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date: 27 April 2017

Leadership and Public Administration

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

The relationship between leadership and public administration would appear to be simple and straightforward: political leaders need administrations to execute their decisions, as without proper execution, even the most essential results of the leadership process will fail to have an impact on society. While the literature of political leadership continues to be more interested in such aspects as goal identification and definition, and the ways and means by which leaders manage to garner and maintain support for their agendas, the crucial importance of implementation in terms of leadership effectiveness has been explicitly acknowledged since the seminal work of James MacGregor Burns in 1978. The implementation process has turned into a research field of its own, which includes examining the different structures and cultures as well as more situational factors that shape the way, and to what extent, public policies are implemented. One established subfield of research in this wider area concerns the concrete nature of the political-administrative relationship, the degree to which both spheres are separated or integrated, and by what strategies and means politicians have sought to expand their control over the bureaucracy.

As public administrations have always been understood to be more than mere executing agencies, a second established string of political research on the nexus between leadership and administration relates to the leadership process in the bureaucracy. Large-scale reforms of the public sector have fundamentally transformed the leadership capacity of different actors within the bureaucracy. One of the cross-nationally observed effects is the extensive dispersion of leadership roles throughout the bureaucracy. These reforms of the public sector have had major implications in terms of democratic responsibility and accountability, and have provided new challenges to the perennial problem of bureaucratic leadership and democratic authority. In the more recent leadership literature, “administrative leadership” has been readily acknowledged as a distinct component of the wider concept of public leadership, alongside political leadership and civic leadership, with a particular set of functions.

Finally, there is a third dimension of the subject: political leaders and leadership scholars alike have more recently discovered the crucial role of administrative resources for the leadership process, both within and beyond the executive branch. Political “chief executives” across the family of advanced democracies have seen the administrative resources available to them grow over the past decades. These new resources, located at the center of the political executive, have been used for enhancing the leverage of political leaders towards other power holders in the system and their outreach capacity in ever more fragmented and mediatized governance contexts. While these dynamics have occasionally been characterized as elements of a universal trend towards “presidentialization,” comparative inquiries suggest that the ways in which the structural and behavioral dimensions of leadership at this level have developed continue to vary strongly between countries and types of government.