Explaining the survival of public organizations: Applying density dependence theory to a population of US federal agencies

Published date01 December 2018
AuthorArjen Boin,Sanneke Kuipers,Jeroen Kuilman,Celesta Kofman,Arjen van Witteloostuijn
Date01 December 2018
Explaining the survival of public organizations:
Applying density dependence theory to a
population of US federal agencies
Arjen van Witteloostuijn
| Arjen Boin
| Celesta Kofman
Jeroen Kuilman
| Sanneke Kuipers
School of Business and Economics, Vrije
Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Department of Political Science, Leiden
University, Leiden, The Netherlands
Independent Researcher, Leiden, The
Department of Economics, Tilburg University
School of Economics and Management,
Tilburg, The Netherlands
Institute of Security and Global Affairs,
Leiden University, The Hague, The
Arjen Boin, Department of Political Science,
Leiden University, Wassenaarseweg 52, Leiden
9555 RB, The Netherlands.
Email: boin@fsw.leidenuniv.nl
Why do some public organizations survive for many decades, whereas
others are terminated within a few years? This question of organiza-
tional survival has long intrigued public administration scholars. To
explain longevity, public administration research has focused on organi-
zational design features and adaptive capacities. The results have been
inconclusive. This article explores an additional explanation for survival
and demise: the density dependence theory as formulated in the field
of organizational ecology. The underlying premise of this theory is that
certain environments can only sustain a certain number of similar-type
organizations. A rising number of organizations fuels competition for
scarce resources, which inevitably leads to the demise of organizations.
Density theory has often been tested in the business literature, but has
been rarely applied to public sector organizations. In this article, we test
whether this theory can help explain organizational survival in a popula-
tion of US federal independent public agencies (n=142).Our results
show that density matters. This is good news for public administration
research: the inclusion of density boosts the explanatory power of tra-
ditional variables such as design and adaptation.
Herbert Kaufman (1976) was one of the first scholars to study why public organizations survive or not. He noted that
some public organizations live on seemingly for ever, outlasting their original purpose. Some were quickly terminated
after birth, some lived for decades and then got terminated. A substantial body of research has since been devoted
to understanding the termination and survival of public organizations (Lewis 2002, 2004; Carpenter and Lewis 2004;
Boin et al. 2010).
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12524
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
© 2018 The Authors. Public Administration published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Public Administration. 2018;96:633650. wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/padm 633
Most of this research has focused on design characteristics or adaptive strategies (or a combination of both).
One approach has been to test whether an organization can be designed or hardwiredto survive. Prominent design
factors are legislative design and formal autonomy (Lewis 2003; Carpenter and Lewis 2004; Boin et al. 2010; Park
2013; Greasley and Hanretty 2016; James et al. 2016; Kleizen et al. 2018). While these factors matter (Lewis 2003),
they do not tell the whole story. Another approach has focused on the adaptive qualities of public organizations: can
they change in time to escape termination? Intriguingly, there appears to be little actual evidence that the adaptive
capacities of individual organizations enhance their survival chances. In fact, a public organizations proactive adapta-
tion anticipating relevant legislative change may well decrease this public organizations odds of survival (Boin
et al. 2017).
Despite an impressive body of research, there is no overwhelming evidence that one factor, or one particular set
of factors, can explain why some public organizations survive longer than others (Kuipers et al. 2018). In this article,
we widen our scope and include an organizational ecology perspective to help explain organizational survival and ter-
mination. This approach has a distinctive pedigree in the field of organization theory, where the fate of (mostly pri-
vate) organizations has long been the object of investigation (Hannan and Freeman 1977).
The ecological approach views organizations as members of a particular population (hairdressers, bakeries,
schools, banks, labour unions, etc.). It assumes that the demand for the products or services provided by a population
of organizations is inherently limited (a city can only sustain so many hairdressers or bakeries). When the population
becomes too large for its sustaining environment (too many bakeries in the neighbourhood), or an environmental
shift occurs (people do not like bread that much anymore), organizations will be culled. Ecologists thus argue that
beyond a certain threshold, increased population density fuels deadly competition. While this density dependence
theory cannot predict which particular organization will survive or succumb, it offers a way of predicting the general
survival chances of organizations in a particular population.
Organizational ecologists argue that density dependence theory can be applied to organizational populations of
any kind, as long as individual organizations in thepopulation have to compete for the same scarce resources that are
vital for theirsurvival. This theory has been empirically confirmed, againand again, in a wide variety of businesspopula-
tions. It has also been tested on populations outside the realmof for-profit enterprises, includinginterest groups (Gray
and Lowery 1995, 1999), social movements (Langton 1987; Bevan 2013), labour unions (Hannan and Freeman 1987,
1988), high schools(Divarci et al. 2017) and political parties(Lowery et al. 2011, 2013). Densitydependence theory has
rarely been appliedto understand the survival of public organizations (cf. Peters and Hogwood1991).
The aim of this articleis modest: we seek to establish whetherthis theory is relevant for understanding the survival
chances of public organizations. We first explain in more detail what this theory entails. Next, we test the explanatory
power of this approach in a population of 142 US federal independent agencies during 19332011. After presenting
our findings,we contemplate what these findingsmean for the research on the survivalof public organizations.
2.1 |Ecological logic
The population ecology school has been a prominent perspective in organization theory for decades (Perrow 1986;
Aldrich 1999). Many longitudinal data have been collected as a result. There is a broad spectrum of different ecologi-
cal perspectives, but they all focus on the question of organizational survival (Hannan and Freeman 1977, p. 929). In
all these perspectives, competition for vital resources is thought to affect birth rates and survival chances in popula-
tions of similar types of organizations. The effects of competition, in turn, depend on the density of the population
Lewis (2004, p. 399; 2002, p. 99) does control for a specific count of density. His models do not include time-varying effects of con-
temporaneous density, however, but only that of density at founding. For a more complete approach, see the research on state-
owned corporations by Zhou and van Witteloostuijn (2010).

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