Generalists and specialists in executive politics: Why ambitious meta‐policies so often fail

AuthorKai Wegrich,Werner Jann
Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
Generalists and specialists in executive politics:
Why ambitious meta-policies so often fail
Werner Jann
| Kai Wegrich
Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences,
University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany
Hertie School of Governance, Berlin,
Kai Wegrich, Hertie School of Governance,
Friedrichstraße 180, 10117 Berlin, Germany.
This article contributes to the politics of policy-making in
executive government. It introduces the analytical distinc-
tion between generalists and specialists as antagonistic
players in executive politics and develops the claim that pol-
icy specialists are in a structurally advantaged position to
succeed in executive politics and to fend off attempts by
generalists to influence policy choices through cross-cutting
reform measures. Contrary to traditional textbook public
administration, we explain the views of generalists and spe-
cialists not through their training but their positions within
an organization. We combine established approaches from
public policy and organization theory to substantiate this
claim and to define the dilemma that generalists face when
developing government-wide reform policies (meta-poli-
cies) as well as strategies to address this problem. The arti-
cle suggests that the conceptual distinction between
generalists and specialists allows for a more precise analysis
of the challenges for policy-making across government
organizations than established approaches.
Without specialization there is no knowledge, and without knowledge there is no power. (Aaron
Wildavsky 1984, p. 225)
Among the key concerns of public administration research is the tension between the increasing complexity of exec-
utive government, on the one hand, and the need to coordinate the activities of various departments, units and
agencies, on the other. As pointed out for decades, these tasks have become increasingly challenging for at least two
Received: 12 July 2017 Revised: 20 May 2019 Accepted: 1 June 2019
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12614
Public Administration. 2019;97:845860. © 2019 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 845
reasons. First, growth in government activity until the 1970s led to increasing specialization of tasks and hence frag-
mentation of government structures. And second, many policy issuessuch as concerns about too much bureaucracy
(cutting red tape), efficiency and effectiveness (New Public Management), evaluation and impact assessment (evi-
dence-based policy-making), and behavioural insights (nudging)transcend departmental and organizational bound-
aries and require some kind of cross-cutting coordination. To address these issues, governments across the globe
have implemented policies such as better regulationreforms, with impact assessment and compliance cost measure-
ment as key tools. These initiatives have been called meta-policies(Dror 1971), as they intend to change the ways
sectoral policies and programmes are designed and implemented in diverse departments and agencies.
This policy trend has been accompanied by a rediscovery of coordinationas a central theme of research (Peters
2015; Hustedt and Danken 2017). Concerning meta-policies, the role of central agencies features high on the
research agenda in executive politics (Dahlström et al. 2011). However, our conjecture is that such research could
benefit from a more targeted theoretical framework that focuses on the essence of the coordination problem associ-
ated with meta-policies. Meta-policiesdefined by Dror (1971, p. 3) as policy on policymaking, that is, policy dealing
with the characteristics of the policymaking system’—not only involve the usual problems and limitations of coordi-
nation in central government. They differ from traditional coordination problems (say, between agriculture and envi-
ronment) because they represent structural imbalances, and not simply ordinary sector-based power differences.
They also create additional, specific problems and restrictions, since they not only generate consequences for, but
also aim to influence, numerous policies and domains at once.
Why is the history of meta-policies littered with initiatives that started out with high ambitions but did not
deliver on their promises (see Wildavsky 1966 on early reforms in the 1960s; Scharpf 1986 referring to the 1970s;
and Radaelli 2007; Lodge 2015; and Renda 2015 on more recent reforms in the area of better regulation)? Recent
debates have produced two different explanations for successful bureaucratic resistanceagainst meta-policies:
tool- and instrument-related and executive capacity-oriented approaches. The first assumes that we need better
tools and instruments to overcome the shortcomings of meta-policies. If, for example, rules requiring a regulatory
impact assessment (RIA) are not consistently applied, the response will be to demand better and more instruments
or more resources for RIA (see Carrigan and Shapiro 2017). The underlying assumption seems to be that a critical
mass of tools and procedures has yet to be achieved, and that adding more of the same ingredients is, in itself, a rec-
ipe for success (see OECD 2015; Renda 2015 on the regulatory governance cycle).
The second explanation concerns the centre, responsible for designing and enforcing institutional reform poli-
cies. It assumes that more power and capacity is needed to move reforms through the governmental coordination
process. Such executive capacities are less likely to develop in systems with more widely distributed power
(i.e., those with frequent coalition governments, strong legal entrenchment of the status quo, or ministries that are
highly autonomous from the core executive) than in those with more unified core executives(Knill 1999; Pollitt and
Bouckaert 2011). Germany and the UK are the usual showcases for such arguments. But even in the UK the capaci-
ties of the centre are limited by bounded morality, intelligence and power, as the Brexit fiasco in particular has
shown (March and Olsen 1983; Brunsson and Olsen 1993; see OECD 2012 and Renda 2015 concerning the critical
role of the centre and political commitment from the highest level).
The conceptual framework developed in this article directly relates to the role of the centre and discusses the
mechanisms that limit the power and influence of central units responsible for meta-policies. In essence, we suggest
that the coordination problem of meta-policies is best captured as a constellationif not a confrontationbetween
generalists (those responsible for cross-cutting issues and meta-policies) and specialists (those responsible for a par-
ticular policy field). We argue that there is a structural imbalance in favour of specialists that makes the implementa-
tion of generalist meta-policies problematic. In examining why specialists are usually much more effective than
generalists, we identify three mutually reinforcing mechanisms that provide specialists with a comparative advan-
tage: external mobilization, internal organization and the joint deployment of expertise.
Our perspective highlights the challenge of generalist meta-policies, which interfere with the turf and interests of
a high number of specialist organizations simultaneously. As a result, they are confronted with specialist networks

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