“Knowing” the Rules: Administrative Work as Practice


  • Hendrik Wagenaar

    1. Hendrik Wagenaar is an associate professor of public policy at the Department of Public Administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands, and senior researcher at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement. He does research and publishes in the areas of post-positivist policy analysis, administrative practice, and policy implementation. His recent publications include Deliberative Policy Analysis: Understanding Governance in the Network Society (Cambridge University Press, 2003 with Maarten Hajer). E-mail: HWagenaar@nscr.nl.
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This article presents a theory of administrative work as practice. Building on a rich narrative of a mid-level administrator in the Dutch Immigration Office, four core elements of administrative practice are identified: contextuality, acting, knowing, and interacting. Taking cues from practice theory and ethnomethodology, the author argues that the visible aspects of administrative work (decisions, reports, negotiations, standard operating procedures, and—on a higher level of institutional abstraction—structures, legal rules, lines of authority, and accountability) are effectuations, enactments of the hidden, taken-for-granted routines: the almost unthinking actions, tacit knowledge, fleeting interactions, practical judgments, self-evident understandings and background knowledge, shared meanings, and personal feelings that constitute the core of administrative work. Taken together, contextuality, acting, knowing, and interacting make up a unified account of practical judgment in an administrative environment that is characterized by complexity, indeterminacy, and the necessity to act on the situation at hand.