Bridging Levels of Public Administration: How Macro Shapes Meso and Micro

Published date01 April 2020
Date01 April 2020
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18MqPFWcof47WW/input 877160AASXXX10.1177/0095399719877160Administration & SocietyRoberts et al.
Administration & Society
2020, Vol. 52(4) 631 –656
Bridging Levels of Public
© The Author(s) 2019
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Administration: How
DOI: 10.1177/0095399719877160
Macro Shapes Meso
and Micro
Alasdair Roberts1
Scholars in public administration now recognize three levels of analysis:
macro, meso, and micro. But there is uncertainty about the relationship
between levels and concern about a “schism” in research. However,
linkages between levels can be demonstrated easily. At the macro-level,
leaders develop an overall strategy for pursuing national priorities, which
determines the broad architecture of the state. Institutions must be built,
renovated, or managed to give effect to these strategies: This is the meso-
level of public administration. Overall, strategies also shape the micro-level
relationship between people who rule and people who are ruled. This is
done by categorizing people—as subjects or citizens, for example—and by
redefining categories. Macro-level strategies evolve, with consequences for
the agenda at the meso- and micro-levels. Experience at lower levels also
shapes strategy at the macro-level. The interaction among levels is illustrated
by comparison of three eras in modern American history.
governance, levels of analysis, behavioral public administration, institutions,
1University of Massachusetts Amherst, Boston, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alasdair Roberts, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 226 Thompson Hall, Boston, MA 01002,

Administration & Society 52(4)
A Schism Ahead?
Many scholarly fields recognize that research must be undertaken at different
levels of analysis. Economists examine bigger questions about the national
economy (macroeconomics) and smaller questions about individuals, house-
holds, and firms (microeconomics) (Stock, 2013, pp. 4-5). Political scientists
pursue high-level research on political regimes and low-level research on the
political activity of individuals (Landman & Carvalho, 2016, pp. 24-25),
whereas scholars in management studies undertake macro-level research on
business policy and strategy as well as micro-level research on group behav-
ior (Aguinis, Boyd, Pierce, & Short, 2011, p. 396). There is general recogni-
tion that a healthy field is one in which all levels are given attention.
American public administration lacks such “level diversity.” In recent
decades, the field has been mainly occupied with the middle level of govern-
ment: that is, the problems of managers in public agencies who are respon-
sible for executing policies authorized by political overseers (Frederickson,
Smith, Larimer, & Licari, 2012, p. 100). Early advocates of this “public man-
agement approach” questioned the usefulness of earlier “macro-level” work
on the architecture of the state and design of administrative systems (Elmore,
1986, pp. 70-72; Stokes, 1986, p. 46). They also declined to focus more nar-
rowly, neglecting research about the psychology of interactions at the indi-
vidual level between officials and ordinary people (Grimmelikhuijsen, Jilke,
Olsen, & Tummers, 2017; A. L. Olsen, 2015, p. 47).
Recently, public administration scholars have argued for more level diver-
sity. Some have proposed an approach known as behavioral public adminis-
tration (BPA), with a “micro-level focus” on the behavior and attitudes of
citizens, employees, and managers within the public sector (Grimmelikhuijsen
et al., 2017, p. 46; Tummers, Olsen, Jilke, & Grimmelikhuijsen, 2016, p. 1).
Others have called for a “macro-level” approach to public administration,
focused on “big questions” about how the state evolves in response to chang-
ing circumstances (Durant & Rosenbloom, 2016; Milward et al., 2016; Peters
& Pierre, 2016b, p. 11; Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2017, pp. 223-225).
Recognition of multiple levels opens exciting opportunities for research.
But it also raises a question: how are levels connected with one another, if at
all? One concern is that there could be a “great schism” in public administra-
tion, in which researchers working at different levels go their own way—
working with incompatible theories and methods (Moynihan, 2018). Similar
concerns have been voiced in other fields (Aguinis et al., 2011; Skott, 2014).
The remedy is a deliberate effort to explore possible connections between
levels of analysis. If a schism in public administration is to be avoided,
“bridging” work is necessary to show how levels of analysis relate to one
another (Moynihan, 2018, p. 4).

Roberts et al.
This article illustrates how bridging might be done. The purpose is not to
settle definitively how research at each level should be conducted, or to iden-
tify all the ways in which work at different levels might be connected. Rather,
the aim is to make a prima facie case that there are linkages between levels,
and that the exploration of such linkages may itself be an important avenue of
research. A dynamic interaction between levels is proposed. In one sense, the
concerns of practitioners and scholars at lower levels of administration are
constrained by high-level choices about governmental priorities and lines of
policy. From this point of view, the meso- and micro-levels of administration
are nested within the macro-level. But there is a reciprocal effect as well.
Learning and contestation at lower levels also informs high-level choices
about priorities and policies.
This reciprocal connection between levels can be illustrated by examining
American administrative history.1 During three periods—the Progressive era
(1895-1920), the post-war era (1945-1970), and the neoliberal era (1975-
2000)—national leaders pursued distinct priorities and policies. These high-
level strategic choices guided the meso-level project of administrative reform,
as well as micro-level understandings about the relationship between offi-
cials and ordinary people. But the process of institutional reform, as well as
the work of negotiating relationships at the street-level, also generated knowl-
edge that contributed to the adjustment of high-level strategies.
Defining Levels of Analysis
Before we can consider how levels of analysis are connected with one
another, we must define what the levels are. This is a challenge for two rea-
sons. The first is that the field has given inadequate attention to the question
of how levels should be defined; more work on clarifying these concepts is
necessary. The second is that no single framework for defining levels can
ever win universal acceptance: Because such frameworks involve judgments
about values, they are essentially contested concepts (Gallie, 1955). The aim
here is limited: to propose a framework (Table 1) that is plausible, and then
to use that framework for the purpose of demonstrating that it is possible to
connect levels. There are certain to be other frameworks and ways of con-
necting levels.
The proposed approach to macro-level analysis focuses on “strategies for
governing”—that is, the overall strategies crafted by national leaders that
identify priorities and broad policies to achieve those priorities (Roberts,
2020). This macro-level approach treats the state as the “basic building
block” of political order in the modern world (Painter & Jeffrey, 2009, p. 20;
Peters & Pierre, 2016a). There are roughly 195 states, each constituted by an

Administration & Society 52(4)
Table 1. Levels of Analysis in Public Administration.
Macro-level: Study of the governance strategies that are devised by leaders to
advance critical national interests and the ways in which these strategies influence
the overall architecture of the state.
Meso-level: Study of the design, consolidation, administration, and reform of specific
institutions—that is, laws, organizations, programs and practices—within the
Micro-level: Study of the attitudes and behavior of officials within the state apparatus
and people who are subject to their authority.
institutional apparatus that performs critical functions (Finer, 1997; Jessop,
2016; Mann, 1988, p. 49; Skocpol, 1979, p. 29). At the apex of this institu-
tional apparatus are leaders who have particular influence over the exercise
of state authority (Allen, 2018, Chapter 1; Laski, 1919, p. 27; Mills, 1999,
p. 4; Skocpol, 1979, p. 29).
These leaders typically have well-developed ideas about how to govern
their state (Robinson & Gallagher, 1961, p. 20; Tucker, 1971, p. ix). They are
concerned with a bounded set of goals (Ghani & Lockhart, 2008; Merriam,
1944, Chapter 7; White, 1939, p. 7). At minimum, they must maintain effec-
tive control over territory and resist attacks from other states (Crawford,
2006, p. 58). Leaders also want to establish legitimacy in the eyes of the
governed population and the leaders of other states (Gilley, 2009). They will
also be concerned with economic growth and perhaps also with the advance-
ment of human rights. And they worry about their own survival in office
(Bueno de Mesquita, 2003).
Judgments about the relative importance of these goals are shaped by
leaders’ perception of circumstances at a particular moment in history. Many
“environmental factors”—demography, geography, climate, economic struc-
ture, the state of technology, the...

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