Public Institutions: Valuable Organizations That Thrive in Challenging Times

These are trying times for public organizations. Yet some of them manage to attract and retain widespread recognition as repositories and guardians of public values we know need to be safeguarded. We have studied 12 of those 'public institutions', in our new book Guardians of Public Value. Here's why it matters and some of what we have learned. The book is available for free, see the link in this blog.

Arjen Boin, Lauren Fahy, Paul 't Hart

The public organization is facing rough times. It must navigate increasingly turbulent technological, socio-cultural and political spaces. It faces high expectations from political masters and public funders. Its clientele - the citizens and firms it serves – has high standards of service and fairness. The performance against these expectations is monitored relentlessly. There is little tolerance for failure. Mishaps are much more likely to get exposed and sanctioned than ever before. The internet has become a venue for instant reputational crucifixion. In recent years, we have seen punishing attacks on courts, public broadcasters and scientific research organizations.

In the face of all this volatility and scrutiny, it is good to know that some public organizations remain deeply valued by the general public. These organizations have not just survived challenges and controversies, but have found ways to adapt and thrive. They have garnered broad support for the ways in which they meet newly imposed (and often impossible) demands.

We refer to these organizations as public institutions.

An organization becomes an institution when it means something to the public. The institution represents an idea or an ambition that is considered important and desirable. It embodies ideals that a society values (Hendriks, 2014): justice; free elections; curing diseases; reliable news; space exploration – the list is long and will vary over time. An institution binds people together, offering them a means of collective identification.

We entrust these institutions to act as guardians of cherished values, now and into the future. As such, public institutions are an essential part of an open society.  

According to the pioneering institutional scholar Philip Selznick (1957: 17), an institution is an organization that has become “infused with value beyond the technical requirements of the task at hand”. But how does an organization become an institution? And how does it remain an institution? These were the questions that inspired our new book entitled Guardians of Public Value.The book tells the amazing story of twelve very different public institutions from around the world: the early origins, the challenges, the leaders, and their secrets to institutional success.

Scholars of public organizations and organizational leaders can learn quite a bit from these case studies. Here are a few tasters:  

Institutions develop on the back of early 'wins'

It is important that a young public organization puts itself ‘on the map’ through early, high-profile successes. Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau (CPIB) began as a small police unit seeking to root out corruption amongst colleagues. When it busted a drug ring that was run by the police, the CPIB became an independent statutory authority. Its autonomy enhanced its investigative powers, which were widely and effectively applied.

The World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) was established in 1999 to fight the moral crisis in elite sports. Just a year later, WADA showed its value through its highly professional testing of athletes at the Sydney Olympic Games and uncovered blood doping at the Nordic World Ski Championship. WADA has become a feature of the global elite sport environment. Early successes empowered and educates these organizations in ways which laid the groundwork for institutionalization.

Institutions embrace a mature approach to internal conflict

Institutions are rarely harmonious, ‘happy families’. The BBC is in near-constant tension between its constituent functions (journalism and entertainment) and with the government of the day. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) brings together the best scientists in the world, but they have to compete for funds. The governance of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra has been marked by decades of tension between protagonists of its artistic aspirations and business managers seeking to ensure the organization remained financially viable.

Rather than trying to quash dissent and tension, institutions have learned to make it productive. They have found ways to harness conflict, creating norms and practices designed to allow multiple, critical voices to be heard, and checks and balances to operate.

Institutions have leaders that act as guardians of their public mission and values

Individual leaders matter when building and sustaining institutions. This does not mean that institutions are built through the imposition of a brilliant vision from charismatic, ‘great’ men and women. Institution builders are often technical experts, rather than charismatic gurus. They recognise and respect the institution’s history. They understand that they are temporary stewards of an organization far more important than them and their ego. They act as guardians of that institution. They include, empower, and collaborate with staff and stakeholders.

The founding Commissioner of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Allan Fels, combined academic expertise and long regulatory experience with a brisk determination to give the new agency the institutional clout its predecessors had often lacked. Painstakingly independent and politically neutral, Fels used the media to create a powerful platform for the ACCC. Fels instilled professional pride in its staff and ensured the ACCC became a highly visible and influential crusader for consumer rights.

Institutions have mastered the art of continuous adaptation

Institutions must change to remain the same. They must always adapt their form and methods while preserving their societal mission and protecting their core values.

Rijkswaterstraat, the Dutch Directorate for Public Works and Water Management, is a case in point. Founded in 1798, it become a veritable institution in the early 20th century on the strength of its waterworks engineering prowess. This technocratic operating model could not survive the rise of new social values, such as environmentalism. Once its eyes were opened, it started an ongoing adaptive process, reconciling the traditional strength of ‘go-at-alone civic engineering’ with the ‘soft skills’ and ‘collaborative mindset’ required to thrive in a competing values environment. The European Court of Justice faced changing political and social attitudes toward the European Union in the 1970s. The Court revisited and rethought its functions. It has survived ever-changing environments and continues to serve its mission.

As we live through challenging times, it is a comforting thought that many public institutions have endured through previous periods of turmoil and crisis. This book makes the point that institutions can survive. Their survival relies on our continued commitment to the values they guard. The public must recognise the importance of institutions and – within reason – forgive their fallibility. Organizational leaders must take their responsibility as stewards of these institutions seriously. Only through careful management, with an unwavering commitment to the public interest, can public institutions survive and thrive.

Guardians of Public Value

Arjen Boin, Lauren Fahy, Paul ‘t Hart (eds), Guardians of Public Value: How Public Organizations Become and Remain Institutions. London: Palgrave MacMillan 2020.

The entire book and individual case studies can be downloaded free of charge at