Power from Doing Nothing: Why Some Government Agencies Start with Autonomy

Working Papers

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CDDRL Working Papers, page(s): 34

June 2016

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Why do some government agencies start with more autonomy than others? Conventional studies of autonomy at genesis are few and far between, with most of this sparse literature focusing on why a single founder—usually a politician—unilaterally chooses to delegate power to the new agency. In this article, I suggest that the decision to bestow autonomy to a new agency is not always made by a single founder alone. Instead, politicians must sometimes rely upon other actors to create a new government agency. When multiple founders collaborate to create an agency, they can either agree to share power or they can seek to prevent one another from controlling it. When they pursue the second option, the founders often compromise by empowering the new agency with autonomy from its start. I term this process “contestation,” as multiple founders seek to insulate the new agency from those whom they had to initially work with. I proceed to examine the creation of several government higher education systems in India, finding that contestation best explains why some of these systems start with more autonomy than others. I then consider the generalizability of this process, suggesting that it might explain variation in autonomy across many kinds of government agencies as well as variation across private universities. This work carries important implications for international engagement in higher education reform, specifically where we should expect outsiders to be able to create universities with greater autonomy. 


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