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Muiris MacCarthaigh and Leno Saarniit

Administrative culture is an established and prominent theme in public administration research. It is frequently used to explain or contextualize a variety of phenomena in the discipline, ranging from differences in governing styles and policy outcomes between national bureaucracies to making sense of the informal norms and values that determine the activities of individual public organizations and how they interact with political and non-state interests. It is also occasionally used to characterize a particular “type” of organizational culture, with features that distinguish it from the private or third sectors. With such varied uses of the term, as well as related concepts such as administrative style, tradition, and legacies, administrative culture attracts multiple interpretations as well as its fair share of criticisms as an explanatory tool. In some contexts, administrative culture is an independent variable that helps explain divergence and variety in policy outcomes within and across national borders, while in others it is a dependent variable that attracts experiments and new measurement tools with the aim of producing more sophisticated understanding of its place in public governance. Early skepticism about the study of administrative culture mainly arose due to the absence of adequate methodology as well as uncertainty about how to begin empirical research into the concept. The emergence of such a methodology and tools for inquiry since the 1970s has meant that administrative culture is now firmly located in the literature and practice of government and a burgeoning literature now exists across the globe. Some of the key contemporary debates around administrative culture concern the interplay between cultures and sub-cultures within bureaucracies, the influence of distinctive administrative traditions and styles on policy outcomes, and the role culture plays in public sector reform.


Louisa Bayerlein and Christoph Knill

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.