Professional sense-makers: Managerial competencies amidst ambiguity

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In this article, managerial competencies are derived from observations of public managers in action. Based on institutional theory, it is assumed that public managers are competent when they know how to play the game of public management and how to apply the rules of the game. This assumption is legitimated by the use of the concept of ambiguity, which underscores the fuzzy, contested and equivocal nature of real life policy issues. When issues are fuzzy and equivocal, multiple ways of behaving are thinkable, so public managers will not do what is "best", but what is considered to be "appropriate". In a study of 12 public managers in action, it was observed how they allocated their attention amid different kinds of ambiguity which included unstable issue linkages, unclear impacts, continuous contestation and unpredictable exposure. Individual public managers handled these conditions by being able to do three things: they interpreted signals and events; institutionalized issues by creating issue labels, meetings, meeting items and texts and by establishing political back up; and they produced appropriate texts, in time, in order to take away unnecessary "heat".

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)319-332
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Public Sector Management
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2000


  • Competences
  • Public sector


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