A dynamic theoretical framework of gradual institutional changes

AuthorRonen Mandelkern,Michal Koreh,Ilana Shpaizman
Published date01 September 2019
Date01 September 2019
A dynamic theoretical framework of gradual
institutional changes
Michal Koreh
| Ronen Mandelkern
| Ilana Shpaizman
School of Social Work, University of Haifa,
Haifa, Israel
School of Political Science, Government and
International Affairs, Tel Aviv University
Faculty of Social Sciences, Tel Aviv, Israel
Department of Political Studies, Bar-Ilan
University, Ramat Gan, Israel
Ilana Shpaizman, Department of Political
Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, 52900
Email: ilana.shpaizman@biu.ac.il
How do institutions transform? To answer that question, this arti-
cle introduces a dynamic theoretical framework of gradual institu-
tional changes. Instead of looking at each mode of gradual
changelike layering or driftas a stand-alone process, we exam-
ine how the application of one mode of change affects the oppor-
tunities of change agents to induce additional modes of gradual
transformation. We first point to the fact that any single mode of
change produces a real but limited transformation. Nevertheless,
since the application of a gradual mode of change alters the institu-
tional context, it opens new change opportunities by affecting the
support in the targeted institution and/or its internal coherence.
Consequently, change agents who aspire to comprehensive trans-
formation will be able to use these new opportunities to implement
additional modes of gradual transformation. Two case studies of
gradual social policy transformations in Israel exemplify these theo-
retical assertions.
Institutions and policies tend to reproduce themselves: probably this is the most important contribution of the vari-
ous branches of the new institutional theory (e.g., Hall and Taylor 1996). But, despite their stickiness, institutions
and policies do not necessarily remain stable until an exogenous shock, like war or crisis, destabilizes them. Rather,
institutions and policies may substantially change through gradual processes and due to endogenous factors
(e.g., Greif and Laitin 2004; Streeck and Thelen 2005; Jacobs and Weaver 2015).
Prominent within the historical institutionalism (HI) approach, Mahoney and Thelens (2010) theory of gradual
institutional change suggests that prevailing institutions and policies reflect the results of past political compromises
and power contests and produce losersand other dissatisfied actors who aspire to achieve change. While institu-
tional barriers diminish the likelihood of outright institutional displacement, these actors can strategically utilize
cracks’—gaps and ambiguitiesin existing institutions to promote change gradually (Hacker 2004; Streeck and The-
len 2005; Mahoney and Thelen 2010; Hacker et al. 2015). The main modes of such transformative but gradual
*The names of the authors appear in alphabetical order
Received: 11 June 2018 Revised: 10 February 2019 Accepted: 19 February 2019
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12592
Public Administration. 2019;97:605620. wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/padm © 2019 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 605
institutional change are: layering, through which new rules or practices are gradually added and expanded on top of,
or alongside, existing ones; drift, in which institutional adjustments are deliberately prevented despite changing real-
ities; and conversion, namely, the redirection of existing rules or policies to new aims.
This article advances the existing theory of gradual change by adding a dynamic dimension to it. We first point
to the fact that while the institutional transformation achieved through any single mode of gradual change is real, it is
also limited. We further argue that at the same time, the strategic application of one mode of gradual change at time
alters the institutional context in ways that provide change agents with new opportunities to apply an additional
mode of change at time t
. Therefore, change agents who aspire to comprehensive transformation will be able to
utilize these new opportunities for additional transformation. This is a substantial addition to the prevailing frame-
work, which only focuses on how the institutional context in t
affects the change agentspossibilities for action in t
and ignores the limits of each mode of change.
We contend that this dynamic applies to drift, conversion and layering. All three produce real but limited trans-
formations: drift changes the impact of an institution but does not generate an alternative one; conversion redirects
the goals of an institution but its impact is limited by the scope of the converted institution; and layering introduces
a new institution but does not dismantle the old one. At the same time, each mode of change alters the institutional
context: all three weaken the relative support in the original institutions and layering also reduces internal institu-
tional coherence. Such changes in the institutional context provide change agents with new opportunities to apply
additional modes of change. Consequently, the application of drift, layering and conversion allows change agents to
advance institutional transformation even after the impact of a single mode of gradual change has been utilized to
the fullest.
We exemplify these theoretical assertions through process tracing analysis of two typical case studies of gradual
social policy transformation: job placement policy and integration policy for Jewish immigrants in Israel. In both cases,
strategic change agents generated institutional transformation through different sequences of gradual modes of
change, thereby allowing us to examine the hypothesized causal relations between the application of conversion,
layering and drift.
2.1 |Prevailing theoretical framework of gradual institutional change
Over the last decade, the HI framework of gradual institutional change has been utilized in numerous studies and
analyses of political and policy transformations. This framework points to mechanisms of institutional transformation
which are not triggered by exogenous causes like wars, and which do not reflect inherent institutional failures or neg-
ative feedback (Greif and Laitin 2004; Jacobs and Weaver 2015). Rather, even when conditions for abrupt institu-
tional transformation do not exist, strategic change agents can utilize elements of prevailing institutions and/or
policies to gradually transform them. Our article develops the prevailing framework of gradual institutional change by
building on two of its core arguments: first, that institutional change can be driven by agents that act strategically to
transform existing institutions; second, that the actions of agents who seek change are constrained by the existing
institutional context. This section briefly elaborates on these two arguments.
In the HI approach, the structure of prevailing institutions and policies reflects past political struggles and contin-
gent policy legacies.
Accordingly, the theoretical framework of gradual institutional change suggests that institu-
tional transformations reflect political struggles and can result from an inside jobof change agents, whose ability to
According to Streeck and Thelen (2005, p. 10), institutions are formalized rules that may be enforced by calling upon a third party.
This definition also applies to policies which define enforceable rules regarding the rights and obligations, for example, of citizens
and/or governments. The breadth and scope of different institutions may vary from general political-economic regimes to specific
policy programmes within these regimes.

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