The Iterative Process of Legitimacy-Building in Hybrid Organizations

Date01 July 2022
Published date01 July 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(6) 1117 –1147
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211055102
The Iterative Process of
Legitimacy-Building in
Hybrid Organizations
Christian Rosser1, Sabrina A. Ilgenstein2,
and Fritz Sager2
Hybrid organizations face the fundamental challenge of building legitimacy.
To deal with this challenge in administrative theory and practice, we apply an
analytical framework following an organizational logic of legitimacy building
to an exemplary case of hybridity—the Swiss Institute for Translational
and Entrepreneurial Medicine. Our framework application illustrates that
pragmatic legitimacy (i.e., establishing instrumental value) must be built
before moral legitimacy (i.e., fostering normative evaluation) and cognitive
legitimacy (i.e., creating comprehensibility), followed by an iterative process
of mutual influence between the legitimacy forms. Originating in the
management literature, the framework promises new insights for public
administration research on hybrids.
organizational legitimacy, hybrid organizations, public private partnership,
innovation, stakeholder inclusion
1Swiss Institute for Translational and Entrepreneurial Medicine, Bern, Switzerland
2KPM Center for Public Management, University of Bern, Switzerland
Corresponding Author:
Christian Rosser, Swiss Institute for Translational and Entrepreneurial Medicine,
Freiburgstrasse 3, Bern 3010, Switzerland.
1055102AAS0010.1177/00953997211055102Administration & SocietyRosser et al.
1118 Administration & Society 54(6)
Legitimacy is the property that is most important to the sustainable success
and existence of a hybrid organization (Gulbrandsen, 2011). Research shows
that organizations with greater legitimacy achieve better organizational
results and that resources can be more easily transferred into the organiza-
tional system in a sustainable way (Díez-Martín et al., 2013; Dowling &
Pfeffer, 1975; Zimmerman & Zeitz, 2002). This paper addresses the chal-
lenge of building legitimacy in contemporary hybrid organizations, in which
structures and processes of policy making and implementation cut across
public and private boundaries (Thomann et al., 2016). Specifically, we aim to
answer the following research question: how do hybrid organizations build
In order to address this question, we apply an analytical framework con-
sisting of the organizational logic of pragmatic, moral, and cognitive legiti-
macy (Suchman, 1995) to the real-world single case of the Swiss Institute for
Translational and Entrepreneurial Medicine (sitem-insel) (Rosser et al.,
2020). The sitem-insel, which has been established in 2019 on the campus of
the University Hospital in Bern, Switzerland, serves as our exemplary case
where the relevant object of investigation—the need for legitimacy building
in a hybrid organization—is visible in a particularly pronounced way
(Gerring, 2006). As regards method, the paper builds on a qualitative content
analysis (Mayring, 2004; Sager & Rosser, 2015) of documents and expert
interviews from the investigation period between 2008 and 2020.
Instead of the primacy of the state in public service delivery, a broad
principle of subsidiarity applies today (Koppenjan et al., 2019; Rosser,
2017). This principle extends, for instance, through public-private partner-
ships beyond the state administration to privately organized service provid-
ers (Torchia et al., 2015). While the latter mainly need to ensure that services
be delivered effectively and efficiently, public organizations must also do
justice to the democratic principles of popular control and participation
(Klijn & Edelenbos, 2013). Accordingly, building legitimacy is a tricky
challenge per se, which becomes even trickier for hybrid organizations mix-
ing institutional elements as well as organizational identities, forms, and
action logics of both the public and the private sectors (Battilana & Lee,
2014; Johanson & Vakkuri, 2017; Nederhand & Klijn, 2019). This is no
trivial fact as studies on hybrid organizations and organizational legitimacy
originate largely from the field of organization studies whose “theoretical
works [. . .] usually lack attention to the crucial role of politics in designing
and implementing change and creating hybridity in public services organiza-
tions” (Denis et al., 2015, p. 285).

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