All Minds on Deck? Assessing Distributed Strategic Capacity in Public-Sector Organizations

AuthorJorrit de Jong,Maurits Waardenburg,Bertine Steenbergen,Nicholas Vachon
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2023, Vol. 43(1) 33 –55
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X211032389
All Minds on Deck?
Assessing Distributed
Strategic Capacity in
Public-Sector Organizations
Jorrit de Jong1, Maurits Waardenburg2,
Bertine Steenbergen3, and Nicholas Vachon1
Networked governance requires public managers to think and act strategically across
organizational boundaries. Taking the literature on the transition from government
to governance and its implications for Human Resource Management (HRM) as a
starting point, we argue that not only top management, but also lower-level employees
are likely to be involved in this work. In order to invest effectively in the strategic
and collaborative competencies required for networked governance at all levels
of the organization, one needs to be able to assess strategic capacity. This article
develops an assessment framework based on an in-depth case study conducted in
a government department in the Netherlands over a 6-month period. We evaluate
an initial framework to assess strategic capacity derived from existing literature and
propose an augmented framework that acknowledges the tension between different
accountability relationships and the need for continuous, structured, reflective
interaction between managers, employees, and key stakeholders.
distributed strategic capacity, collaborative competency, networked governance,
strategic public management, strategic human resource management, strategic capacity
1Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA
2Tilburg University, The Netherlands
3Dutch National Government, Den Haag, The Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Maurits Waardenburg, Tilburg Center for Regional Law and Governance (TiREG), Tilburg School of Law
& Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, Tilburg University, PO Box 90153, Tilburg 5000
LE, The Netherlands.
1032389ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X211032389Review of Public Personnel AdministrationDe Jong et al.
34 Review of Public Personnel Administration 43(1)
The world today is grappling with existential challenges, including economic auster-
ity, the mass migration of refugees, and the global climate crisis. These challenges
have multiple and complicated root causes, and their solutions require the public sec-
tor to work together with organizations across sectors (Sørensen & Torfing 2017).
Working across silos and sectors requires a shift from bureaucratic government to
collaborative governance (Mayne et al., 2020). Traditional models of public manage-
ment assumed relative stability, but effective public-sector organizations today need to
adapt frequently to changing environments while staying within their mandate and
remaining accountable to their political leadership (Moore, 1995; Mulgan, 2009). The
new paradigm of networked governance suggests that government must continually
reorient itself to accomplish social goals (Alford, 2009; Behn, 2014; Hartley, 2005;
Moore, 2013; Stoker, 2006; ‘t Hart, 2014). The shift in focus from organizational out-
puts to social outcomes and from unilateral government intervention to cross-sector
collaboration requires deep and persistent sensitivity to social and institutional
This trend has implications not only for public-sector organizations as a whole and
their top management, but also for individual public service employees in their day-to-
day practice (Donahue & Moore, 2012; Goldsmith & Eggers, 2004; Mulgan, 2009;
O’Leary et al., 2012). In the traditional set-up, “being a good civil servant is a legalis-
tic, procedural, neutral, and supportive task” (Van der Steen et al., 2018, p. 391).
Human resource management’s (HRM) role was primarily to guide civil servants to
execute policies created through the political process. HRM practices therefore had a
much more administrative focus—primarily on ensuring employees’ activities and
outputs were aligned with the required execution—rather than a strategic outcome
orientation focused on enabling employees to co-shape policies and ensure the success
of an organization’s goals and mission as is more common in Strategic Human
Resource Management (SHRM) (Kaufman, 2001).
In a networked governance setting, the political process and its top-down policy
directives are complemented by the efforts of middle and lower-level public sector
employees (henceforth “employees”) who communicate, coordinate, and collaborate
with external stakeholders. They may not make policy decisions per se, but through
their value-seeking and problem-solving efforts, they do shape the creation and execu-
tion of policy. Where lines of authority are relatively clear in the context of a tradi-
tional bureaucracy, the context of cross-boundary work in a networked governance
setting presents strategic dilemmas for employees (De Jong et al., 2021; Waardenburg,
Groeneer, de Jong, Keijser, 2019). Employees may find that their managers do not
adequately support or recognize competencies necessary for effective cross-boundary
work, including interpersonal understanding, teamwork, and team leadership (Getha-
Taylor, 2008). Employees therefore need to balance an outward orientation to their
environment and an upward orientation to the chain of command (Donahue & Moore,
2012; Pedersen & Hartley, 2008). A challenge for human resource (HR) departments
is that traditional bureaucratic skills and attributes (relied upon for hiring and

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