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date: 19 September 2017

Leadership and Public Administration

Summary and Keywords

Classic accounts of the relationship between leadership and public administration used to be straightforward: Political officials exercise leadership in terms of providing direction to government, and administrations implement decisions made by those leaders. Over the past decades, however, both scholarly notions and empirical manifestations of leadership and administration have undergone substantive change. While the political leadership literature 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 who famously defined leadership as “real, intended social change.” Conversely, public administration scholars have discovered the role of bureaucrats in the leadership process as important subfields of public administration.

To some considerable extent, these reorientations in the political study of leadership and administration have been driven by empirical developments in the real world of leaders and administrators. In many of the established democracies, political leaders have come to realize the importance of administrative resources, and in some contexts, such as in the United States, it seems justified to speak of particular administration-centered approaches to, and strategies of, executive leadership. At the same time, large-scale reforms of the public sector have fundamentally altered the role of bureaucrats in the leadership process. While individual top civil servants, especially (but not only) in Westminster systems, have always exercised some leadership, New Public Management reforms designed to increase the efficiency of the public sector extended leadership roles across the bureaucracy. The relationship between political leaders and bureaucrats continues to display major differences between countries, yet politicization of the civil service in its various forms marks a strong cross-national trend. In some countries, the proliferation of special advisers stands out as a more specific element of change with important implications for the evolving nature of executive leadership.

Such differences between countries notwithstanding, a broad empirical inquiry suggests that the developments in the political and administrative parts of the executive branch in many major democracies are marked by divergent dynamics: While there is a notable trend within the political core executive to centralize power with the chief executive (prominently referred to as “presidentialization” by some authors), the public bureaucracy of many developed countries has experienced a continuous dispersion of leadership roles. The implications of these ongoing changes have remained understudied and deserve further scholarly attention. However, alongside a host of conceptual and methodological issues, perhaps the most difficult and complex challenges to leadership and administration, both for political science and politics itself, relate to processes of internationalization and globalization.

Keywords: executives, bureaucracy, public sector, democracy, presidents, prime ministers, civil servants


Leadership is not a term or concept traditionally related to public administration. Classic understandings were marked by a fairly clear-cut division of labor: political leaders were responsible for making decisions and taking responsibility for them—while bureaucrats executed those decisions. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, there have been developments that effectively called into question this established divide. On the one hand, while notions of leadership are still dominated by such aspects as goal identification and definition, and in particular the means by which leaders garner and maintain support for their agendas, leadership scholars eventually came to acknowledge the importance of implementation as a constituent part of the leadership process (see Burns, 1978). Moreover, as political leaders in many countries began to expand their administrative support bases in order to meet new challenges and heightened public expectations, scholars gradually extended their focus to include the role of administrative resources for political leaders and leadership (see, e.g., Peters et al., 2000). On the other hand, as large-scale reforms of the public sector have fundamentally transformed the role definitions of different actors within the bureaucracy with an extensive dispersion of leadership roles throughout the bureaucracy, the activities of bureaucrats became more and more associated with leadership. “In face of these profound changes, scholars of public administration … now broadly agree that leadership is crucial to the efficiency and accountability of public organizations” (Vogel & Masal, 2014, p. 1166).

These developments have also been accompanied by terminological and conceptual challenges. Though sometimes used as a near-synonym, administrative leadership is a considerably narrower concept than the increasingly popular term “public leadership.” In the more recent literature, the latter has widely come to be understood as an overarching concept that includes administrative, political, and civic leadership (see ‘t Hart, 2014, chap. 2). By contrast, with its concentration on holders of formal leadership positions in public organizations, administrative leadership has a clear and comparatively narrow focus (see Rhodes, 2014, p. 112). A meaningful synonym of administrative leadership therefore is public sector leadership (rather than public leadership), as it is indeed about “administrative leadership in the public sector” (Van Wart & Dicke, 2007).

This chapter is not confined to an overview and assessment of leadership in public administration and the related academic debate. Rather, it looks both ways: that is, at the evolution of leadership within the public bureaucracy (or simply administrative leadership) and at the changing role of administrative resources for political leadership by political chief executives (i.e., presidents and prime ministers). Given the more established relationship between politicians and leadership, we shall look at this nexus first before evaluating the evolution and state of the art of administrative leadership.

Administering to Lead: The Administrative Presidency and its Imperfect Counterparts in Parliamentary Democracies

Historically, administrative and advisory resources available to political leaders, even in the most affluent and advanced democracies, were extremely sparse. In the United States, the founding fathers created an office of president but not a presidency proper. The “institutional presidency”—a staff support system with the Executive Office of the President (EOP) as its structural basis—did not emerge before the late 1930s. One key motive for creating it was the acknowledgment that the sprawling federal bureaucracy was beyond the president’s control. However, it was clear from the beginning that these reforms would not only alter the president’s position within the executive branch but also affect his role in the wider political process. As Lewis contends, “Variation in the performance of the institutional presidency can determine the success or failure of presidential leadership in a given policy arena” (Lewis, 2008, p. 256).

Whereas the creation of the EOP marked a fundamental junction in the development of the presidency, and with regard to the institutional leadership capacity of American presidents, the developments in most of the older parliamentary democracies were considerably less clear cut. In some countries, even the creation of a premiership to be held by a single individual, and its official constitutional acknowledgment, marked a lengthy and much-contested development, and the administrative resources available specifically to the head of government were extremely limited until after the end of the Second World War. This changed in the 1970s, when governments in many parliamentary democracies began to gradually expand the administrative resources and advisory capacities for the head of government—if, however, never even coming close to the figures of executive personnel to be found in the United States (see King, 1993; Rose, 2005, pp. 80–84).

The size and strength of administrative and advisory support systems have been identified as an important factor shaping the power status of the prime minister within the executive branch and his or her leadership capacity (King, 1994; Baylis, 2007), though it has increasingly been acknowledged that growing staff figures do not translate neatly into more political power, let alone strong leadership, which is in line with the influential claims of the “core executive approach” that power is contingent and relational (see Elgie, 2011). Indeed, some scholars have even identified the overstaffing of the White House Office as a major source of presidential weakness rather than strength (Neustadt, 2001).

The term “administrative presidency” in American executive research is not used for demarcating a particular territory belonging to the presidency but refers to a particular approach of presidential leadership focused on increased control of the federal administrative apparatus. The term was originally coined by Richard Nathan (1983) who studied Nixon’s efforts to expand his leverage in the face of divided government. However, to some extent at least, the existence of the administrative presidency long preceded Nixon. As Rockman has noted, “Presidents have always worried about getting the bureaucracy to do what they want it to do and to not do what they do not want it to do. They often have been wary of their own appointees. (…) Presidents also have been skeptical of the legion of career bureaucrats in Washington. They often think the careerists are out of tune with the changes they wish to bring about” (Rockman, 2009, p. 1). Other differences (such as those between different presidents) apart, there are certain time-related patterns: generally, presidents in their second terms have been particularly intent on advancing implementation issues and bolstering their legacy through their role as chief executive of the federal bureaucracy (Resh, 2015, p. 1).

Presidents have used different strategies to assert control over the bureaucracy. Alongside reorganization, centralization and politicization, in particular, stand out as two distinct but related approaches. While the former “refers to the shift of function from the wider executive branch to staff within the EOP …, politicization, in turn, … means the seeding of the bureaucracy with presidential loyalists at all levels of government” (Rudalevige, 2009, p. 13). Recent research suggests that “there is substantial variation in their usage at different times and across different policy areas” and “that centralization and politicization, when they are chosen, might be used sequentially as well as—or instead of—simultaneously” (ibid., p. 17).

In particular so-called policy czars—influential administration officials involved in a central policy area—have captured the attention of much recent research on the administrative presidency (see, in particular, Rozell & Sollenberger, 2012; Vaughn & Villalobos, 2015). One of the key issues relates to the question if or to what extent czars represent an unconstitutional extension of presidential policymaking authority that violates the separation of powers doctrine at the expense of Congress. Despite this controversy, the use of czars has grown during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as presidents seem to have considered them a useful tool of presidential leadership. As Peters has noted, “The concept of the ‘czar’ is to at once give the President control over a policy area and to minimize direct personal exposure of the President” (Peters, 2011, p. 138). Other authors have specifically linked the proliferation of policy czars with the rise of presidential expectations and presidents’ attempts to meet those expectations. From this perspective, “policy czars represent an opportunity for presidents to meet the heroic expectations they face” (Vaughn, 2014, p. 535).

The overall effects of such appointment-centered presidential strategies of leadership and control have remained contested, however. Normative constitutional issues apart, it has remained unclear if or to what extent presidents are actually able to the increase their administration’s effectiveness by resorting to the means of the “administrative presidency.” As Resh has concluded, on the basis of a case study on the George W. Bush administration: “By politicizing bureaucratic ranks with lower-level appointees and centralizing decision-making through decidedly top-down arrangements, presidents foster further distrust of political appointees among careerists. This reciprocated distrust, in turn, inhibits a president’s (and, by proxy, his appointees) capacity to develop the institutional competence necessary to successfully implement his policy agenda” (Resh, 2015, p. 144).

The “administrative presidency” is, however, not confined to the interdependent dynamics of centralization (of administrative structures and functions) and politicization (of administrative staff). Executive orders and signing statements, which have figured prominently in recent presidential leadership research, have been described as important “unilateral tools of the administrative presidency” (Durant, 2009, p. 90). Among recent presidents, George W. Bush dramatically expanded and intensified the use of direct presidential action through executive orders (Rozell & Whitney, 2010; Genovese, 2011) and, if perhaps less obviously, this practice has continued under Obama. However, recent research on the executive has modified the conventional wisdom concerning executive orders. In particular, as Rudalevige has pointed out on the basis of a detailed empirical inquiry, “A strong plurality of orders originate in the bureaucracy, rather than the EOP” (Rudalevige, 2015, p. 360). Also, while it marks a prominent assumption that presidents use executive orders when they face an unsupportive congressional majority, Bolton and Thrower found that divided government is associated with a decrease (not an increase) in the use of post-1945 executive orders (Bolton & Thrower, 2016).

Bill-signing statements allow the president on signing a bill into law to declare his understanding of this law and his intentions for implementation, thereby providing him with an opportunity to control the interpretation and execution or non-execution of some provisions. Signing statements have been on the increase since the Reagan presidency, but it was the George W. Bush administration that broke records in its use (Kelley & Hess, 2010). Recent research has underscored the genuinely political nature of handling signing statements: “Presidents are strategic and will change their use of particular policy-shaping tools depending on various political circumstances” (Kennedy, 2014, p. 602), and more specifically, “Presidents consider the power and status of a law’s sponsor and the composition of its cosponsorship coalition when deciding whether to offer praise or raise concerns” (Francis & Sulkin, 2013, p. 230). Related 21st-century research that has looked at presidential signing statements from the perspective of Congress suggests that laws receiving presidential signing statements are in fact more likely to be revisited and revised by Congress (Ostrander & Sievert, 2014) and that the type and number of objections raised in presidential communications also tend to affect congressional oversight activity (Ainsworth et al., 2014).

Over the past two or three decades, also the executive branches of many parliamentary democracies have become more centralized and better staffed—a process referred to by some authors as “presidentialization” (see Poguntke & Webb, 2005; for a good summary of the debate, see Helms, 2015, pp. 1–4). While this terminology is catchy, it is also contested. It almost obscures as much as it unveils. For one thing, there are important differences regarding the areas in which administrative and advisory staff has grown most, which reflects the fundamentally different institutional architectures and political logics of parliamentary and presidential regimes. While American presidents have invested heavily in expanding their capacities to deal with the legislative branch, there has been a limited need for prime ministers to follow suit, as “unified government” and a reasonable degree of party discipline are part and parcel of parliamentary government (see Dowding, 2013, p. 618). Moreover, staff figures apart, the American executive branch—while sharing the cross-nationally observed trend toward centralization—has remained conspicuously fragmented and decentralized by British and continental European standards (see Peters, 2011).

The picture that emerges from case studies carried out in different parts of the developed world is one marked by chief executives struggling to expand their resources in the core executive and increase their leverage in the intra-executive and wider political process. Still, no one has ever referred to those developments as the emergence of an “administrative premiership,” which would in fact mean adding yet another “misnomer” to the terminology of comparative executive leadership. In particular, unlike presidents, prime ministers do not normally use particular executive resources to deal with the legislative assembly. Further, some elements that are now considered key elements of the administrative presidency, such as signing laws into bills and using this opportunity for voicing concern or offering particular interpretations, have never been at the disposal of parliamentary chief executives. Moreover, given the collective nature of executive governance in parliamentary democracies, attempts by prime ministers to centralize control within the executive territory have also faced challenges and have generated dynamics fundamentally different from those in most presidential democracies.

Yet, given the wide variation of types of parliamentary government, there are major differences to be found even within the family of parliamentary democracies. For example, the institutionalization of “policy units” for the head of government in Germany and the United Kingdom since the 1970s gave rise to profoundly different patterns: Policy units in Westminster were allowed to interfere in any departmental business and address a wide range of issues, thereby marking a key resource for the prime minister. By contrast, being closely confined to provide administrative support, the importance of policy units in the German chancellery proved to a much lesser degree a power resource for the chancellor. While the political standing of individual holders of the premiership and the chancellors accounted for some difference in either system, the key explanatory variables for the major differences found were institutional features, such as different principles of cabinet decision making and different government formats (single party vs. coalition government), as well as different organizational legacies (see Fleischer, 2009).

Beyond the question of particular administrative support for the chief executive, the relationships between politicians and bureaucrats, and their implications for leadership, have been a classic subject in the contemporary study of executive governance at least since the seminal study by Aberbach et al. (1981). In their influential comparative study, Pollitt and Bouckaert (2011) present “mandarin/minister relations” as one key element of a wider framework for distinguishing between different politico-administrative systems (which are considered to be the result of both structural and functional features). The relationships between these two groups vary considerably between countries and have given rise to particular patterns. For example, there is a conspicuous relationship between the nature of executive government (majoritarian vs. consensual) and the degree of politicization of minister/mandarin relations with consensual systems tending to have more politicized relationships (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011, chap. 3). At the same time, there has been a marked cross-national trend toward more politicization of the civil service (Peters & Pierre, 2004), though the degree of change largely depends on the status quo ante. As Dahlström et al. (2011, p. 266) observed, “The development towards a more politicized centre tends to occur in countries with traditionally low levels of political appointees, such as Sweden and Great Britain. In the Napoleonic and Germanic countries, with higher initial levels of politicization… the same growth cannot be identified.” It is also worth noting that politicization, both empirically and conceptually, has become more complex and differentiated. As Bourgault has suggested, it is possible to distinguish between partisan, ideological, and functional politicization (see Bourgault, 2013, pp. 147–149), and the latter—that is, “when non-partisan senior officials performing their normal role indirectly affect perceptions of the ruling party’s or the prime minister’s performance” (ibid., p. 149)—has gained in importance and scope.

Twenty-first-century scholarship has devoted increasing attention to studying the rise of special advisers and their role in the wider process of executive leadership. Empirically, most early studies have focused on special advisers in different Westminster systems (the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand; see, e.g., Shaw & Eichbaum, 2014; Yong & Hazell, 2014), but there is some recent work on other countries as well (see, e.g., Christiansen, Niklasson, & Öhberg, 2016; Gherghina & Kopecký, 2016). While most research continues to have an empirical focus, there are modest indications of a recent theoretical or conceptual turn (see Shaw & Eichbaum, 2015). Perhaps the single most important conceptual proposal concerns the integration of appointed political staffs beyond the first ministers’/presidential office into the core executive concept, and its reformulation (see Craft, 2015). Observed attempts of political executives to employ corrupt strategies of partisan politicization, their willingness to allow political staff to become a separate force in governance, and to use public resources for securing partisan advantage over their competitors in a setting of a “permanent campaign” have also prompted some important conceptual innovations in the study of political leadership, such as, in particular, Aucoin’s model of “New Political Governance” (Aucoin, 2012; see also Aucoin et al., 2013).

Administrative Leadership/Public Sector Leadership

Even though one of the great classics in the study of administrative leadership—Philip Selznick’s Leadership in Administration—appeared as early as 1957, public sector leadership emerged as an autonomous domain in public administration only in the 1980s. To some extent, this may be explained by the fact that Selznick was not a scholar of public administration, and with its subtitle, A Sociological Interpretation, the book did not try to conceal the author’s disciplinary affiliation. Selznick’s focus was on leadership understood as the promotion and protection of values within and for the benefit of a particular institution, and while the study exercised pervasive influence in that particular subfield, it remained separate from the mainstream account of instrumental leadership in public administration (Rhodes, 2014, p. 102).

That said, it is possible to identify some influential work in the area of bureaucratic leadership that followed closely in the steps of Selznick. Larry D. Terry’s major study on “the administrator as conservator” marked a powerful attempt to overcome the conspicuous absence of bureaucratic leadership from the canon of leadership studies in the United States (Terry, 1995). He developed the concept of “administrative conservatorship,” designed as a means of restoring respectability to public administrators as well as a framework for measuring administrative leadership performance (ibid., p. 30). Administrative conservatorship is understood as “a type of statesmanship. It requires balancing the inherent tension in the political system between the need to serve and the need to preserve. Public administrators must be responsive to the demands of the political elites, the courts, interest groups, and the citizenry and at the same time must preserve the integrity of public bureaucracies” (ibid., pp. 29–30). Similar to Selznick, who defined the institutional leader primarily as “an expert in the promotion and protection of values” (Selznick, 1957, p. 28) whose key tasks included “the defense of institutional integrity” (ibid., p. 63), Terry identifies “the protection of values” (ibid., p. 66) and, more specifically, “the preservation of institutional integrity” (ibid., p. 26) as essential features of his concept. While the concept is firmly placed in the tradition of the American doctrine of separation of powers and postulates “a moral commitment to preserve the constitutional balance of power in support of individual rights” (ibid., p. 183), its relevance is not confined to public bureaucracies in presidential democracies.

Since its inception as a subfield within public administration in the 1980s, the study of administrative leadership has essentially revolved around two main issues: if bureaucratic management has turned into leadership, and whether or not administrative leadership/public sector leadership is different from leadership in the private sector (Orazi et al., 2013). Empirically, an increasing number of scholars have come to answer both questions in the affirmative. The empirical work in this field is immensely complex and does not allow for any sweeping summaries. However, it is possible to distinguish different theoretical schools of administrative leadership with particular foci: the main focus of management theory has been on “leading for results”; transactional leadership theory has been mainly concerned with “leading followers”; transformational leadership theory has focused on “leading organizations”; horizontal and collaborative leadership theory have centered on “leading systems”; finally, ethical leadership theory has been devoted to “leading with values” (see Van Wart, 2013, p. 561, table 2). In a related attempt, Vogel and Masal (2014) have distinguished four “generic approaches” to public leadership (or as they understand it, “organizational leadership in a distinct PA perspective”; ibid., p. 1166): a functionalist, behavioral, biographical, and reformist approach that differs with regard to their philosophy of science (objective vs. subjective) and level of analysis (microlevel vs. multilevel).

At the level of organizational leadership general approaches, concepts and theories of contingency and adaptive leadership have arguably received the greatest attention among political scientists. The contingency approach, as originally developed by Fiedler (1967), basically holds that a leader’s impact depends on a combination of leader orientation and a variable set of situational contingency factors. Certain leadership styles are more effective in certain situations than others. Fiedler distinguished task-oriented leaders and relation-oriented leaders. To him, the former are likely to be most effective in highly favorable (easy-to-handle) situations or highly unfavorable situations (in which things are completely out of control), whereas the latter are likely to fare best in moderately favorable situations. In order to maximize the effectiveness of their leadership function, leaders have to learn to adapt to changing situations.

While the contingency model has been considered by many to belong to the family of “leader-centric perspectives” (see, e.g., Kempster, 2009, p. 44), the contingency approach nevertheless tends to conceptualize leadership as a reactive agency. If a leader’s profile does not fit a given situation, failure is the most likely result. The contingency model even “can induce a conception of leadership that reduces it to the level of being a functional extension of the environment” (Foley, 2013, p. 48), possibly underestimating the ability of leaders to shape their environments. However, perhaps the greatest weakness of contingency models of leadership is their strong reliance on “if …, then …” contentions; giving rise to contextual determinism, and “a rush towards prescription” (‘t Hart, 2014, p. 104). If somewhat ironically, this does not mean that the contingency approach is particularly good at developing sweeping context-based comparative assessments. While some context-focused approaches, such as in particular institutional approaches, tend to facilitate comparative inquiries and assessments, “the close analytical dependency upon the multidimensionality of context,” that characterizes the contingency approach, “can lead to the myopic conclusion that no two contexts are the same—thereby offering no durable basis for comparison” (Foley, 2013, p. 50).

Of the different approaches that emphasize the importance of accepting the variability in the properties of problems facing an actor or an organization, the work by Ronald Heifetz on adaptive leadership stands out for its wide-ranging impact on different subfields of leadership research, including public sector leadership. The theory is both clear cut and sophisticated and manages to avoid questionable prescriptive claims. Heifetz considers tackling tough problems to be the end of leadership, and getting that work done its essence (Heifetz, 2004, p. 26). This gives rise to various systematically interrelated strategic principles of leadership (ibid., p. 128). Yet the practice of leadership, understood as an activity (not a job), essentially centers on diagnosis and action (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009, p. 6). More specifically, adaptive leadership is considered to be an iterative process involving three key activities: observing events and patterns (…), (2) interpreting observations made, and eventually (3) designing interventions based on the observations and interpretations to address the adaptive challenge at hand (ibid., p. 32). As Heifetz explains, the real essence of “exercising leadership from a position of authority in adaptive situations means going against the grain. Rather than fulfilling the expectation for answers, one provides questions; rather than protecting people from outside threat, one lets people feel the threat in order to stimulate adaptation” (Heifetz, 2004, p. 126). Ultimately, as has been widely acknowledged in the public administration literature, adaptive leadership seeks to create forms of distributed leadership, with leaders serving as catalysts for deliberating processes and encouraging others to enact leadership (see Currie, Grubnic, & Hodges, 2011).

More generally, as Denhardt et al. (2016) argue, “There is no question that collaboration and shared leadership are significant trends in public administration” and “increasingly, the skills needed in public service will be the skills of shared leadership” (Denhardt et al., 2016, p. 199). Early case studies illustrating the nature of shared leadership in public bureaucracy, such as Denhardt and Denhardt’s assessment of three leaders in American local government, can be traced back to the late 1990s (see Denhardt & Denhardt, 1999). Some of the internationally influential concepts of shared or distributed leadership also pay special attention to the dimension of organizational leadership. For example, in the context of a leadership concept designed for “tackling public problems in a shared-power world,” Crosby and Bryson, present “organizational leadership” as one of eight distinct leadership capabilities—alongside “leadership in context,” “personal leadership,” “team leadership,” “visionary leadership,” “political leadership,” “ethical leadership,” and “policy entrepreneurship”—that change agents operating in a shared-power world must draw upon (Crosby & Bryson, 2005, p. 35; see also Bryson, 2011, chap. 11). Crosby and Bryson highlight paying attention to purpose and design, becoming adept at dealing with internal and external change, and building inclusive community inside and outside the organization as the main tasks of organizational leadership—leadership tasks considered to be important regardless of organizational type (Crosby & Bryson, 2005, pp. 80, 106–107).

More recent empirical developments in administrative leadership, and the political assessment thereof, have centered on the goals, effects, and implications of New Public Management (NPM). While NPM is widely associated with the introduction of leadership to public bureaucracy, it is important to note that leadership by civil servants was not an invention of NPM. Indeed, as Kane has pointed out, both in the US- and in Westminster-style governments, civil service mandarins were very much “leaders” who were “able to influence the shape and direction of almost all public policy” (Kane, 2009, p. 127). The overarching aim of NPM reforms was the creation of a more flexible and efficient public sector. With a novel emphasis on initiative, outputs and outcomes, and on measurement and quantification, these reforms also had fundamental consequences for the importance and localization of leadership, as the creation of initiative-driven entrepreneurial organizations inevitably implied leadership: “As leadership was intentionally weakened at the top, efforts were made to disperse it throughout the whole service” (ibid., p. 131). Yet, ultimately, these revolutionary changes were not designed to alter only the power-balance within public bureaucracies and among civil servants of different ranks. As Peters has pointed out, “part of the political logic of New Public Management has been to denigrate the role of political leaders and to extol the presumed capacity of public managers to provide more effective leadership for, and control over, public policy” (Peters, 2013, p. 205).

In exerting policy leadership civil servants have distinct resources but also face specific barriers (Peters & Helms, 2012, pp. 39–43). Generally, information and expertise is often a crucial resource for leading the organization itself as well as (and in particular) for managing upward to the political leaders of that organization. However, both the role and kind of expertise vary strongly between countries, and those different traditions and expectations also tend to influence the shape and contents of reform agendas for top civil servant training (see Van Wart et al., 2014). Ideas, entrepreneurship, and linkage (i.e. their capacity to influence clientele groups and/or political masters) are other crucial resources that civil servants may bring to bear when exercising policy leadership. The single most important barrier to more extensive leadership by civil servants is the legal status of bureaucrats, as political responsibility for leading within government has remained in the hands of political officials. “While political leaders can legitimize transformation with reference to new and contested conceptions of the common good, administrative leaders can only legitimize change in relation to sedimented norms and values that are taken for granted within their profession, their organization or the public sector at large” (Sørensen & Torfing, 2016, p. 454). That is why what Sørensen and Torfing refer to as a “politicization of administrative leadership,” with administrative leaders seeking to compensate for a lack of genuine political leadership, marks not just a major problem in terms of democratic theory. In the longer run at least, it is also doomed to fail empirically, because administrative leaders “cannot make and legitimize tough decisions with reference to political values and ideologies and are unable to address the political community directly and mobilize its support” (ibid., pp. 454–455).

Contrary to the ambitions of some NPM reformers that were eager to relocate leadership capacities and power among politicians and bureaucrats, political leaders in the established democracies have managed to largely defend their status as decision makers. The gradual empowerment of a growing number of actors within the bureaucracy has, if at all, only slightly limited the control of political leaders over public policy. This is true not only of the major political programs of governing majorities but has been demonstrated even at the level of “secondary legislation,” which generally offers more rather than less leeway to civil servants. As Page (2012) has concluded at the end of a major comparative study (including a study of France, Britain, Sweden, Germany and the United States): “The idea that bureaucrats use their position to shape policy as they wish away from the gaze, if not control, of politicians find no supporting evidence … (P)oliticians have a chance to intervene in even the tiniest issues of public policy should they wish. Moreover, they intervene more often than one might expect” (Page, 2012, p. 175).

Nevertheless, civil servants have come to face increased public expectations, and surveys suggest that differences in expectations apart, administrative leaders in many countries tend to fall considerably short of public expectations (Van Wart & Hondeghem, 2014, p. 14). This has raised scholarly interest in thinking about senior civil servant training and related reform agendas designed to narrow the expectations gap in this area (see Van Wart et al., 2014). At the same time, such efforts have come to be complemented by attempts to (re)-introduce ethical standards for administrative leadership that fit the enhanced participation of administrators in public leadership. This does not have to take the form of an externally devised set of rules to be implemented. As Uhr (2015) suggests toward the end of his inquiry into the possibilities of prudential public leadership, “The content of leadership ethics is a matter of judgment made by officials,” and “prudence becomes visible when we see examples of this administrative judgment in action as officials think through what is ‘due’ or not ‘due’ in the activities of governance they ‘process’” (Uhr, 2015, pp. 187–188).

Leadership as a topic dealt with by public administration scholars has not been confined to study of the performance of civil service elites. In the 1990s, scholars began to introduce the leadership paradigm to the world of “front-line public service.” On the basis of extensive observations of street-level public servants, Vinzant and Crothers devised the concept of “street-level leadership” (Vinzant & Crothers, 1998). They found the street-level leadership model “to be descriptively accurate in terms of the choice-making responsibilities of workers such as police officers and social-service workers” (ibid., pp. 141–142). Building on earlier work in particular by Lipsky (1980), their model specifically focuses on the concept of discretion. Street-level bureaucrats are considered able and willing to make decisions about what to do and how to achieve a goal—a profile of activities offering itself to being conceptualized as leadership. Such leadership is legitimized by placing street-level leaders in complex and demanding systems of public accountability (ibid., p. 150). Street-level leadership, while possibly being unspectacular compared to the “high politics” of elite administrators, is considered of crucial importance, as, “In the end, it is street-level public servants who make politics real for ordinary citizens” (ibid., p. 163). However, at the same time, real and perceived changes at the street level tend to feed back into the work of administrative departments (ibid., pp. 154–159). Vinzant and Crothers’s work has inspired a whole body of more up-to-date research that emphasizes the existence and importance of leadership and entrepreneurship at the level of street-level policies (see, e.g., Arnold, 2015).

Conclusions and Challenges Ahead

The leadership-related dynamics in the executive territory are complex and ambiguous. While the political executive has experienced much centralization over the past decades, with leadership resources increasingly being concentrated with the chief executive, the 21st-century developments within the bureaucracy of many developed countries have rather been marked by a dispersion of leadership roles. There are some leadership-related tensions also within each half of the executive branch (i.e., the political and the administrative executive). Perhaps most importantly, the ongoing centralization of administrative and political resources with the chief executive does not sit comfortably with the paradigmatic change in 21st-century leadership studies, which considers “strong leadership” by one or few a myth and postulates the superiority of forms of collective and shared leadership (see Brown, 2014; Raelin, 2016).

Another major development in the study of public sector leadership relates to the discovery of leaders and leadership among members of the front-line public service. While concepts of street-level leadership have been developed on the basis of empirically observed patterns of behavior, they nevertheless also have a strong potential to shape future relations between bureaucrats and citizens as well as the status of street-level bureaucrats within the wider administration by establishing new standards of performance and evaluation. Such perspectives on bureaucrats are part of the ongoing paradigmatic shift toward “dispersed leadership” but not necessarily close to conceptions of “shared leadership.” While the latter considers leadership as “a function that operates within a group – not the property of a single individual” (Denhardt et al., 2016, p. 211), many conceptions of “street-level leadership” explicitly acknowledge that individual behavior (that is, the behavior of individual actors) can make much of a difference, in terms of leadership and beyond.

By way of conclusion, it is possible to identify several more specific challenges to the study of leadership and administration that run across the various subfields distinguished. These challenges are not confined to the notorious problems of getting access to what has remained the most arcane territory of even the most accessible democratic polities but include a wealth of conceptual and theoretical issues. At the conceptual level, in particular, the character and role of institutions is likely to continue to keep scholars busy. One string of the literature has moved toward further emphasizing the explanatory power of political institutions, understood as rules that shape the behavior of and the interactions between actors. For Elgie an “institutional approach to leadership” is per definition marked by an ambition to explain the largest possible amount of leadership-related phenomena with the institutional features of a given leadership context, up to a degree where patterns of leadership likely to emerge could be forecasted on the basis of analyzing different institutional contexts (Elgie, 2014). While both analytically and theoretically tempting, such an approach seems to carry the danger of effectively treating institutions as determinants of leadership. At the other end of the spectrum scholars have set out to effectively “de-center institutions” by dismissing notions of institutions as objects that exist independent of subjective and even intersubjective intentionality; institutions and institutional contexts are seen to depend on what they “mean to the people who work in them” (Rhodes, 2011, p. 3). As a result, the idea of leadership as “structured agency” is replaced with an emphasis on exploring the dynamic features of “situated agency” (Rhodes, 2013, p. 329). While this anthropological approach, which uses close observation as a key methodological tool, has generated fascinating insights into the working of public administrations, it comes at a high price. Indeed, it effectively precludes large-scale comparative assessments of political and administrative leadership, and the performance of leaders, across institutionally different regimes: from this perspective there are no such objective institutional differences that have governed the comparative study of political systems and leadership patterns (see Helms, 2012). Moreover, it also undermines efforts to devise institutions that, in light of comparative empirical experience, may facilitate successful leadership or, arguably even more important, may help to make bad leadership less likely (Heppell, 2011, p. 245; Helms, 2014a, pp. 63–64).

Some of the most serious challenges to successful leadership and administration in real-world politics relate to processes of internationalization. This is true of both unorganized and organized forms of internationalization. Among the latter, European integration has received by far the most intense scholarly attention. One of the key findings at the administrative level here is that executive structures display very different forms and degrees of adaptation (Page, 2003). This notwithstanding, there are some cross-nationally valid patterns. For example, an inquiry by Borrás and Peters (2011) suggests that “the Lisbon Strategy has been advancing (further) centralization and politicization in national patterns of EU policy co-ordination, empowering core executives” (Borrás & Peters, 2011, p. 525) in such different countries as, inter alia, France, the UK, Poland, or Austria.

After all, in particular, transnational European governance has remained difficult, or perhaps even become more difficult than ever, to reconcile with most established notions of political leadership. Designed as an “anti-leadership system,” and populated by an increasing number of member states that are watchful and skeptical toward each other, there remains just a small line between what is being perceived as vigorous leadership and hegemonic domination (see Helms, 2016). Still, compared to such regional forms of internationalization (or, as in the case of the EU, internationalized cooperation) globalization no doubt generates even larger challenges to be met by politicians and bureaucrats. Both the prospects for the emergence of genuinely global political leadership (see Helms, 2014b) and, arguably even more so, for a global public service (see Mau, 2015) remain bleak. Thus, for the time being, some kind of “dispersed leadership” at the global level, involving different types of actors operating on the basis of certain minimum standards for effective and ethical solutions to collective action problems, would appear to be the most that may be reasonably hoped for.


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