Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Governing Polarized Societies (GPS)

Having encountered a series of shocks that pose an existential threat to our livelihoods, our societies have become increasingly polarized. Shortly after two years of lockdowns due to the pandemic, the war in Ukraine boosted at a global scale a polycrisis that intersects energy shortages, refugees, increases social inequalities, and security concerns. Climate change is making itself heard much more loudly in various parts of the world through a combination of flooding, extreme heat, and drought. And all this happens in a time where liberal democracies are challenged by emerging populist and authoritarian leaders who undermine societal stability and the rule of law.

2022 - 2026
Brendan Carroll
European Commission (H2020) European Commission (H2020)
Research Council of Norway (RCN)
  • Part of the research program will be conducted in close collaboration with our long-standing colleagues from the Structure of Organization of Government Project (SOG-PRO). In SOG-PRO we developed a novel framework that systematically mapped and explained organizational change within central government organizations. 
  • The Ministry of Interior Affairs and Kingdom Relations supports the research project States in Shock by advising the research team on matters related to and insights into the organizational issues within central government ministries. 

The aggravation of political and ideological polarization within national states further exposes the vulnerabilities our societies, polities, and the organization of our public sectors. We witness a deepening of social inequalities between citizens that in turn is used to further deepen social cleavages among groups of citizens. Under these polarized circumstances politicians and policymakers are increasingly forced to make difficult choices regarding the redistribution of wealth and allocation of natural resources within polarized societies. 

Governing Polarized Societies (GPS) is a joint research program of public administration and crisis governance scholars at Leiden University’s Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs that addresses how states and policymakers can govern under contested conditions. The ultimate aim of the program is to gain an understanding of the political hurdles to successful state adaptation and to develop a framework that guides policymakers to balance legitimacy and effectiveness when devising policies that are directed at mitigating the effects of shocks. 

The program is subdivided into three interrelated projects. The first project studies the extent in which national states can successfully adapt their administrative and policymaking capacities in the light of transboundary. The second project studies the conditions under which national states can effectively address these shocks without losing their legitimacy. And the final project, which integrally runs through the other projects, focuses on the interactions between political and administrative systems under the threat of populist politics and authoritarianism.


In the past twenty to thirty years, national states have endured a series of transboundary crises that shook the very foundations of their sovereignty. Such crises and shocks expose the shared causes and vulnerabilities as well as the interconnected consequences and policy responses that result from the interdependence of our societies, polities, and the organization of our public sectors in a globalized world.   

How have state administrative systems responded to these crises and external shocks? And to what extent did states successfully adapt to an environment that harbors such complex threats?

The project pursues three objectives: (1) examine whether and how different transboundary crises affect the administrative systems of different national states; (2) comparatively analyze the effects of national political institutions and conditions on national states’ capacity to respond to transboundary crises; and (3) examine to what extent the changes within the state administrative systems in the wake of transboundary crises are substantial or symbolic.

Combining three theoretical perspectives - organizational agendas, crisis-reform theory, and the politics of structural choice - we will develop longitudinal, cross-national, and cross-sectoral models and test the effects of transboundary crises and political constellations on administrative adaptation within the national state administrations of four European countries between 1980 and 2022.

LEGITIMULT assesses the impact of the measures taken by various international, national and subnational governments on multilevel institutions and intergovernmental relations in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The project analyzes the effect of these measures on democratic governance, highlighting to what extent multilevel governance influences their impact on democracy, favoring a model of legitimate crisis management. It assesses all measures taken by 31 European countries in relation to their impact on multilevel governance through the creation of a new dataset highlighting how these procedures link to multiple orders of governance – WHO and EU above the states, and regional and local governments below the national level.

The impact of these measures is analyzed through the lens of a variety of dimensions that characterize functional democratic governance (Rule of Law and Democratic Participation; Human and Minority Rights; Trust; Economic Sustainability). LEGITIMULT qualifies the different tradeoffs required within and across these dimensions in order to effectively and quickly deal with a crisis such as Covid-19, while at the same time maintaining a level of democratic governance and ensuring that any limitations to democratic standards are limited.

These final trade-offs within and between the different dimensions of democratic governance in crisis management are gathered in a set of policy recommendations, tailored to different recipients, and developed through extensive consultation with stakeholder groups throughout the project. Citizens, policy makers and practitioners are involved in the experimental phase of the project, where interactive learning and practical tools are tested but also co-designed and co-refined with relevant stakeholders in a participatory way. Policy recommendations and practical tools merge into a toolkit for legitimate crisis management, ready for use in possible future crises.

Across the world, politicians call on experts for advice both during major crises and in everyday policy-making. Political leaders' reliance on scientific advisors during the coronavirus pandemic is only the latest example. But to what extent do experts actually influence public policies? Curiously, this question is often neglected in existing research.

Yet, how much influence experts have matters for our democracies. Political leaders need experts to tackle complex societal challenges, and ignoring expert advice can hurt the quality of public policies and citizens' trust in government. Yet, in today’s polarized societies, we see a growing distrust in experts and criticism of the influence of the knowledge elite on public policies. Not only may experts be biased and make mistakes. Relying more on experts also often means listening less to citizens and other legitimate interests in a democratic society.

The project 'INFLUEX: Influence of experts on public policy’ tackles the question of expert influence in policy-making head-on. The project aims to define, measure and explain the policy influence of different expert actors, such as expert advisory bodies and national and international expert bureaucracies. To measure expert influence, the project draws on unique data on policy-making processes and uses creative new methods such as citation analysis and ‘plagiarism’ analysis. It also examines the normative question of how much influence experts ought to have in a democracy and how the involvement of experts in policy-making should be organized.

At a time when some leaders claim that 'people have had enough of experts' and others urge us to 'listen to the experts', INFLUEX will produce novel insights that can help us reconcile democratic and knowledge-based governance.

Bauer, M.W., Peters, B.G., Pierre, J., Yesilkagit, A.K. & Becker, S. (eds.) (2021), Democratic backsliding and public administration : how populists in government transform state bureaucracies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Boin, A., Kofman, C., Kuilman, J., Kuipers, S.L. and Van Witteloostuijn, A. (2017), Does Organizational Adaptation Really Matter? How Mission Change Affects the Survival of US Federal Independent Agencies, 1933-2011, Governance, 30 (4): 663-686. 

Carroll, B.J., Bertels, J., Froio, C. Kuipers, S.L., Schulze-Gabrechten, L. and Viallet-Thevenin, S. (2020) Between Life and Death: Organizational Change in Central State Bureaucracies In Cross-National Comparison, International Review of Administrative Sciences

Fleischer, J., Bezes, P., James, O., & Yesilkagit, K. (2022) 'The Politics of Government Reorganization in Western Europe.' Governance. Online first available here

Kuipers, S.L. and Wolbers, J.J. (2021) Organizational and Institutional Crisis Management, online scholarly refereed article in Oxford Encyclopedia of Crisis Analysis. Oxford University Press (Stern et al, eds.).

Kuipers, S., Yesilkagit, K., & Carroll, B. (2021). Ministerial influence on the machinery of government: insights on the inside. West European Politics, 44(4), 897–920.

Kuipers, S.L., Yesilkagit, A.K. and Carroll, B.J. (2017), Coming to Terms with Termination of Public Organizations, Public Organization Review, 18(2), 263-278.

Kuipers, S.L., Yesilkagit, A.K. and Carroll, B.J. (2017) Organizational Demography. In: Farazmand, A. (ed.) Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance. Springer International Publishing

Toshkov, D., Carroll, B., & Yesilkagit, K. (2021). Government capacity, societal trust or party preferences: what accounts for the variety of national policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe? Journal of European Public Policy, 1–20.

Yesilkagit, A.K. (2020) Termination, aggregation, or replacement? A competing risks approach to agency transitions. Governance 34(3), 803-819

Yesilkagit, A.K., Bezes, P., Fleischer, J. (2022) What’s in a name? The politics of name changes inside bureaucracy. Public Administration. First published 7 January 2022. 

Yesilkagit, A.K, & Christensen, J. (2010). Institutional Design and Formal Autonomy: Political versus Historical and Cultural Explanations. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 20(1), 53–74 

Christensen, J. (2022). When bureaucratic expertise comes under attack. Public Administration (early view).

Christensen, J., Holst, C. & Molander, A. (2022). Expertise, Policy-making and Democracy. Abingdon: Routledge.

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