Something old, something new, something borrowed: Explaining varieties of professionalism in citizen collaboration through identity theory

Date01 September 2019
Published date01 September 2019
AuthorNils Aschhoff,Rick Vogel
Something old, something new, something
borrowed: Explaining varieties of professionalism
in citizen collaboration through identity theory
Nils Aschhoff | Rick Vogel
Department of Socioeconomics, Universität
Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
Nils Aschhoff, Department of Socioeconomics,
Universität Hamburg, Von-Melle-Park
9, 20146 Hamburg, Germany.
Public professionals are increasingly involved in collaborative rela-
tionships with citizens to design, implement and evaluate public
services. We investigate how actors derive a specific social identity
from the institutional logic of cross-sectoral collaboration and how
this social identity translates into the self-identities of profes-
sionals. Based on an analysis of 44 semi-structured interviews in
Germany, we examine how public professionals combine the differ-
ent social identities in collaborative projects and extract three vari-
eties of professionalism: the protective professional, the tripartite
professional and the collaboration professional. Our study contrib-
utes to recent discussions on hybrid identities and identity conflicts
in public management. The findings raise questions on the compati-
bility of different social identities in collaborative settings and thus
shed light on the difficulties public professionals face in citizen
In the last two decades, with the rise and spread of New Public Governance (NPG), public management has wit-
nessed major changes (Osborne 2010). NPG is based on the assumption that public value is more effectively created
when partners from different societal sectors contribute complementary resources to tackle problems that transcend
sectoral boundaries (Coule and Patmore 2013). Therefore, public professionals collaborate with actors from beyond
the public sector, including citizens. NPG has been considered as a new institutional logic of the public sector along-
side the bureaucratic-legalistic tradition of Classical Public Administration (CPA) and a managerial logic arising from
New Public Management (NPM) (Coule and Patmore 2013; Denis et al. 2015; Polzer et al. 2016).
Citizen collaboration challenges traditional understandings of professionalism arising from CPA (Brandsen and
Honingh 2013; Tuurnas 2015). The concept of identity provides insight into how individuals handle such extensive
shifts in their institutional environment and make sense of emerging institutional logics (Thornton et al. 2012). While
social identities provide socially constructed interpretations of different institutional logics, self-identities are individ-
ually constructed interpretations of institutional logics and social identities (Watson 2008). The process of
Received: 25 October 2017 Revised: 16 January 2019 Accepted: 28 January 2019
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12589
Public Administration. 2019;97:703720. © 2019 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 703
scrutinizing self-identities and making sense of social identities has been referred to as identity work (Watson 2008;
Lok 2010).
Recent studies have applied the identity perspective to explain how public professionals handle the coexistence
of CPA and NPM (Meyer et al. 2014; McGivern et al. 2015; Skelcher and Smith 2015). However, insight into the
implications of NPG and citizen collaboration on public professionalsidentities is still limited. We address this gap,
and pose two research questions: first, we ask whether the institutional logic of citizen collaboration is reflected in
social identities of public professionals and, if so, how such an identity is composed. Second, we want to know how
public professionals who are involved in collaborative endeavours redefine their professional self-identities through
identity work. Our study is based on 44 interviews with actors involved in collaborative projects in Germany.
By looking at how public professionals behave in citizen collaboration through an identity lens, we contribute to
public management research in three ways. First, by focusing on self-identities of public professionals, we empirically
substantiate prior assumptions that professionalism is subject to major changes in circumstances of institutional shift
(Brandsen and Honingh 2013; Noordegraaf 2016). Second, investigating social identity construction related to citizen
collaboration gives insight into how public professionals and external actors perceive and frame institutional change
caused by the emergence of a new institutional logic. Thus, we expand the literature on administrative change
(Meyer et al. 2014; Pollitt and Bouckaert 2017). Third, in bridging the divide between macro-level institutional
change and micro-level behaviour of public sector professionals we foster better understanding of the implications
of NPG in public professionalsdaily work (Thomas 2013).
We build our conceptual framework on related streams in institutional theory (e.g., Friedland and Alford 1991;
Thornton et al. 2012) and social identity theory (e.g., Tajfel 1982; Hogg and Terry 2000), and argue that institutional
logics at the societal macro level and individual behaviour at the micro level of citizen collaboration are linked
through public professionalssocial identities. These different levels are interdependent and recursively linked to one
another in an ongoing circle of change: institutional logics neither fully determine social identities and individual
behaviour, nor is the emergence of social identities and institutional logics merely the result of purposeful actorsfree
will and voluntary action.
2.1 |Institutional logics, social identities and self-identities
The theoretical approach of institutional logics explains how larger societal frames at the macro level provide mean-
ing, guidance for action and legitimacy to behaviour at the organizational meso and individual micro level (Friedland
and Alford 1991; Thornton et al. 2012). According to Thornton et al. (2012, p. 2), institutional logics are the socially
constructed, historical patterns of cultural symbols and material practices, including assumptions, values, and beliefs,
by which individuals and organizations provide meaning to their daily activity, organize time and space, and repro-
duce their lives and experiences. Institutional logics can be seen as normative frames that individuals interpret and
use to derive meaning (Friedland and Alford 1991; Thornton and Ocasio 2008). Accordingly, logics are closely linked
to identities on the individual level because they influence social actorsinterests, actions and understandings of self
(Friedland and Alford 1991). In this context, we find an important distinction between social identity and self-identity
(Watson 2008). Social identity provides an understanding of who or what any social actor might or should be in a
particular institutional context, and how the social actor should act(Lok 2010, p. 1308) and, hence, represents a
socially desirable role model(Watson 2008, p. 128). In contrast, self-identity is a persons very own understanding
of who and what to be (Lok 2010; Meyer et al. 2014).

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