Public administration reform and political will in cases of political instability: Insights from the Israeli experience

Published date01 October 2023
AuthorNissim Cohen
Date01 October 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Public Policy and Administration
2023, Vol. 38(4) 405423
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/09520767221076059
Public administration reform
and political will in cases of
political instability: Insights
from the Israeli experience
Nissim Cohen
Division of Public Administration and Policy, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
How do public administration reforms develop in cases of political instability? Admi n-
istrative reform has always been on the agenda of governments. Ample literature dis-
cusses its necessity and the factors that are associated with both its successes and failures
worldwide. Nevertheless, only a few studies discuss the impact of political instability on
public administration reform. Focusing on the Israeli experience, we explore public
administration reform in the context of political instability. Using content analysis and in-
depth interviews, we highlight how political instability adds more costs to politicians cost-
benef‌it calculations about actively promoting public administration reform, as well as h ow
it blocks their desire to engage in mundane work when large, visible reforms have been
proposed. Our f‌indings indicate that the problems of non-governability and political
instability that create the need for administrative reform also create powerful barriers to
itparticularly the lack of political will.
Political instability, political will, public administrative reform
Red tape, organizational disfunctions, ineff‌iciency, irresponsible spending, and other
administrative failures have challenged and are still challenging societies worldwide to
various degrees. It is not surprising, therefore, that administrative reform has always been
Corresponding author:
Nissim Cohen, Division of Public Administrationand Policy, University of Haifa, 199 Aba Khoushy Ave, Mount
Carmel, Haifa 31905, Israel.
on the agenda of governments (Reiter and Klenk, 2019). While in most cases the declared
goal is to improve public sector performance (Pierre, 2011), the objectives and instru-
ments of administrative reform vary (G¨
otz et al., 2018). They may focus on components
such as f‌inancial management, audits and performance, personnel, and organization.
Thus, they may modify both the processes and the structure of public organizations
(Ongaro, 2009).
As in many other areas, public administration ideas and arrangements in one political
setting (past or present) can be used in the development of policies, administrative ar-
rangements, institutions and ideas in another political setting (Dolowitz and Marsh,
2000). Nevertheless, the characteristics and strategies of each reform are based on local
needs, political considerations and institutional settings (Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2017).
These insights underscore the crucial importance of understanding the relationship be-
tween the implementation of reforms, decision-making processes and the context when
exploring the variations in the strategies the government adopts.
One of the least studied contexts for public administration reforms is political in-
stability (Mele and Ongaro, 2014). The literature has discussed political instability from
various perspectives (Dowding and Kimber, 1983). It is a basic source of variation in
institutions and policies whose frequency and character depend on public preferences, and
salient events and issues (Horovitz et al., 2009: 1). Among its main characteristics are
frequent personnel changes in higher political and bureaucratic positions (Milio, 2008:
9223) and frequent shifts in coalitions (Grøn and Salomonsen, 2019: 444). These
circumstances may impact a governments ability to design, implement, and evaluate
policy strategically and effectively. Political stability is the regularity of the f‌low of
political exchanges. The more regular the f‌low, the more stable a society (Ake, 1975).
When high-level decisionmakers are frequently replaced, the policy capacity (Wu et al.,
2015) of governance is signif‌icantly challenged. Studies on this phenomenon demonstrate
that it has a negative impact on reform and policy in developing (Dixon et al., 2018: 762)
and developed countries (Piattoni and Smyrl, 2003). Mele and Ongaros (2014) pio-
neering analysis reveals how turnover in political leadership represents a threat to reform.
Political instability can impact the political will to formally design administrative
reform and implement it, as well as the need for mundane work when large, visible reform
has been proposed. Indeed, in order to move forward from a policy design (Birkland,
1997;Jenkins-Smith and Sabatier, 1994) to its implementation (Pressman and Wildavsky,
1973), there must be the political will to do so (Kingdon, 1984;Treadway, 2012).
According to Post et al. (2010), political will is achieved when a suff‌icient set of de-
cisionmakers with a common understanding of a particular problem is committed to
supporting a potentially effective policy solution. This argument implies that deci-
sionmakerssustained commitment to investing resources is mandatory for any policy
change (Brinkerhoff, 2000). In the context of administrative reform, scholars and de-
cisionmakers consistently point to political will as a sine qua non for public administration
reform (OECD, 2010: 222;Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2017: 25). However, given that ad-
ministrative reform is a long process, frequent personnel changes in higher political and
bureaucratic positions could reduce their willingness to actively promote reform.
406 Public Policy and Administration 38(4)

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