Understanding reputational concerns within government agencies 

p&p blog

Kristoffer Kolltveit, Rune Karlsen & Jostein Askim

Employees in public agencies constantly need to think about how the outside world looks at them. According to bureaucratic reputation theory, public agencies face a complex web of reputational concerns regarding how they are perceived by multiple audiences who prioritise different dimensions of their work. For instance, public agencies are judged by critical media reports, a range of demanding users of public services, politicians and so on. A strong reputation is important, so building maintaining and protecting their reputation is important for generating public support, as well as facilitating their own autonomy and discretion from political interference. However, the existing bureaucratic reputation literature has overlooked the fact that employees might possess multiple social identities that could also affect their motivations, as well as the possibility that the employees might seek to protect the reputations of other government bodies which they hold feel committed to. In our recent Policy and Politics article, we draw on social identity theory to argue that employees are not only concerned about the reputation of the agency for which they work, but also about other actors in the political–administrative system; for example, the ministry to which they belong or the cabinet they serve. We argue that these distinct reputational concerns can have both individual and organisational explanations. For instance, employees in senior positions will emphasise their organisation more than employees in lower positions, because it is their organisational attributions that they identify most closely with. In a similar vein, employees with work experience from their parent ministry will emphasise the ministry more than employees without such experience, because of early socialization processes.  

Based on a large N survey to more than 2,000 Norwegian agency employees we tested these claims. Our results showed that civil servants’ reputational concerns were not limited to their own organisations. The majority cared about how the sector, ministry and minister appeared in the media. Fewer, however, were concerned about the cabinet and the minister’s party. Overall, this suggests a sort of hierarchy of reputational concerns. Our multilevel analysis showed that employees in independent agencies emphasised the reputation of their own agency. However, other factors that influenced their motivations were clearly also in play; for example, employees with a professional background in a ministry, as well as civil servants in higher positions, emphasised the parent ministry.

The insights from our research will have important implications for the understanding of bureaucratic reputations and how to manage them most effectively. When employees in public agencies are concerned about various actors in the political–administrative system, it might affect which reputational threats government employees feel obliged to respond to. Furthermore, when employees have reputational concerns beyond their agency, this might ameliorate turf battles and enhance the agencies’ willingness to share information and collaborate across organisational units.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Kolltveit, Kristoffer; Karlsen, Rune; Askim, Jostein. (2019) ‘Understanding reputational concerns within government agencies‘,  Policy & Politics,  https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X15579230420144

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

 Why do civil servants experience media-stress differently and what can be done about it?

Keeping expertise in its place: understanding arm’s-length bodies as boundary organisations

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