Sub-theme 50: Organizing Risk in the Public Sector

Julia Fleischer
German Research Institute for Public Administration Speyer, Germany
Per Lægreid
University of Bergen, Norway
Thurid Hustedt
University of Potsdam, Germany

Call for Papers

Coping with uncertainty is a challenge to most organizations. In recent social science debates this uncertainty is frequently framed and discussed as risk. Risks occur in different areas of society, this variety is mirrored in various disciplinary perspectives. Whereas sociologists reflect on the "risk society" (Beck 1992), policy analysts are mainly concerned with risk regulation, and organizational scholars often focus on risk assessment and risk management. However, public organizations are faced by a variety of risks that can be short-term (e.g. natural disasters, school shootings) or long-term (e.g. demographic change, toxic waste, or climate change). Moreover, the identification of these risks can be primarily based upon natural sciences (e.g. in biotechnology or geosciences) or rather relies on intelligence and police work (e.g. in terrorism and homeland security). The potential danger and effects of highly complex risks are often highly contentious and their assessment is often based upon ambiguous findings that can easily develop into political (and conflicting) issues. Even more so are measures for prevention. When risks are actually realised they can occur as crises to which – again – typically public organizations have to react. This sub-theme focuses on the relations of public organizations and risks (see e.g. Czarniawska 2009; Hood et al. 2001; Power 2007).

The sub-theme applies theoretical frameworks referring to the interaction of organizations and their environments, particularly new institutionalism in organization theory (Christensen et al., 2007; Czarniawska, 2009; DiMaggio & Powell, 1993; March & Olsen, 1989; Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Scott, 2008). Assuming a causal relationship of institutional environment and organizational structures and behaviour, new institutionalism in organization theory provides conceptualizations for how public organizations cope with risks. The sub-theme is likewise interested to develop these theoretical perspectives further and to identify alternative explanations for organizational responses to risks as ambiguous externalities of organizational life. In methodological terms, the sub-theme is interested in the whole range of methods to assess how organizations in the public sector cope with risks. It is particularly interested in comparative research, either from a cross-country, cross-time, or cross-sectoral perspective. Likewise, the sub-theme aims to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of applying distinct methods or their combination in order to examine the complex interactions between risk and public sector organizations.

Given the variety of challenges to public organizations confronted with modern and post-modern risks, various research questions arise. We welcome conceptual, theoretical, and empirical papers which address one or several of the following research questions:

  • Are new organizational forms emerging in the area of risk prevention and/or management? Which kinds of "risk organization" predominate?
  • Are certain organizational arrangements better suited to tackle and prevent risks than others?
  • How can we theorise such organizational changes in terms of risk assessment and/or risk management?
  • To what extent can cultural provisions, e.g. entrenched in risk perceptions, explain the change of public organizations assigned with risk regulation?
  • How do public managers perceive different kinds of risks?
  • What relationships between scientific/external experts, politicians and bureaucratic actors emerge in the areas of risk regulation?
  • How do public sector organizations responsible for risk regulation "speak truth to power"?
  • Does the classic nexus between politics and administration differ with regard to risk regulation?
  • How can we measure risk regulation and "risk performance", i.e. the task performance of public sector organizations involved in risk assessment and/or risk management?


Beck, Ulrich (1992): Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.
Christensen, Tom, Per Lægreid, Paul G. Ronessl & Kjell A. Røvik (2007): Organization Theory for the Public Sector: Instrument, Culture and Myth. London: Routledge.
Czarniawska, Barbara (ed.) (2009): Organizing in the Face of Risk and Threat. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
DiMaggio, Paul J. & Walter W. Powell (1983): "The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields." American Sociological Review, 48 (2), 147-160.
Hood, Christopher, Henry Rothstein & Robert Baldwin (2001): The Government of Risk: Understanding Risk Regulation Regimes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
March, James G. & Johan P. Olsen (1989): Rediscovering Institutions. New York: The Free Press.
Meyer, John W. & Brian Rowan (1977): "Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony." American Journal of Sociology, 83 (2), 340-363.
Power, Michael (2007): Organized Uncertainty: Designing a World of Risk Management. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Scott, W. Richard (2008a): Institutions and Organizations, 3rd ed. London: Sage.


Julia Fleischer 
Per Lægreid 
Thurid Hustedt