Research note. Martino Maggetti, new perspectives on bureaucratic autonomy

Special Issue: New perspectives on bureaucratic autonomy. Guest editors: Martino Maggetti and Koen Verhoest. International Review of Administrative Sciences, June 2014 vol. 80 no. 2

Research note by Martino Maggetti

Recently, Koen Verhoest and I co-edited a special issue in the “International Review of Administrative Sciences” to explore new perspectives in the study of bureaucratic autonomy. The notion of bureaucratic autonomy is widely applied to characterize the room for manoeuvre granted to (some) public sector organisations in the context of agencification and New Public Management reforms. Also referred as independence, discretion, leeway etc., autonomy is a classical topic in public administration and public policy research. The main challenge of our special issue was to deal with some important questions that are still on the table by expanding the analytical leverage of this concept whilst not “stretching” it too much. In our introduction to the special issue, we identified three key points to be tackled by the contributors.

First, the concept of bureaucratic autonomy should take into account its subjective, dynamic and relational nature. Carolyn Jackson examined this subjective dimension by operationalizing the concept of regulatory independence through a qualitative analysis of the ways it is understood by different stakeholders, such as agency commissioners, policy departments, citizen advocacy groups and the regulatees. Her study shows that actors conceive independence as a quality related to both behavioural qualities and structural arrangements, and that different stakeholders value different dimensions of independence, such as transparency or impartiality, respectively.

The second and third contributions of this special issue elaborate upon the dynamic and relational nature of organizational autonomy. My contribution focused on the institutionalization of independent regulatory agencies in Switzerland, namely in the financial sector, utilities and competition. The prevalent modes of institutional change leading to the establishment of these regulators were ‘layering’ (the growth of new regulatory arrangements on the top of existing ones) and ‘displacement’ (the emergence of exogenous institutional forms). This finding implies that the dynamics of agencification are quite different from the general trend towards liberalization that was described in the original literature on institutional change.

Jan Rommel and Koen Verhoest investigated how interactions and coordination within multi-actor and multi-level regulatory constellations affect the autonomy of regulatory agencies in front of their minister. They called for the development of a new ‘relational perspective’ on agency autonomy. By using in-depth case study evidence on the Flemish energy regulator, they were able to demonstrate that the actor constellation in which agencies were embedded had a positive effect on the extent to which the parent minister included the regulator in policy-making processes. However, at the same time, the existence of these relationships reduced agencies’ operational policy autonomy.

Second, the linkages between tasks, organizational forms and national path dependencies, on the one hand, and autonomy and performance, on the other hand, have been studied. Sandra Van Thiel and Kutsal Yesilkagit developed new conceptual and methodological tools to measure the impact of various tasks of agencies on their establishment and autonomy. More specifically, Thiel and Yesilkagit refined the operationalization of task-related variables and showed that their effects on agency autonomy and control are in fact quite indirect. Indeed, the formal autonomy and the size of budget of an agency are more decisive than their tasks in explaining agency autonomy and control.

The piece written by Tobias Bach investigated the respective role of task-related factors, organizational factors and country-level factors in explaining agency autonomy regarding personnel management in Germany and Norway. Similarly to the previous contribution, the empirical analysis of Bach suggested that there is a relatively limited effect of task characteristics and a clear effect of the formal structure on de facto autonomy.

The third theme related to the study of the interplay between autonomy, accountability and democracy. To this end, Jan Biela and Yannis Papadopoulos scrutinized agency accountability in both de jure and de facto terms. They developed an innovative conceptual framework for the study of accountability, using the concept of accountability regime, to operationalize the relations between agencies and their accountability fora, which must be evaluated at political, operational and managerial levels.


Martino Maggetti is an associate professor in political science at the Institute of Political and International Studies (IEPI) of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Web page: 

Personal page on Université de Lausanne website