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The significance of management in a sound administrative culture

In this study, Statskontoret(the Swedish Agency for Public Management) has studied public sector managers’ opportunities and limitations in their efforts to promote a sound administrative culture, and also how government agencies support their middle-level managers in these efforts.  A sound administrative culture is about the professional values which should characterise all public sector employees. The values are brought together in the common public sector value base.

The study was based primarily on the existing knowledge base. In addition, we conducted supplementary interviews with representatives of management from six government agencies.

What challenges might a government agency’s management face in its efforts to promote a sound administrative culture?

The management in a government agency faces various challenges in its efforts to safeguard and promote a sound administrative culture. For example, the size of the government agency impacts its management’s possibilities. In large government agencies, it can be difficult to reach all parts of the organisation with new directions, while in smaller government agencies, resources are limited for development efforts. The composition of the staff might also limit the management's governance. At government agencies with high-level professional skills, in some cases professional autonomy may be difficult to reconcile with the public sector value base. For government agencies that lack a distinct profession, it might instead be difficult to create consensus on how ethical dilemmas and difficult situations are to be handled.

Furthermore, managers in government agencies that have direct contacts with citizens and government agencies with activities that are vulnerable to corruption face particular challenges. These might include for example how they can achieve a balance between trust and control in their governance, or between service and efficiency.

How can the management in a government agency work to promote a good administrative culture?

The actions of the government agency’s management determine what behaviours are acceptable in its organisation. A management team in accord can strengthen the impact of directives and guidance signals on the operations of the government agency. The management team must however also allow contradicting opinions to be raised in order to avoid that problems or difficult issues are swept under the carpet within the group.

A key success factor for keeping issues related to a sound administrative culture alive is to integrate these efforts into existing governance processes, as well as that the management is being consistent in its directions. The management also needs to work for achieving consensus within the organisation on the agency’s mission and, based on the mission, give concrete form to what a sound administrative culture means for the government agency. Including co-workers in these efforts is of great importance for gaining acceptance and legitimacy.

How does the government agency’s management get information about the administrative culture in the government agency?

Government agency managers in general think that they have a good knowledge of the culture within their agency, including those who manage larger organisations. The main information channel is middle managers. To promote a culture of openness that permits co-workers to take up problems and issues within the organisation without fear, is also one of the most effective ways for the government agency’s management to ensure that they hear about any problems that might arise. 

How can government agencies support middle managers in their efforts to promote a sound administrative culture?

Middle managers have an important role to play in efforts to develop a good administrative culture. Government agencies work in different ways with leadership development to support middle managers in these efforts. Several government agencies highlighted the importance of managers being present and coaching co-workers as a way of developing a good administrative culture. At the same time, it may be difficult to achieve this kind of management in practice, among other things because of unclear roles and because middle managers are generally time-poor. Manager policies, training and digital tools are different ways in which government agencies support their managers.

Recommendations and potential risks

In the study, Statskontoret raises a number of important issues and risks that the government agency management may need to take into account in its efforts to promote a good administrative culture.

In summary, the government agency management needs to:

  • Understand that they are responsible for the administrative culture, but also ensure that co-workers have a sense of ownership of these issues.
  • Give priority to issues about the administrative culture based on the mission of the organisation.
  • Integrate issues relating to administrative culture into existing work processes.
  • Generate a feeling of trust between management and co-workers in order to assist difficult issues to rise to the surface.
  • Clarify expectations of managers and employees.

In addition, the government agency management may need to be aware of the following risks:

  • Do they actually have as good an insight into the administrative culture at the government agency as they think they do?
  • Is there sufficient openness in the management team to allow different opinions and difficult issues to be put forward?
  • Do middle managers have the time and resources to pursue issues related to administrative culture?
  • Are guidelines and governance documents being lived by co-workers?
  • Does management have the capacity to identify new challenges associated with a good administrative culture as society changes?
  • Are the government agency’s control systems for combating corruption reasonable, so that unnecessary suspicion is not cast onto co-workers?