Research note. Organizational Reputation in the Public Sector

Research note by Arild Wæraas


When the term “reputation” is used about public sector organizations, the most likely connotation that comes to mind is probably “bad”. Government organizations have been associated with negatively charged words such as inefficiency, bureaucracy, waste, incompetence, and rigidity for so long that it is hard to imagine public entities as reputation-oriented and reputation-sensitive organizations. Yet, as the book Organizational Reputation in the Public Sector” (Edited by Arild Wæraas, Moshe Maor) emphasizes, public entities are concerned with their reputation and have begun to implement measures to nurture, maintain, and protect it. Research from multiple countries and institutional contexts presents growing evidence that public sector organizations currently have become more aware of the value of a favorable reputation and, as a result, gradually treat the management of reputation as a concern of strategic importance not only for autonomy and power but also survival. The definition of unique competences, development of communication strategies, careful timing of decisions, hiring of reputation management consultants, and the systematic use of media training and reputation measurement indices are only some of the visible activities that attest to the assumed importance of cultivating a favorable reputation.

The benefits of enjoying a favorable reputation in a public sector context and the growing interest of public sector organizations in managing their reputation are an important background for this book. Compared to the field of corporate reputation, which has its own conference (The International Conference on Corporate Reputation, Brand Identity, and Competitiveness) and its own academic journal (Corporate Reputation Review), the field of reputation that pertains specifically to public bureaucracies is currently an emerging and immature, yet promising field of research. However, given that we currently find ourselves in “the reputation society” (Masum and Tovey 2011), characterized by increasing emphasis placed on track record before making any kind of decision, scholarly attention to the reputation of public sector organizations is warranted. How their reputations are formed, how they build and protect favorable reputations, and how their reputations matter are only some of the important questions that need to be addressed in more detail. If they are, they will contribute tremendously to a more coherent field of research. By searching for answers to questions such as these, it is our hope that this book will move the field forward.

The purpose of the book is not only to bring together contributions from various disciplines, but also to take a first comprehensive step towards a more unified research domain on organizational reputation in the public sector. To do so, this book seeks answers to a number of questions. Some of the most important ones are the following:

  • How can organizational reputation in the public sector be conceptualized and theorized?
  • How do public sector organizations build and manage their reputations?
  • What are the main strategies of reputation management that are available to public sector organizations?
  • How do newly established public sector organizations build their reputation?
  • How do public sector organizations respond to reputational threats?
  • Do public sector organizations benefit from a good reputation, and how?
  • What characterizes reputation management in times of severe crises?
  • What goes on “behind the scene” when public sector organizations manage their reputation?
  • How do stakeholder expectations shape reputation management?
  • What is the role of politicians in reputation management?
  • How do shared reputations affect reputation management?

The chapters of this book are organized into three parts. The first part, on “Theoretical perspectives”, establishes the notion of bureaucratic reputation and delves into its theoretical dimensions. In chapter two, Moshe Maor seeks to evaluate where we are in understanding the reputation of public sector organizations. After highlighting different kinds of pressures that agencies regularly face in order to gauge the (in)security of reputation, he elaborates on the key insights of the literature focusing on reputation management through changes in the timing and observability of agency decisions, as well as through changes in agency outputs. He also identifies five problems in applying bureaucratic reputation theories to public sector organization. The chapter concludes with a section that highlights a number of substantive areas that are ripe for further scholarly exploration.

Chapter three, written by Lucio Picci, opens up the black box of reputation in a public sector setting. After describing the bureaucratic reputation game and defining the incentives, preferences, and strategies of the actors that are involved in these games, he discusses the organizational outputs of the strategies that are pursued. Public organizations might benefit more from having a ‘satisficing’ reputation; one that is good enough to escape criticisms from audiences, but not so good as to generate opposition from those actors whose interests are at odds with the organization’s mission. Picci subsequently disusses how various reputational incentives may be strengthened, paying specific attention to a key issues he refers to as the overall legibility problem.

The second part of this book examines reputation management processes in central government entities. It begins with Ciara O’Dwyer’s chapter, which is a study of the efforts of a newly established agency in Ireland to develop its reputation. The agency sought to develop a strong reputation by developing positive working relations with key stakeholders, working collaboratively and transparently, highlighting technical competence, and prioritizing the public interest. However, it failed to fully understand the importance of its relationship with its parent government department, thus threatening its ability to manage its reputation effectively. These findings indicate that agencies can develop a strong reputation, but must be mindful of the extent to which central government can exert control over its operations.

Chapter five is written by Tom Christensen and Per Lægreid. The authors address the reputation management efforts of the Norwegian police following the terrorist attack on July 22, 2011. The police were criticized for being too self-congratulatory and lacking in empathy both concerning the way they had handled the crisis and how they had presented their own handling of it. Analyzing the response strategies from an instrumental and a cultural perspective, the chapter concludes that the reputation management of the police was primarily shaped by symbolic and cultural factors. Moreover, although the reputation management efforts essentially failed, the impact on overall trust was minimal.

In chapter six, Koen Verhoest, Jan Rommel, and Jan Boon investigate the relationship between reputation, trust, and agency autonomy. Building on a case study of the Flemish electricity and gas regulator, the authors seek to explain the policy autonomy of this agency. Its autonomy and collaboration with the political principal, the Flemish Minister of Energy, are much stronger than what could be expected, thus representing an empirical puzzle. Examining the role of reputation and trust in this regard, and discussing key differences and similarities between the two concepts, the authors find that the agency relied on reputation as a trust-building mechanism. This resulted in more de facto policy autonomy and deeper forms of collaboration.

The third part of the book aims at shedding light on reputation management in local government. Chapter eight, written by Maria Blomgren, Tina Hedmo and Caroline Waks, takes us ‘behind the scene’ of reputation management processes in Swedish regional hospitals. It investigates how the internal complexities, interactions and dynamics are managed, which factors condition the management of these types of processes, and which implications these factors might have for organizational self-presentations. The authors reach the conclusion that reputation management in hospitals is a complex bottom-up process, involving, and being conditioned by, negotiations, the institutional embeddedness of healthcare, medical professions, and communication professionals.

In chapter nine, Hilde Bjørnå explores the reputation management strategies of three Norwegian municipalities. Relying on a combination of data sources, she studies how reputation management strategies are shaped based on the municipalities’ perceptions of stakeholder group expectations and how they vary across municipal contexts. She finds that the three cases all target different stakeholders and develop their strategies accordingly. She also finds that the strategies are likely to affect the competitive standing of the municipalities, and that the main challenges associated with their strategies derive from their status as political and democratic organizations.

Chapter ten, written by Heidi Houlberg Salomonsen and Jeppe Agger Nielsen, examines the politics of reputation management in Danish local government. The authors address the interests, roles of, and relationships between the politicians and the administration in this regard. The starting point is that although very little is known about the role of politicians in reputation management processes, there are good reasons to expect a certain level of conflict between politicians and between politicians and their administration. However, in the Danish local governent context, politicians and administrators seem to share the same interests. A key finding is that both groups are involved and that reputation management neither is a de-politicized activity nor a topic of much disagreement.

Finally, in chapter eleven, Arild Wæraas explores the significance of shared reputations in Norwegian local government. In the Norwegian municipal sector, municipalities that are members of the same region share a common reputation as members of that region. The author explores the significance of this reputation commons and investigates how the municipalities handle the challenge of sharing it. A key finding is that they rely more on communal strategies than differentiation strategies. The chapter concludes that municipal reputation-building in Norway is not characterized by a reputation commons tragedy, despite the fact that the municipalities also focus on their own individual reputation.

In sum, these chapters offers a rich palette of the most recent research and thinking on organizational reputation in the public sector. As the reader will discover, there is much to learn about reputation issues from a number of contexts and administrative levels. However, this book is clearly only a first step towards a better understanding of the significance of reputation in a public sector context. Important questions and empirical as well as theoretical gaps remain. We hope that this first step will motivate both new and experienced scholars to join us in developing this emerging field.


Professor at Norwegian University of Life Sciences – NMBU. Research interests: Organizational reputation, Organizational identity, Organizational fields and translation, Corporate Social Responsibility.

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