomy and legitimacy of the administration. Positional administrative routines are directed toward influencing the institutional conditions under which bureaucrats operate when interacting with society and political principals (Knill & Bauer, 2016, p. 951). The provision of effective solutions to policy problems is less important than positional improvements or—in the extreme case—safeguarding the organizations raison d’être. Effective problem solving is thus no dominant orientation per se but mostly considered as a means to the end of positional achievements.

With a functional orientation, bureaucratic behavior is directed at constantly advancing the policy performance of the administration. The dominant focus is on optimizing internal structures and processes as to facilitate the initiation, formulation, and effective implementation of well-designed policies (Meyer et al., 2014). Administrative routines and standard operating procedures are thus directed toward effective problem solving; behavioral elements ensuring functionality are more pronounced than elements directed toward positional achievements. This does not mean that positional orientations are completely absent. However, they are less emphasized and important to the bureaucracy only insofar as they help to improve policy effectiveness.

Based on the distinction and prevalence of positional and functional orientations in administrations’ behavioral patterns, we suggest an ideal-typical distinction of administrative styles that apply to administrative routines in the policymaking process. To begin with, we differentiate between “servants” who behave rather passively. The three more active types are further specified depending on the extent to which their activities are targeted to the administrations’ position within the political system or organization and toward their principals (positional orientation), the policy output of their organization, such as the content, effectiveness, or existence of programmes and policies (functional orientation), or both. Conceptualizing administrative styles that way yields four ideal-typical administrative styles (Knill et al., 2019):

  • A servant administration presumes a rather reactive and instrumental role. The administration refrains from any attempt to intervene with politics beyond its formal duties. In this case, the bureaucracy follows a routine pattern of operating “by the books,” strictly adhering to the formal procedural and legal arrangements that define its tasks and functions.

  • Advocates focus their activities on influencing those aspects that are directly related to the quality, internal consistency, and effectiveness of their policies. Such bureaucracies will place lesser emphasis on behavioral patterns directed at safeguarding or advancing their institutional position but advocate for their approach towards the achievement of substantive policy goals.

  • Consolidators concentrate primarily on further strengthening their political autonomy, status, size, and competencies. Their main interest lies with the increase of competencies as such (i.e., the growth of the policy portfolio is given priority over policy consistency). Consolidators are hence primarily driven by positional rather than policy interests.

  • An entrepreneurial style is the combination of the two types above and thus presupposes administrative routines that entail intensive bureaucratic advocacy in policymaking as well a strong orientation towards institutional consolidation in order to strengthen the administration’s position.

Why are the routines and standard operating procedures in some administrations more entrepreneurial, while others are more servant-like? Two problems typically come with attempts to answer this question. First, studies of national style patterns usually resort to rather abstract and idiosyncratic explanations, like state or legal traditions. Such explanations are difficult to generalize, in particular when our objective is to develop an explanatory framework that works for public administrations independent from the institutional level at which they are located. Second, when searching for less abstract explanations, the literature suggests a whole universe of potential factors that may be relevant. This includes, for instance, the structure of the problems addressed (policy scope, problem type, size of the policy portfolio), the polity of the organization or country (procedural rules, decision rules, resources, size, and constituency), as well as variables such as leadership and staff characteristics.

Our response to these challenges is based on two considerations. First, we explicitly focus on administrative styles as informal administrative routines that can be observed within a given organization, be it a ministry at the national or subnational level, an independent agency, an international organization, or a local government. Any explanation of administrative styles is thus based on factors that apply to individual organizations rather than to a whole bundle of organizations within a jurisdiction or organizational domain. As a consequence, national or sectoral styles are only expected if organizational factors are similar for all or at least large parts of public organizations in a certain sector or country. In this way, one could overcome the problems of idiosyncratic country-based explanations and, at the same time, escape the conventional debate of national versus sectoral styles (Feick & Jann, 1989). Second, we address the complexity problem of a large number of potentially relevant explanatory variables by clustering these determinants into two more abstract factors.

In contrast to purely structural approaches, we argue that administrations are subject to external institutional challenges but at the same time may have the internal potential to actively influence their environment (Oliver, 1991). Both dimensions draw on two analytically separate (yet intertwined) objects of analysis: structural and behavioral aspects of administration and politics (Howlett, 2003, p. 475; Howlett & Tosun, 2019). Actions and behavior are a product of the interplay of organizational agency (internal) and the demands of the surrounding institution (i.e., the organizational environment [external]). An administrations’ experience with institutional demands varies depending on how external and internal pressures interact (Greenwood & Hinings, 1996). In line with this thought, we argue that administrative styles vary along two dimensions, namely the external and the internal challenges bureaucracies face. While the former refer to the perceived political challenges faced by the administration, the latter capture the degree of cognitive slack and internal epistemic contestedness of a bureaucracy (Enkler et al., 2017; Knill et al., 2019).

Administrative styles are thus different from, yet potentially compatible with, approaches that focus on comparing administrative systems or the relationship between politics and administration more broadly. One of the core insights of the both the first and second generation of administrative styles is that they are not determined by formal and structural characteristics of an organization. Administrative styles thus are conceptually located at a different analytical level than public service bargains (Hood, 2000; Hood & Lodge, 2006), administrative traditions (Knill, 2001; Painter & Peters, 2010), or civil service systems (Perry & Toonen, 1996; van der Meer, Raadschelders, & Toonen, 2015). These three highly influential comparative schemes to assess administrative behavior, politico-administrative relationships, or change and reform rely on a mixture of formal structures, historic legacies, and informal rules to explain cross-country variance in various administrative characteristics. It has become clear above that administrative styles, by contrast, operate on the organizational level (i.e., concern single administrative bodies) and zoom in on patterns of administrative day-to-day behavior. Rather than looking at factors such as national recruitment schemes, reward structures, or legal traditions, it is interested in how a mixture of various internal and external challenges are perceived in a given organization and how this translates into actual, quotidian bureaucratic routines. Theoretically, the meso-level concept of administrative styles is thus distinct from and complementary to macro-comparative schemes on the country level. Administrative traditions, bargains, or systems can only partially explain administrative styles. The two main explanatory factors (i.e., external and internal challenges) are made up of organizational perceptions of such and other formal and informal factors.

External Challenges to the Bureaucracy

External challenges are defined by the extent to which the administration perceives its institutional status and operation as subject to intervention and exogenous pressures. It makes a difference for administrative styles whether a bureaucracy is saturated and stable or whether it deems its status as effectively put into question.

Crucially, we contend that a bureaucracy’s perception of external challenges is better suited to explain their style than only considering factual structural features of their environment. While capturing relevant structural features of the organizational field, this view accounts for the fact that organizational challenges cannot be expected to matter per se (i.e., unfiltered by the organization). As every problem, challenges need to be defined and acknowledged by the organization in order to have an effect. “Conflicting institutional demands in a given field are not experienced in a similar way by all organizations since field level institutional processes are filtered and enacted differently by different organizations.” (Pache & Santos, 2010, p. 11). Even when external pressures are similar, administrations need not necessarily respond in exactly the same way (Greenwood & Hinings, 1996) as they may perceive and assess their environment as well as their own position in it differently. Two kinds of perceived challenges are of importance to explain administrative styles.

First, external challenges are affected by the perception of dynamics within the organizational domain the administration is located in. Within a given domain or jurisdiction, different organizations will compete for resources and competences. Failures to be innovative and adapt may result in budget cuts and a loss of political attention, thus “allowing some organizations to flourish and some to languish or, less frequently, to die” (Peters, 2001, p. 226; see also Peters & Hogwood, 1988; Adam et al., 2007). Second, bureaucratic vulnerability should increase with the extent to which an organization considers itself to be politically challenged. The more an administration perceives of itself as being in the political spotlight (i.e., in a position highly salient on the agenda of its political principals and society), the more the administration will try and consolidate its status. Potential challenges might emerge from changes in governmental preferences as a result of political turnovers, fiscal constraints, or activities of powerful societal actors striving to terminate or reform administrative bodies (Lewis, 2002). At the same time, low organizational stickiness emerging (the prevalence adolescent rather than mature administrations, single- rather than multi-purpose bodies, as well as small rather than large organisations) renders administrations more vulnerable to external challenges (Adam et al., 2007). The likelihood that administrations might perceive themselves challenged from outside is reinforced by the fact that agency terminations and administrative cutbacks are much more pronounced than initially implied by Kaufman’s (1976) immortality expectation (Boin et al., 2017).

Internal Challenges to Bureaucratic Policy Capability

The level of internal challenges a bureaucracy faces strongly affects its ability to pursue clear and consistent policy targets. We consider those administrations as internally challenged whose policy capabilities are limited by internal disparities or cognitive “straightjackets.”

In order to fully realize their own informal potential, administrations need to have sufficient “cognitive slack” (i.e., time, space, and resources to communicate, think, and innovate). Cognitive resources refer to the degree to which an organization prioritizes research and emphasizes and values expertise in the given issue area and beyond. Cognitive slack also presupposes a sufficient amount of time available to professional staff to create and process specialized knowledge. The space to produce high-quality cognitive outputs is diminished the more principals control and interfere in the day-to-day work of the bureaucracy (Durant, 2009; Boschken, 1988). Are policy products developed jointly with a high degree of exchange between bureaucrats and political representatives, or is the role of political masters confined to place an order and control the end result? Put simply, this relationship can be summarized as follows: the more control the principal is equipped to exert, the more the administration will be internally challenged with regard to its cognitive slack (i.e., the capability and potential to initiate, design, and implement effective and sound policies).

Second, we expect internal challenges to increase with the extent to which staff members’ professional backgrounds are characterized by heterogeneous epistemic beliefs (Kaufman, 1960; DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). The more staff members share the same professional background (e.g., in medicine or economics), the more we should expect a strong and consistent policy orientation. The same holds true for the ratio of professional staff and the permanence of occupation. Conversely, internal heterogeneity can lead to internal contestation of belief systems impairing the administration’s ability to act concertedly and consistently (Knill, Eckhard, & Grohs, 2016).

We suggest that the external challenges dimension primarily affects administrations’ positional orientation. In the absence of perceived political or domain challenges, we do not expect an administration to pursue a strong positional orientation toward institutional consolidation. Strengthening the institutional position will only be necessary if its standing or existence is seen to be under threat. The more the status of an administration is under political scrutiny and the more its political support is externally challenged, the more consolidation driven the bureaucracy must be to improve or safeguard its institutional position. The presence or absence of strong internal challenges, on the other hand, determines an administration’s functional orientation. Without certain appropriate cognitive resources, space, and time, an administration will be unable to shape policy outputs. It makes a difference for administrative styles whether the bureaucracy is capable of developing an interest in the solution of certain policy problems or whether it is by default restricted to merely “administrating” these policies.

Flowing from this logic, the combination of low external and high internal challenges renders an administration servant-like. When the administration’s hands are tied and its position is stable, it neither perceives the need for positional consolidation, nor does it command the means to become active in terms enhancing policy effectiveness. When external challenges increase, however, and the status of the organization or its bureaucracy is repeatedly called into question, the administration reacts and aims to stabilize its position by attempting to consolidate its institutional standing. Since internal challenges do not allow for the development of administrative routines reflecting a strong functional orientation toward policy effectiveness, the administration will resort to making the best of its situation in positional terms. The opposite scenario applies when a bureaucracy is saturated and stable internally (low internal challenges) and external challenges are absent. Equipped with sufficient cognitive slack and shared belief systems, the administration can form a strong functional orientation emphasizing policy effectiveness. Policy advocacy can unfold rather unimpeded internally and no perceived external threat puts them into a position in which they also have to also consolidate themselves. Finally, the combination of high external and low internal challenges lead an administration to behave as an entrepreneur pursuing consolidation and policy advocacy at the same time. Low internal challenges facilitate the emergence of a strong functional orientation in administrative routines, while at the same time external challenges require the administration to direct its activities to positional matters of institutional consolidation. Table 1 summarizes how the four ideal types relate to the two determinant dimensions.

Table 1. Four Types of Administrative Styles.

External Challenges

Internal Challenges









Source: Knill et al. (2019).


Administrative styles are informal procedures and routines that characterize the behavior of public administrations. Studying administrative styles is important for comparative research on policymaking as such styles can explain variance in policymaking and implementation unaccounted for with explanations merely focusing on structural aspects or formal institutions. The concept of administrative styles has hence been widely used in order to identify and understand distinctive behavioral routines of administrations during the formulation and implementation of public policies. In this contribution, we provided a critical review of the state-of-the-art and suggested potential avenues that allow for a more general as well as theoretically and empirically more grounded application of the styles concept. In so doing, we departed from a range of weaknesses inherent to the first generation of studies on administrative styles. Aside from the fact that in many instances boundaries and overlaps between different style conceptions (administrative styles, policy styles, styles of regulation) remained blurred, a major weakness of these studies has been its exclusive concern with national administrations and its selective focus on style patterns relating to the administration-society interface, while at the same time ignoring the nexus between administration and politics.

To overcome these limitations, we developed a more balanced specification of the styles concept that captures the dominant orientations of administrations in the process of policymaking, regardless of the institutional level at which these bodies are located. We differentiated analytically between three dimensions of administrative involvement in the policy process in accordance with the policy cycle heuristic: policy initiation, drafting, and implementation. Drawing on the literature on national administrative styles, we developed a conceptual framework that is applicable to a wide range of institutional settings at both the domestic and international level.

Based on these considerations, we distinguished two orientations underpinning administrative styles: namely the positional and functional orientation characterizing informal bureaucratic routines and standard operating procedures. Depending on the prevalence of positional and functional orientations in behavioral patterns, we suggest an ideal-typical distinction of four administrative styles that apply to administrative routines of influencing the policymaking process: a servant style (combining low functional and low positional orientations), a consolidator style (low functional, but high positional orientations), an advocate style (high functional and low positional orientations), and an entrepreneurial style (high functional and high positional orientations). The extent to which real-world administrative styles come close to one of these ideal-types can be explained by the constellation of internal and external challenges, as they are perceived by the administration in question.

While the concept of administrative styles as developed in this contribution offers a range of analytical strengths, we are well aware of the fact that our conceptual and theoretical suggestions only consider a first step toward a more systematic and grounded application of administrative styles. We consider it a promising avenue for future research to investigate change and variation of administrative styles as well as their conditions in a more systematic manner.


Aberbach, J. D., Putnam, R. D., & Rockman, B. A. (1981). Bureaucrats and politicians in Western democracies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

    Adam, C., Hurka, S., & Knill, C. (2017). Four styles of regulation and their implications for comparative policy analysis. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis, 19(4), 327–344.Find this resource:

      Adam, C., Bauer, M.W., Knill, C., & Studinger, P. (2007). The termination of public organizations: Theoretical perspectives to revitalize a promising research area. Public Organization Review, 7(3), 221–236.Find this resource:

        Atkinson, M. M., & Coleman, W. D. (1989). Strong states and weak states: Sectoral policy networks in advanced capitalist economies. British Journal of Political Science, 19(1), 47–67.Find this resource:

          Boin, A., Kofman, C., Kuilman, J., Kuipers, S., & van Witteloostuijn, A. (2017). Does organizational adaptation really matter? How mission change affects the survival of US federal independent agencies, 1933–2011. Governance, 30(4), 663–686.Find this resource:

            Boschken, H. L. (1988). Strategic Design and Organizational Change: Pacific Coast Seaports in Transition. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.Find this resource:

              Coleman, W. D. (1994). Policy convergence in banking: a comparative study. Political Studies, 42(2), 274–292.Find this resource:

                Cooper, C. A., & Marier, P. (2017). Does it matter who works at the center? A comparative policy analysis of executive styles. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, 19(1), 1–16.Find this resource:

                  Dahlström, C., Peters, B. G., & Pierre, J. (2011). Steering from the centre: Strengthening political control in Western democracies. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.Find this resource:

                    DiMaggio, P. J., & Powell, W. W. (1983). The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review, 48(2), 147–160.Find this resource:

                      Durant, R. F. (2009). Theory building, administrative reform movements, and the perdurability of Herbert Hoover. The American Review of Public Administration, 39(4), 327–351.Find this resource:

                        Dyson, K. (2010). The state tradition in western Europe. Colchester, U.K.: ECPR Press.Find this resource:

                          Enkler, J., Schmidt, S., Eckhard, S., Knill, C., & Grohs, S. (2017). Administrative styles in the OECD: Bureaucratic policy-making beyond formal rules. International Journal of Public Administration, 40(8), 637–648.Find this resource:

                            Feick, J., & Jann, W. (1989). Comparative policy research: Eclecticism or systematic integration. MPIfG Discussion Paper, 89(2).Find this resource:

                              Freeman, G. P. (1985). National styles and policy sectors: Explaining structured variation. Journal of Public Policy, 5(4), 467–496.Find this resource:

                                Greenwood, R., & Hinings, C. R. (1996). Understanding Radical Organizational Change: Bringing Together the Old and the New Institutionalism. Academy of Management Review, 21(4), 1022–1054.Find this resource:

                                  Hood, C. (2000). Paradoxes of public-sector managerialism, old public management and public service bargains. International Public Management Journal, 3(1), 1–22.Find this resource:

                                    Hood, C., & Lodge, M. (2006). The politics of public service bargains: Reward, competency, loyalty-and blame. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                      Howlett, M. (2002). Understanding national administrative styles and their impact upon administrative reform: A neo-institutional model and analysis. Policy and Society, 21(1), 1–24.Find this resource:

                                        Howlett, M. (2003). Administrative styles and the limits of administrative reform: A neo-institutional analysis of administrative culture. Canadian Public Administration, 46(4), 471–494.Find this resource:

                                          Howlett, M., & Lindquist, E. (2004). Policy analysis and governance: Analytical and policy styles in Canada. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, 6(3), 225–249.Find this resource:

                                            Howlett, M., Ramesh, M., & Perl, A. (2009). Studying public policy: Policy cycles and policy subsystems (Vol. 3). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                              Huber, J. D., & Shipan, C. R. (2002). Deliberate Discretion? The Institutional Foundations of Bureaucratic Autonomy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                Howlett, M., & Tosun, J. (2019). Policy styles: A new approach. In M. Howlett & J. Tosun (Eds.), Policy Styles and Policy-Making (pp. 3–21). Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                  Jann, W. (1983). Politische Programme und „Verwaltungskultur.” Bekämpfung des Drogenmissbrauchs und der Jugendarbeitslosigkeit in Schweden, Großbritannien und der Bundesrepublik Deutschland im Vergleich. Opladen, Germany: Westdeutscher Verlag.Find this resource:

                                                    Jann, W. (2002). Verwaltungskultur. Ein Überblick über den Stand der empirischen und international vergleichenden Forschung. In K. König (Ed.), Deutsche Verwaltung an Der Wende Zum 21. Jahrhundert. Baden-Baden, Germany: Nomos.Find this resource:

                                                      Kagan, R. (2000). Introduction: Comparing national styles of regulation in Japan and the United States. Law & Policy, 22(3–4), 225–244.Find this resource:

                                                        Kaufman, H. (1960). The Forest Ranger: A Study in Administrative Behavior. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Find this resource:

                                                          Kaufman, H. 1976. Are government organizations immortal? Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.Find this resource:

                                                            Kelman, S. (1981). Regulating America, regulating Sweden: A comparative study of occupational safety and health policy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

                                                              Kjellberg, F. (1984). Policy styles. Journal of Public Policy, 4(3), 271–273.Find this resource:

                                                                Knill, C. (1998). European policies: The impact of national administrative traditions. Journal of Public Policy, 18(1), 1–28.Find this resource:

                                                                  Knill, C. (2001). The Europeanisation of national administrations: Patterns of institutional change and persistence. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                    Knill, C., & Bauer, M. W. (2016). Policy-making by international public administrations: Concepts, causes and consequences. Journal of European Public Policy, 23(7), 949–959.Find this resource:

                                                                      Knill, C., Bayerlein, L., Grohs, S., & Enkler, J. (2019). Bureaucratic influence and administrative styles in international organizations. Review of International Organizations, 14(1), 83–106.Find this resource:

                                                                        Knill, C., Eckhard, S., & Grohs, S. (2016). Administrative styles in the European Commission and the OSCE Secretariat: striking similarities despite different organizational settings. Journal of European Public Policy, 23(7), 1057–1076.Find this resource:

                                                                          Knill, C., Enkler, J., Schmidt, S., Eckhard, S., & Grohs, S. (2017). Administrative styles of international organizations: Can we find them, do they matter? In M. W. Bauer, C. Knill & S. Eckhard (Eds.), International bureaucracy: Challenges and lessons for public administration research (pp. 43–71). Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

                                                                            Knill, C., & Grohs, S. (2015). Administrative styles of EU Institutions. In M. W. Bauer & J. Trondal (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of the European administrative system (pp. 93–107). Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer.Find this resource:

                                                                              Knill, C., & Tosun, J. (2012). Public policy: A new introduction. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

                                                                                Lewis, D. E. (2002). The politics of agency termination: Confronting the myth of agency immortality. The Journal of Politics, 64, 89–107.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Lijphart, A. (1994). Democracies: Forms, performance, and constitutional engineering. European Journal of Political Research, 25(1), 1–17.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Lowi, T. J. (1964). American business, public policy, case-studies, and political theory. World Politics, 16(4), 677–715.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Meyer, R. E., Egger-Peitler, I., Höllerer, M. A., & Hammerschmid, G. (2014). Of bureaucrats and passionate public policy managers: Institutional logics, executive identities, and public service motivation. Public Administration, 92(4), 861–885.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Oliver, C. (1991). Strategic responses to institutional processes. Academy of Management Review, 16(1), 145–179.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Pache, A.-C., & Santos, F. (2010). When Worlds Collide: The Internal Dynamics of Organizational Responses to Conflicting Institutional Demands. Academy of Management Review, 35(3), 455–476.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Painter, M., & Peters B.G. (Eds.). (2010). Tradition and public administration. New York, NY: Springer.Find this resource:

                                                                                              Peters, B. G. (2001). The Politics of Bureaucracy (5th ed.). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Peters, B. G., & Hogwood, B. W. (1988). The death of immortality: births, deaths and metamorphoses in the U.S. federal bureaucracy, 1933-1982. American Review of Public Administration, 18(2), 119–133.Find this resource:

                                                                                                  Peters, B. G., & Pierre, J. (2004). The politicization of the civil service in comparative perspective: A quest for control. London, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                                                    Perry, J. L., & Toonen, T. A. (1996). Civil service systems in comparative perspective. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                      Raadschelders, J. C. N., & Perry, J. L. (1994). Protocol for comparative studies of national civil service systems. Bloomington, IN: Comparative Civil Service Research Consortium.Find this resource:

                                                                                                        Richardson, J., Gustafsson, G., & Jordan, G. (1982). The concept of policy style. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Policy styles in Western Europe (pp. 1–16). London, U.K.: Georg Allen & Unwin Publishers.Find this resource:

                                                                                                          Schnapp, K.-U. (2004). Ministerialbürokratien in westlichen Demokratien: Eine vergleichende Analyse. Opladen, Germany: Leske & Budrich.Find this resource:

                                                                                                            Simon, H. A. (1997). Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                              Van der Meer, F. M., Raadschelders, J., & Toonen, T. (Eds.). (2015). Comparative civil service systems in the 21st century. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                Van Waarden, F. (1995). Persistence of national policy styles: A study of their institutional foundations. In B. Unger & van Waarden, F. (Eds.) Convergence or diversity (pp. 333–372). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                  Vogel, D. (1986). National styles of regulation: Environmental policy in Great Britain and the United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                    Vogel, D., & Kagan, R. A. (2004). Dynamics of regulatory change: How globalization affects national regulatory policies. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                      Waarden, F. (1992). Dimensions and types of policy networks. European Journal of Political Research, 21(1–2), 29–52.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                        Wilson, J. Q. (1989). Bureaucracy: What government agencies do and why they do it. New York, NY: Basic BooksFind this resource:

                                                                                                                          Zysman, J. (1994). How institutions create historically rooted trajectories of growth. Industrial and Corporate Change, 3(1), 243–283.Find this resource: