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Seeing institutions in different ways
Seeing institutions in different ways

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4.5 Analysing an institutional landscape

You may have noticed that I’ve used the term ‘institutional landscape’ at various points without explaining what I mean by the term. You may also have noted that it features in our learning outcomes. So what do I mean by it? And why is it important?

I am using the term simply to refer to the context in which a development action is to take place, but with attention focused on those aspects of the context (landscape) that might be considered institutional. So, in exploring an institutional landscape I would be looking, for example, for the ‘rules of the game’ that are being followed – the rules that I might want either to reinforce or to replace. By making use of the whole range of concepts in a conceptual framework I can create quite a complex picture, one that – all else being equal – I can use to inform the planning of the development action.

It is perhaps rarely – too rarely – that we undertake this kind of analysis in anything like a systematic fashion. But here, in Box 5, by way of an example, is an analysis of the institutional landscape that I might have constructed when in the first half of the 1990s I joined a team set up in Sheffield (a city in the north of England) to support civil society organisations increasingly expected to work in partnership with public sector agencies in the development and ‘delivery’ of social and healthcare services:

Box 5 An institutional landscape in Sheffield, UK

At first glance, the ‘big players’ were the most obvious features in the landscape. And, again at first glance, the big players were the public agencies: the health authority and the local authority social services department. That was where, it seemed, the power resided.

This needs to be qualified. The public agencies had the power of, amongst other things, funding and their statutory authority. But some civil society organisations had themselves become big players, particularly those which had both a local and a national identity. And civil society organisations were also empowered – to an extent – by central government’s desire to reduce the role of local government, changing rules and norms concerning service provision which had endured for years and making it less normal for social services to be provided by the local authority.

Shared meanings and values were also challenged in this institutional landscape. There were thus opportunities for civil society organisations to take up. But there were also threats. Relationships between civil society and statutory agencies were now intended to be embodied in contracts rather than grant agreements. This implied a more equal ‘partnership’, a different kind of relationship. But it also meant that civil society organisations might be tied into agendas other than their own, generating a potential threat to the values and integrity of those organisations, and the relative independence they had enjoyed.

Statutory agencies were themselves facing problems, not least the contradiction between the sense of themselves as the ‘authorities’ and the requirement (coming from central government) that they enter into partnerships with other organisations. ‘Sharing’ was for some officials a disconcerting prospect, and one to be resisted and avoided if at all possible: it didn’t make sense.

Within each sector, there were organisations or departments which were taking up radically different positions, often dependent on the influence of particularly ‘strong’ individuals who were determined to shape (or even set) agendas rather than be forced to work to others’ agendas. Macro- and meso-level influences were certainly at work, but there was room for manoeuvre at micro-level if individuals had the vision, creativity and influencing skills (or sheer bloody-mindedness in some cases) enabling them to exploit that room. There was also our new unit, a unit deliberately set up to bring together civil society organisations to help shape the rules of the new game, and to ‘help’ those organisations comply with the rules.

Our unit was funded by the statutory agencies, which gave rise to its own contradictions. ...

The case study in Box 5 is only a sketch, and one with which not all my colleagues would agree – a pointer to the fact that even with the discipline of a conceptual framework, judgements and analyses can differ. I hope though, that it gives you some sense both of what an analysis of the institutional landscape might look like and of the way in which a conceptual framework can be used.