Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Organizing for Social Sustainability: Governance through Bureaucratization in Meta-Organizations

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Organizing for Social Sustainability: Governance through Bureaucratization in Meta-Organizations

Article excerpt


The difficulties nation states face when attempting to use traditional legal means to cope with transnational phenomena such as environmental degradation, international labor conditions, and global trade have created opportunities for new types of regulations (Brunsson & Jacobsson, 2000). Most often, organizations issue these measures as voluntary or soft rules such as standards, action plans, rankings, and indicators to influence the behavior of individuals and institutions. These organizations are often meta-organizations that have other organizations rather than individuals as members (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2008). Even though they do not have much formal authority over their members, meta-organizations are crucial for understanding the mechanisms through which globalization occurs (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2008). Among other things, they play an active role in giving meaning to powerful concepts that shape organizations' (as well as individuals') reality and activities (Meyer et al. 1997).

One such concept is sustainable development and its three dimensions: economic, ecological, and social. Of these three facets, the social dimension is often the most difficult to incorporate into actual projects and policies (Dillard et al. 2009; Casula Vifell & Soneryd, 2010). The social dimension generally includes human welfare, quality of life, social justice, social cohesion, cultural diversity, democratic rights, gender issues, workers' rights, broad participation, social capital development, and individual capabilities (Boström, 2010). An explanation for the difficulties might be found in the way that the concept is filled with meaning and disseminated.

It is therefore vital to study meta-organizations because they are important links in the process of producing powerful definitions in the "ideoscape" of sustainable development, in particular social sustainability (Appadurai, 1996). The notion of an ideoscape suggests that ideas and policies transcend national borders. Traditionally, political and ideological boundaries have been confined to nation states and intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU). In the new landscape, competing political and ideological communities become more important. Many of the actors involved in shaping the ideoscape of sustainable development are meta-organizations that perform meta-governance, which we understand as governance of self-regulatory networks (Sørensen & Torfing, 2007). Such a perspective recognizes that some actors are more powerful in defining and controlling the ideoscape.

Studies of meta-governance have investigated the role of state actors as meta-governors (O'Toole, 2008). Our approach to the study of meta-organizations and meta-governance is somewhat different--as are the particular consequences that follow from it. As states are not the only ones trying to govern networks, we argue that meta-organizations carry out particular types of meta-governance practices that we call "governance through bureaucratization." Even though the content of a certain policies might be soft (in the sense of not being legally binding), meta-organizations are able to exercise authority over their members by effectively forcing them to comply with certain established processes. Some actors are also better at coping with certain types of informal procedures than others (Bryer, 2010). Temporal disciplining and process governance have been identified as important tools for controlling the activities of participating organizations (Jacobsson, 2004). Having them perform the same type of tasks at a specific time and establishing common deadlines are two examples of governance through bureaucratization.

We argue that such governance in meta-organizations affects strong policy concepts such as social sustainability. Governance through bureaucratization is an often neglected area of policy research, which tends to focus on open negotiations and bargaining between actors (see Johansson & Tallberg, 2010). …

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