This post is based on Slo’s ‘Legal independence vs. leaders’ reputation: Exploring drivers of ethics commissions’ conduct in new democracies’. https://doi.org/10.1111/padm.12411.
Regulatory agencies nowadays are supposed to have a certain degree of independence. So, for example, while a Minister answers to the President or Prime Minister, the Director of a regulatory agency does not. Supposedly, this gives the Agency the ability to counter decisions by the government when the scientific evidence so requires it (among other things).
Slo’s article touches on the matter of independence, from an exciting angle.
Authors agree that an agency’s de-facto independence (i.e. what the agency ends up having) can be lower/higher than its de-jure independence (i.e. what the agency is supposed to have by law). In this article, Slo checks if a leader’s style can increase or decrease de-facto independence.
Slo finds that leaders can, indeed, make a difference. Differences between de-jure and de-facto independence for a sample of agencies seem to trace to the style of its leaders, and the analysis finds, even, changes in the degree of de-facto independence to be triggered by leadership changes.
The key mechanism is reputation management. Leaders that excel in managing reputation vis-a-vis key audiences can act more freely than leaders who struggle in such task.
As is the case of all academic articles, there’s a lot to learn from the specifics of the article. Since I have precisely zero interest in summarising articles here, however, I’ll jump straight into why I think the article is ingenious.
Slo faced the need to establish when leaders did an excellent job at managing reputation. The problem with this, however, is that reputation management is still a bit of an art. At the end of the day, no one really knows what is and what is not a good reputation management strategy.
So, Slo had to find a compelling argumentative line to claim that his findings are trustworthy.
Building on previous work by Carpenter,1 the article attaches good reputation management to the extent to which a leader is able to tap into three foundational value logics (p. 549):
- moral reputation – attached to the pursuit or defence of ethical and widely approved values;
- performative reputation – linked to the ability to show results;
- technical reputation – based on a strong claim to expertise.
Additionally, Slo also notes that recurrent proactive assertive and insistent messaging tend to work better for reputation than neutral passive attitudes.
It does seem that the four elements in Slo’s recipe make a rather compelling guide for reputation management in the public sector; maybe even beyond!