Working Across Agency Boundaries: A Micro-Institutionalist Perspective on Public Service Innovation

PATMORE, Beth (2019). Working Across Agency Boundaries: A Micro-Institutionalist Perspective on Public Service Innovation. Doctoral, Sheffield Hallam University.

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his study explores the nature of institutional work performed by frontline public service workers and middle managers as they deliver an innovative service pilot in the North of England through an inter-organisational collaborative team (i.e. the pilot team). It is founded upon a qualitative case study of the pilot team, which adopted interviews, participant observation and shadowing of actors' every day social interactions over a five-month period to capture social action in situ and in vivo. Such an approach is rare within both the institutional theory and public service innovation literatures. I find that actors engage in two types of institutional work – discursive boundary work and discursive practice work. During two ‘turf wars’ actors undertake discursive boundary work to legitimatise or delegitimise who has jurisdiction to engage in specific activities or practices in the field. Here, pilot team members and outsiders used discursive frames and framing tactics to expand or contract boundaries or jurisdictions to pursue innovation interests or maintain the status quo. Central to discursive practice work is the telling of emotional stories of clients and the use of pathos based rhetorical strategies to mobilise participation in their innovative practice and block negative emotions that could lead to resistance to the practice. In addition, team members act as practice custodians by using emotions to repair any explicit and implicit practice breakdowns to maintain credibility and participation in the innovative practice over time. Overall these findings contribute to developing the literature on institutional theory, institutional work and public service innovation in different ways. Firstly, it demonstrates the situated nature of institutional work which elucidates the multi-dimensional and overlapping nature of micro-level institutional processes. Therefore, institutional work appears to be much more complex and nuanced than what is often presented in the literature. While the extant literature privileges the role of institutional elites, this study demonstrates how those who lack access to the same position, resources and power, can nevertheless make things happen in a highly institutionalised environment. By developing a heuristic that explicates the antecedents and dynamics of low-power agency, I discuss how field conditions, field position and social conditions enabled some actors to be more successful with their discursive institutional work than others. Significantly, the findings provide a rare insight into a key feature of institutional work – intentionality and effort. In some instances, institutional work is highly intentioned and is “hard” work, whilst at other times, the work has intention but requires less creativity or effort to achieve intended outcomes. This helps us understand the lived experience of actors, an area that has received scant empirical attention. Next, this study contributes to our understanding of public service innovation, as little is known regarding how low-power actors deliver such activity. Using a new typology of resources, field position and status, I show how actors mix different resources (rational, normative and experiential resources) in their institutional work and the important role field position plays in accessing these resources, and achieving intended institutional outcomes (maintenance vs. innovation). In addition, the creation of a relational space (e.g. pilot team meetings) was crucial to maintaining momentum of the innovation as actors developed social bonds, commitment to the practice, and worked to repair practice breakdowns.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Thesis advisor - Coule, Tracey
Additional Information: Director of studies: Tracey M. Coule
Research Institute, Centre or Group - Does NOT include content added after October 2018: Sheffield Hallam Doctoral Theses
Identification Number:
Depositing User: Colin Knott
Date Deposited: 24 Dec 2019 12:04
Last Modified: 26 Apr 2021 13:40

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