Understanding Public Hybrids

Jean-Louis Denis

Canada Research Chair in Governance and Transformation of Health Organizations and Systems, Ecole Nationale d'Administration Publique, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Ewan Ferlie

Professor of Public Services Management at King's College London

Nicolette van Gestel

Professor of New Modes of Governance at TIAS School for Business & Society, Tilburg University, the Netherlands

A  recently published special edition of ‘Public Administration’ (June 2015) explores an important trend in contemporary public management: namely growing hybridity within public services organizations. The special issue considers this trend both empirically and theoretically, discussing some interesting theoretical perspectives. The guest editors (Van Gestel, Denis, and Ferlie. here give an overview of the special issue.

Growing Hybridity in Public Services Organizations

Our paper in the special issue (Denis et al, 2015) starts by noting that the growth of hybrids and hybridity in public services organizations is an important long term trend that should be further explored. What do we mean by ‘hybridity’? One useful definition is a situation of: ‘mixed origin or composition of elements’ (Gittell and Douglas, 2012). While such hybridity is not entirely novel, we have seen since the 1980s the retreat of ‘pure’ or ideal typical public sector forms with increasingly porous boundaries between the many actors, organizations and sectors now involved in the delivery of public services.

Most obviously, strong New Public Management (NPM) reforms in such countries as the UK have created or expanded public/private partnerships and invented new ‘business like’ organizational forms inside the public sector. But NPM is not the whole story and private firms not the only actors with an expanding role. In lower NPM impact countries, some governments use novel steering mechanisms which include greater cooperation with Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), the third sector and civil society, again producing a blurring across traditional sectoral boundaries. A broader mix of values, logics and organizing principles seems to follow from recent public management reforms in various jurisdictions.

We ask: how can we best understand these long term trends? Which theories may be best brought in to make sense of them?

Stimulating A Conversation Between The Disciplinary Fields of Public Administration and Organizational Studies.

An academic purpose of the special issue was to encourage a cross disciplinary conversation between the neighbouring social science based fields of public administration and organizational studies (as been earlier advocated, for example by Rhodes, 2007; Arrelano-Gault et al, 2013; Bozeman, 2013). Public services are after all delivered by organizations, and increasingly through strategic alliances or inter organizational networks as well as by the traditional single vertically integrated public organization. This meso or organizational level focus is a middle range unit of analysis, distinct both from the micro level focus on service delivery and the macro level focus on national public policy making. We follow Skelcher (2012) in seeking to move beyond a narrow structural focus on the governance of such hybridity to explore wider processes.

Four Theoretical Frameworks

How can these trends be theorised? We take as our central question: how can we understand the multiple manifestations of hybridity in public services and what are the consequences for individuals, organizations and the (in)stability of reforms? Our introductory paper discusses and explores four alternative theoretical framings on hybridity, briefly recapitulated here:

  1. Governance theory: understanding hybrid modes

    A well developed literature examines shifts in governance systems at the supra national and systemic levels. A classic distinction drawn is between hierarchies, markets and networks/clans as three ‘pure’ alternative modes of governance. Hybrid forms can then develop between these three modes, such as relational markets (which mix markets and networks), managed markets (which mix markets and management), managed networks (which mix management and networks) and even ‘relational bureaucracies’ (another mix of hierarchy and network). Such mixed forms are seen in our paper at least as likely as ideal types or pure paradigm shifts from one configuration to another. An implication is that these pervasive intermediate forms require more intensive analysis, in both public services and third sector settings. Can different organizational principles be held successfully in balance?
  2. Institutional theory: sedimented formations and multiple logics

    A second prism comes from institutional theory with its focus on the analysis of organizational fields, the identification of organizational archetypes and institutional logics. Institutionalism is a major and expanding current within organizational studies and may be highly applicable to the study of public services organizations where the two great institutional forces of the State and the professions co exist.

    Its early assumptions that  organizations would move to a single coherent archetype (where structures, processes and underlying values were in alignment) were not confirmed by empirical studies which suggested instead ‘sedimented’ formations (Cooper et al, 1996) and the presence of multiple logics which somehow managed to co exist over long periods of time (Reay and Hinings, 2009). The normative dimension of values – and long term value shifts – is then a major concern rather than a pure focus on formal structure. Responding to earlier criticisms that institutional theory lacked an adequate account of agency, more recent literature has developed concepts of ‘institutional entrepreneurship’, or skilful and embedded action by well placed actors within organizations.
  3. Actor Network Theory: loose networks of diverse actors and actants

    Thirdly, Actor Network Theory (ANT) is a well known perspective in Science and Technology Studies which focuses on agency and practices in the construction of scientific networks. These complex networks can potentially bring together various human and non human actors (or actants, such as computer hardware or software) which together form an assemblage of diverse actors needed for new scientific products or practices to embed themselves. The construction of such networks is challenging as they may face continuing shifts or resistance.

    An ANT prism has been adapted by some sociological accountancy researchers (Miller et al, 2008) who examine the ready hybridization of work practices deriving from different regulatory regimes. They see such hybrids as potentially able to overcome internal contradictions and achieve a stable state (although some other empirically informed studies in public services settings suggest limits to such hybridization where contrasting professional ideologies are in play).  This debate enables us to examine any hybridization within emergent regulatory regimes in public services settings, such as risk management and safety regimes where more explicit forms are challenging traditional and tacit professional forms. Another key question is whether hybrid knowledge bases can develop which manage to combine professional and managerial elements (such as service improvement knowledge in health care).
  4. An identity perspective: effects of hybridity on people

    This fourth and final perspective focuses on individual hybrid roles in public services. Growing hybridity may have implications for individuals who work in public organizations as well as for the organizations themselves, especially for those individuals who now cross conventional boundaries and roles, such as professionals who take on more managerial roles (e.g. Vice Chancellors in Universities; clinical directors in hospitals).  There is a well developed stream of literature on the construction of organizational identity which can be helpfully accessed.

    Questions of identity at work – and of possible changes to identity – at individual level now emerge as important: How are multiple identities created and combined (if indeed they can be combined)?  Does one new master identity emerge and how do individuals make sense of their more hybrid roles? How do individuals embrace, adapt or indeed resist pressures towards the adoption of more hybrid roles? The possibility of resistance is signalled as a real one in much of the literature.

Overview of the Other Papers in the Special Issue

As well as exploring these four theoretical prisms, the other papers in the special issue also discuss various manifestations of hybridity within different national and sectoral contexts. So there is a strong empirical aspect to the special issue as well as the theoretical one.

Three key clusters of settings are apparent in the papers: a first group examines public sector reform in a sectoral field (labour/welfare, education, healthcare), linking national policies to organizational and/or individual responses. These papers (some of which are comparative) include ones on: Norwegian labour and welfare reform (Fossestol and Alm Andreassen); higher education reforms in Sweden, the UK and the Netherlands (Teelken); and healthcare reforms in Scotland and Ireland (McDermott et al). A second group concerns public-private relations where Waring  examines cross sectoral effects on public services being transferred to private or mutual ownership in the English NHS; another paper examines public-private collaboration in research centres in Norway and Sweden (Gulbrandsen). A third cluster of papers in the special issue concentrates on hybrid roles and identities of public services professionals. These papers are all situated in U.K. health care settings (a well researched sector), but examine different professional groups, such as nurses (Croft et al), physicians (Spyridonidis et al), clinical and medical directors (McGivern et al) and medical doctors, practitioners and health care assistants (Waring). A remaining paper which is more focused on theorizing hybridity explores important examples from non-profit organizations (Skelcher and Smith). 



  • Arellano-Gault, D., Demortain, D., Rouillard, C. & Thoenig, J.-L. (2013). Bringing Public Organization and Organizing Back In, Organization Studies, 34(2): 145-167.
  • Bozeman, B. (2013). What Organization Theorists and Public Policy Researchers Can Learn from One Another: Publicness Theory as a Case-in-Point Organization Studies,  34 (2):  169-188.
  • Cooper, D. J., Hinings, B., Greenwood, R., & Brown, J. L. (1996). Sedimentation and transformation in organizational change: The case of Canadian law firms. Organization studies, 17(4), 623-647.
  • Gittell, J. H., & Douglass, A. (2012). Relational bureaucracy: Structuring reciprocal relationships into roles. Academy of Management Review, 37(4), 709-733.
  • Miller, P., Kurunmäki, L., & O’Leary, T. (2008). Accounting, hybrids and the management of risk. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 33(7), 942-967.
  • Reay, T., & Hinings, C. R. (2009). Managing the rivalry of competing institutional logics. Organization studies, 30(6), 629-652.
  • Rhodes, R. A. (2007). Understanding governance: Ten years on. Organization studies, 28(8), 1243-1264.
  • Skelcher, C. (2012). ‘What do we mean when we talk about ‘hybrids’ and ‘hybridity’in public management and governance?.’ Working Paper, Institute of Local Government, University of Birmingham, UK.


Available for download on:


Follow us
Signs of an Unsafe ACT Hospital System for Patients as well as Practitioners https://t.co/1fk8yF4FOc Part of our Ca? https://t.co/NPQ4v6V2f1
Le Brexit? Bof! French attitudes to the UK's departure - by @NathalieVDuclos https://t.co/37iGHMpoGb #Brexit https://t.co/jBMoykqC6K
New: Lessons from the 2018-19 Suburban Land Agency annual report https://t.co/lKkmzedkZb by Khalid Ahmed @UCIGPA? https://t.co/5QqKAiuzUJ
Today: "Why Should I Go to School if You Won't Listen to the Educated" - why letting ignorance trump knowledge is a? https://t.co/yzlDDkI75l
Canberra Conversation: 'Land Supply and Demand: Wrong to declare land supply meets demand' by Jon Stanhope and Khal? https://t.co/urQzxls5qo
Canberra Conversation: 'Unsustainable Reliance on Land Revenues' by Jon Stanhope and Khalid Ahmed of @UCIGPA? https://t.co/XCkrLg1pdG