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Understanding the Policy Process: The Work of Henry Mintzberg


Craig Matheson is a lecturer in public policy and management at the Flinders Institute of Public Policy and Management at Flinders University, Australia. He worked for four years in the federal bureaucracy in Canberra before pursuing an academic career. His research interests include public policy and management, Australian government, work, organizations, and class. His most recent publications are “In Praise of Bureaucracy? A Dissent from Australia” in Administration & Society (April 2007) and “Are Clerical Workers Proletarian? A Case Study of the Australian Public Service” in the British Journal of Sociology (December 2007).


Do Henry Mintzberg's writings make an enduring, invaluable contribution to our understanding of the contemporary public policy process? Mintzberg argues that organizations display eight structural configurations and corresponding coordinating mechanisms. Such structural configurations are shaped by a variety of contingency factors, especially power and environmental ones. Using Mintzberg's work, eight policy modes, corresponding to structural configurations within government organizations and political systems, are identified and placed on a matrix that comprises two dimensions: standardization and centralization. Six polarities in the policy process arise from this matrix. Mintzberg's work, the paper argues, remains of enduring value because it provides a seminal framework for a richer understanding of the current policy process, by offering a contingency theory of structures and policy modes, as well as by frank acknowledgment of the protean nature of the policy process.