Context in Public Policy and Management
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Context in Public Policy and Management

The Missing Link?

Edited by Christopher Pollitt

‘Putting into context’ is a very common phrase – both in the social sciences and beyond. But what exactly do we mean by this, and how do we do it? In this book, leading scholars in public policy and management tackle these issues. They show how ideas of context are central to a range of theories and explanations and use an international range of case studies to exemplify context-based explanation. The book uncovers the complexity that lies behind an apparently simple notion, and offers a variety of approaches to decipher that complexity. Context is indeed a missing link, which enables us to make sense of the vital relationship between the general and the particular.
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Chapter 7: Institutions in context, and as context

B. Guy Peters


All institutions function in a complex environment that at once nurtures them and constrains their opportunities. As in the familiar open systems approaches to organization (Katz et al. 1980) an institution can be conceptualized as being defined through the barrier dividing it from its surrounding environment (context). That barrier is, however, highly permeable and the organizations (institutions) depend upon their contexts for resources, as well as for pressures for adaptation. As an institution public administration functions very much like such an open system, with one of the requisite functions being maintaining its boundary against those who would erode its role in governing and its capacities to perform its appropriate tasks, while at the same time also depending upon imports of energy (in this case personnel and budgets) from its relevant context. Thus, thinking about the context of public administration to some extent can return us to the “good old days” of systems theory in political science (Deutsch, 1968; Easton, 1973). This analysis is very much at the macro level of the institution, so we will also have to consider some more micro-level aspects of the functioning of these structures.

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