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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.


The notion of administrative tradition represents one way of discussing the issue of whether and to what extent a number of countries (polities/jurisdictions) have a significant array of traits in common concerning their public administration. The notion of administrative tradition may enable the pursuit of a range of purposes, like the framing of comparison for purposes of advancing knowledge and the assessment of capacities for reforming and change. The notion of Napoleonic administrative tradition can be substantiated by identifying a distinct configuration along four dimens(ions: an organic conception of the state, with limited role for societal, non-co-opted actors in public policy-making; a career civil service, distinct from other occupations, furnishing a general-purpose elite for the state; a predominance of law over management in defining the fundamental tasks of administration, and uniformity of treatment of citizens as a basic value guiding administrative action; and the preeminence of law and a system of courts in enforcing public accountability. Jurisdictions that may be ascribed to the Napoleonic administrative tradition encompass five countries in Europe (France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) as well as, more problematically, a number of countries which inherited the French model during the colonial period.