Power and Politics in Organizations: Public
and Private Sector Comparisons
Wolfers Professor of Political Science and Management School of Management
A chapter for the “Process of Organizational Learning” section of the Handbook of Organizational Learning, ed. Meinolf Dierkes, A. Berthoin Antal, J. Child & I. Nonaka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
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Power and Politics in Organizations: Public and Private Sector Comparisons
Political Organizations and Their Milieu
Organizational learning derives most of its knowledge from research on organizations in the private sector, particularly from the study of the firm. Its rich interdisciplinary quality is reflected in the range of social sciences that have contributed to the field’s robust development. The contribution from political science, however, has been minimal (reasons are suggested in the chapter on ‘politics’ by LaPalombara in this volume). The mutual failure of political scientists to pay more systematic attention to organizational learning and of organizational learning specialists to extend their inquiries into the public/political sphere is unfortunate in at least three senses. First, a general theory of organizational learning is unlikely to emerge unless and until what is claimed to be known about this phenomenon is shown to be the case (or not) in the public/political sphere as well. Second, sufficient evidence in political science—even if not gathered with organizational learning as the central focus—shows that organizations in the public/political sector do differ in significant ways from those in the private sphere. And third, considerations of power and its exercise are so ubiquitous in public/political-sector organizations, indeed they are so central to an understanding of these bodies, that one wonders why such meager attention has been paid to this concept in the literature on organizational theory and organizational learning. The present chapter is intended to show that the integration of political science into the field of organizational learning will be improved and that knowledge about organizational learning itself will be deepened if increased attention is focussed on two general questions: What characteristics of organizations in the public/political sector distinguish them from organizations in the private sector? And what are some of the implications of these differences for the overall field of organizational learning?
The Normative Dimension
The answer to the first question must be that one and perhaps the most salient distinguishing characteristic of public/political-sector bodies is that they are normative at their core. For organizations in the private sector, utility and efficiency are universally accepted as primary values. Theories about them are naturally based on the assumption that these bodies are organized and behave according to rational principles that reflect these values and not other considerations. This assumption, however, remains so central to writing about management that, as shown below, it actually serves to impede almost any serious attention to power and politics in private-sector, for-profit entities. To be sure, any portrayal of private-sector, for-profit entities as monolithic structures exclusively and rationally oriented to the market and the so-called bottom line is much too stark and oversimplified. Even when this flaw is recognized or conceded, however, organizations in the public/political sector are quite different, so the logic and rationality that may apply to a private-sector body cannot easily be extrapolated to them. These differences are also reflected in the ways...