In the following four enduring research themes are elaborated briefly.
The interest in formal organizations and formally organized political institutions has appeared in studies of democratic government and public administration and also in studies of universities (‘Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations’ with March 1976, ‘European integration and University Dynamics’ with Peter Maassen 2007). These studies have shown how organizational decision-making involves more than rational choice based on calculation of the expected advantages of available alternatives. Examples are the significance of rituals and expressive behavior (‘Local Budgeting Decision Making or Ritual Act?’ 1970) and sense-making and rationalization/justification (‘Ambiguity’ 1976).
Considerable attention has been given studies of ’Garbage can’-processes of organizational decision-making, which also includes a computerized model (‘A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice’ 1972, ‘The Garbage Can Model 2008’, with Michael D. Cohen and J.G. March). Here the importance of human intentionality and rational choice is downplayed. Rather than assuming an intentional-consequential order, the models emphasize a temporal order and unplanned temporal linkages between participants, problems, solutions and decision opportunities in worlds of ambiguous goals, uncertain means-end understandings, and fluid attention and participation.
The New Institutionalism
Whereas most comments have been related to garbage can-processes within open structures, the approach also includes hierarchical and specialized structures, and this aspect has been further developed in studies of political institutions. ‘Institutionalism’ signifies a specific approach to what is in everyday language called political institutions, and ‘The New Institutionalism: Organizational factors in political life’ (1984, with March) contributed to a revival of interest in how institutions, as relatively enduring structures, organize political life. Institutions are perceived as behavioral rules and practices embedded in structures of meaning and resources, and institutional approaches have called renewed attention to issues such as identity and role-derived rule-driven behavior, a behavioral logic of appropriateness, organizational routines and standard operating procedures; to how institutions define and fashion human beings, their preferences, understandings and resources; and to the ordinary ‘inefficiencies’ and non-equilibrium character of historical processes.
These themes have been worked out in more detail in ‘Rediscovering Institutions’ 1989, ‘Democratic Governance’ 1995, ‘Elaborating the New Institutionalism’ 2006 and ‘The logic of appropriateness’ 2006 (all with March). Bureaucratic organization has been analyzed in ‘The Ups and Downs of Bureaucratic Organization’ (2008) and the complications of organizational reform and learning in ‘Lessons from Experience. Experiential Learning in administrative reforms in eight democracies’ (1996, with B.G. Peters).
Democracy, power and the Scandinavian model
As one of the leaders of the Study of the Distribution of Power in Norway (l972 l983) and the Study of Power and Democracy in Sweden (l985 1990) I had the opportunity to explore how democratic institutions, as a specific form of institutionalized authority and power-relations, may contribute to political order, action capacity, orderly change, and peaceful co-existence. Scandinavian experiences illustrate how political performance depends on many and shifting forms of citizens’ participation and institutions rather than a single form or institution. Founded on a grand class compromise between labor, capital and state, the welfare-state, a large-scale public sector, and corporative bargaining arrangements developed together as a response to uncontrollable international markets and as supplements to representative government and majority power.
The power-studies started in an era when beliefs in planning and rational forecasting were increasingly challenged, and more trust was put into evaluation and learning from the past. They ended in an era when market competition and voluntary exchange among self-interested, rational actors became the institutional favorite of many; giving primacy to concerns about economics, consumers, transaction-costs and efficiency rather than to political equality, socio-economic security, citizenship, cooperation, and the common good (‘Integrated organizational participation in government’ 1981, ‘Organized Democracy’ 1983, ‘Demokrati på svenska’ 1990, ‘The reforming Organization’ 1993, with Nils Brunsson).
The changing political organization of Europe
European integration and the European Union as an emerging political order have provided insights that are difficult to observe in stable orders, including a better comprehension of the nature, architecture, dynamics of change, performance, and effects of political institutions. Examples are the shifting primacy and autonomy of institutional spheres; how different institutions legitimate or de-legitimate public authority and power resources such as numbers, money, information, expertise, and organizational strength; intra and inter-institutional conflict and how institutions mediate between unity and diversity and balance rather than eliminate the ‘standing antagonisms’ (J.S. Mill) of political life; the asymmetry between institutionalization and de-institutionalization and the co-existence of old and new political orders; the co-evolution of institutions, the shifting importance of intention and choice in institutional change, and the possibilities and limitations of achieving intended, anticipated, and desired effects through deliberate design and reform. Institutional approaches have shed light upon general processes of political change and continuity; integration and disintegration; central governance and institutional autonomy; capacity-building and community-building; and the shifting role of non-majoritarian institutions in parliamentary democracies, that is, institutions that are supposed to make continuous direct citizens’ participation redundant because institutions routinely work with integrity, generating expected and desired outcomes (‘Europe in Search for Political Order’ 2007, ‘Governing Through Institution Building: Institutional theory and recent European experiments in democratic organization’ 2010).