Rational instrument or symbolic signal? Explaining coordination structures in the Directorate-General for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs of the European Commission

Date01 April 2018
Published date01 April 2018
untitled Article
Public Policy and Administration
2018, Vol. 33(2) 149–169
! The Author(s) 2016
Rational instrument
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or symbolic signal?
DOI: 10.1177/0952076716683764
Explaining coordination
structures in the
for Fisheries and
Maritime Affairs of the
European Commission
Bertolt Wenzel
University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany
This article examines the reorganization of formal coordination structures in the
Directorate-General for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs of the European Commission.
While rational approaches in organization theory emphasize functional efficiency as an
explanation for organizational design and coordination structures, the findings of this
study indicate that the reorganization was not driven primarily for reasons of efficiency
and to increase the coordination capacity of the organization. The study demonstrates
that, even in a highly technical policy area such as fisheries management in the European
Union, the (re-)design of formal organizational structures does not follow primarily a
technical–instrumental rationale. Instead, the formal coordination structures have also
been adapted to live up to changing expectations in the institutional environment, to
modern management concepts in marine governance, and to ensure the legitimacy of
the organization. However, although the empirical findings of this study substantiate the
theoretical assumptions of an institutional perspective, institutional explanations
alone are insufficient to comprehensively understand why organizational structures
are reorganized and changed.
Coordination structures, European Commission, fisheries policy, marine governance,
organizational reform, organization theory
Corresponding author:
Bertolt Wenzel, Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences, University of Potsdam, August-Bebel-Str. 89, 14482
Potsdam, Germany.
Email: bertolt.wenzel@uni-potsdam.de

Public Policy and Administration 33(2)
The explanation of organizational reform and change has increasingly attracted
scholarly attention in recent years. Common rational or instrumental perspectives
suggest that organizational and administrative structures change over time in order
to increase the functional ef‌f‌iciency and performance of organizations. From this
perspective, organizational and administrative structure is perceived as a technical–
rational tool for ef‌f‌icient and ef‌fective solution of problems and achievement of
goals. This view is inherent in the growing literature on public management and
organizational performance. Several studies have analyzed the potential for delib-
erate design and redesign of organizations, on the assumption that organizational
structures inf‌luence coordination processes, policy outputs, and, eventually, policy
outcomes (for an overview, see Egeberg, 2012; Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2011;
Trondal, 2011; Vestlund, 2014).
In contrast, institutional theory argues that the primary objective of organiza-
tional change is not better performance and intra-organizational concerns about
ef‌f‌iciency, but greater legitimacy. From this institutional perspective, it is assumed
that organizations adapt their organizational structures in order to conform to
expectations in their institutional environment about the structural elements they
should have and which procedures and management approaches they should pri-
oritize. Organizational structure is thus assumed to be more of a ceremonial facade
than a technical–rational tool for ef‌f‌icient problem solving and goal achievement
(DiMaggio and Powell, 1991; Meyer and Rowan, 1977).
Frequently, studies on organizational reform have focused on more comprehen-
sive administrative and management reform ef‌forts or on bureaucratic dimensions
other than formal organizational structure as the dependent variable, such as
personnel modernization, budgetary modernization, and the modernization of
planning systems (e.g., Balint and Knill, 2007; Balint et al., 2008; Bauer, 2007;
Etzold, 2007; Kassim, 2008; Kerler, 2007; Ongaro, 2013). This article contributes
to the debate by (i) focusing on formal organizational structure as the relevant
dimension of organizational reform and (ii) by showing that formal structures of
public organizations are not necessarily (re-)designed for reasons of ef‌f‌iciency and
to increase administrative coordination capacity. Instead, the study reveals
that formal structures also change to live up to expectations in the institutional
environment and to modern management concepts, and to ensure the legitimacy of
an organization.
Empirically, the article studies a reorganization of formal coordination struc-
tures for f‌isheries and marine environmental management in the Directorate-
General for Fisheries and Maritime Af‌fairs (DG FISH) of the European
Commission in 2008. The reorganization involved a change in the horizontal
coordination structures i.e., the def‌inition of which tasks and relations should be
grouped together and coordinated, and which should be separated.
Until 2008, DG FISH was responsible exclusively for the European Union’s
(EU) Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the f‌isheries sector. With the reorgan-
ization, the organization’s sectoral focus on f‌isheries policy and management came

to include responsibility for the EU’s Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP), and
organizational units for advice on marine conservation and environment were set
up. Moreover, regional directorates have been established that ref‌lect formal
coordination structures with a geographical focus on Europe’s marine ecosystems,
such as the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the
North Sea. In the course of the reform, the former DG FISH changed its name and
is now the Directorate-General for Maritime Af‌fairs and Fisheries (DG MARE)
(Commission of the European Communities, 2008b).
Coordination problems and the challenge of organizing horizontal (across sec-
toral policies) and vertical coordination across several hierarchical levels of marine
governance in Europe have increasingly been emphasized in the marine policy and
governance literature (e.g., Kern, 2011; Markus et al., 2011; Salomon and Dross,
2013; van Tatenhove, 2013; van Tatenhove et al., 2015). However, explanations of
coordination ef‌forts at the organizational level and how public organizations cope
with coordination demands in marine governance have been neglected so far. Thus,
the aim of this article is to examine how EU-level public organizations deal with
coordination challenges in marine management, not from a substantive policy or
European multilevel governance perspective, but from an organization theory
perspective. Against this backdrop, the intention of the study is to examine why
the formal coordination structures of DG FISH have been changed, to analyze
the structural reorganization in the light of an instrumental and an institutional
perspective, and to assess which perspective is better suited to explaining the organ-
izational changes. As DG FISH/MARE plays a central role in the marine govern-
ance system in Europe, changes in the organizational structure of this key actor
may have broader implications for other marine management organizations. In this
regard, it is worth elucidating whether the reorganization of the DG’s formal
coordination structures was intended to achieve ef‌f‌icient and ef‌fective problem
solving, or whether it primarily follows modern paradigms for marine management
and the reorganization therefore served more as a symbolic signal. Although f‌ish-
eries policy in the EU has often been af‌fected by political negotiations between
member state governments (Conceicao-Heldt, 2006; Franchino and Rahming,
2003), at the administrative and organizational level, f‌isheries policy in Europe is
a highly technical and rationalized system of advice production, management, and
implementation (Wilson, 2009). The normal expectation would thus be that the
organizational structures of public organizations involved in f‌isheries management
in Europe, such as DG FISH, are (re-)designed in a deliberate, technical–rational
manner in order to implement f‌isheries policy and management ef‌f‌iciently and
ef‌fectively. DG FISH is therefore a crucial case (Gerring, 2008: 659) as is least
likely to corroborate the theoretical propositions of an institutional perspective.
By making use of a case study approach based on congruence analysis (Blatter
and Haverland, 2012), a systematic comparison of the empirical data collected with
the theoretical expectations of an instrumental and an institutional perspective
is conducted. The collection of the empirical data is based on two sources of
information. First, document analyses were conducted on the basis of of‌f‌icial

Public Policy and Administration 33(2)
documents (expert and consultant reports, press releases), secondary literature, as
well as on analyses of organizational charts and their change over time. Second,
f‌ive semi-structured interviews were conducted with former DG FISH/DG MARE
of‌f‌icials involved in the organizational reform process, including a former director,
advisers, and scientif‌ic and policy of‌f‌icers. The interview questionnaires were struc-
tured to collect relevant information on the drivers, the rationale, and the process
of the reorganizations. All interviews were taped and fully transcribed. All inter-
viewees are treated with full anonymity.
The article is structured as follows: in the...

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