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Are institutions immortal?

Institutions, formal or informal, continuously evolve and are intertwined with the environment that they develop (Shipilov, 2012). This would suggest that institutions are potentially immortal because of the temporal legacy that they carry. However, whether institutions are immortal or not, depending on their historical development and evolution in a larger institutional system. Different stakeholders also impact the development of institutions (Peters, 2012). For example, government change, and as a result this may lead to the restructuring of legislative systems (Kitschelt, 2000; Peters, 2012). This does not mean that institutions disappear, but that they may change. In Russia, the constitution was completely re-written after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990; hence, many regulations were also formally re-written, although some were retained (Gel’man, 2015). The government structure may also change, new departments and ministries or constellations of departments and ministries created, which influences the movement of people into different roles within organisations and sectors. For example, in recognition of the international nature and significance of the climate crisis. President Biden appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry to a new position of special presidential envoy for climate

because of his expertise and experience on the global stage. Biden has repeatedly emphasised that his administration's climate ambition will touch all aspects of government, including national security, public health, foreign relations, economic policy and racial justice. Kerry will be able to implement Biden’s plans.

(Reid, 2020)

This means that while formal institutions may be amended or almost completely changed, informal institutions are potentially immortal and influence the evolution of the overall institutional environment.


In contrast to private sector tourism organisations, where termination is regarded as frequent and widespread, especially with respect to entrepreneurship (e.g. Hall & Rusher, 2004), accounts of public organisations occur in a very different context. The seminal work of Kaufman (1976), for example, posed the question “Are govermnent organizations immortal?” Using a sample of organisations within the “Executive Office of the President” and within US federal departments from 1923 to 1973, Kaufman (1976) found that 27 organisations had been terminated and 294 had been established during this period. Such findings were regarded as supporting the notion that government organisations are immortal, otherwise referred to as the “immortality thesis”. Nevertheless, subsequent studies found that Kaufman's research had substantial issues with respect to sampling in terms of both the range of organisations examined and sampling points, for example, not acknowledging organisations established after 1923 but which had been terminated before 1973 (Lewis, 2002; Peters & Hogwood, 1988). Nevertheless, a substantial issue still remains as to what termination means and how change should be assessed.

Assessing change

Assessing the past and future of organisations and institutions necessitates an understanding of temporal analysis: “systematically situating particular moments (including the present) in a temporal sequence of events and processes stretching over extended periods” (Pierson, 2004, p. 2) is essential for understanding change. There are four ideas involved in the notion of change (Kay, 2006):

  • • an enduring thing;
  • • its various possible states;
  • • the identification of an initial and a final state by the temporal index; and
  • • the characterisation of these states.

A thing's potential to change is limited by the range of possible states admissible for the type set of which it is a member. This is not as abstract as it sounds and is critical for explaining changes in things, such as organisations, and changes in kind (Hall, 2010a). If the thing is tourism policy or its organisational form such as a DM0, for example, only certain states are possible; that is, only certain things can be a tourism policy or organisation. If the boundary is overstepped, the thing (tourism policy) becomes another thing (another policy field -say environment), rather than a different value of the same thing.

However, the identity of the thing through time, the endurance, raises an awkward philosophical question:

if a changing thing really changes, it cannot literally be one and the same thing before and after the change: however, if a changing thing literally remains one and the same thing (that is, it retains its identity) throughout the change, then it cannot really have changed.

(Kay, 2006, p. 6)

This is not philosophical irrelevance as many debates over public policy, including tourism and its organisation, are debates about things and values that are politically contested. The identity of something over time is even more complex when the thing is composite and in flux, as is often the case of tourism policy and the organisations that implement it. For example, is tourism policy under a Keynesian welfare state a different thing from that under neoliberal tourism policy, or is it a different value of the same thing? (Hall, 2010a). Similarly, tourism may have different industry associations connected to it at different times, but there is usually still a recognisable tourism organisation of some sort (MacCarthaigh, 2012; Zapata & Hall, 2012). Institutions, organisations, and public policy also consist of many processes operating at different speeds. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between the role of events (an abrupt change) with process (a more gradual change) (Hall, 2016a). Much of the focus in research on tourism and change, including organisational and policy dimensions, is often on the role of high-profile high-magnitude events; however, the role of “normal” process is perhaps even more important to understanding changes in policy and organisational states in either composition or time. This is especially so as adaptation and policy learning is something that is often highly valued in tourism. Indeed, in a general public agency setting, Boin et al. (2010, p. 404) observed that with respect to organisational survival, “the name of the game is not design for survival but design for adaptation”.

Destination management and marketing organisations have been around for over 50 years, although sometimes in different forms. Since the 1970s, political philosophies with respect to the roles of government, including with respect to tourism, have changed; as a result, DMOs have changed too.

Nevertheless, they still continue to exist in some form in most destinations (Pike & Page, 2014). As Hall and Veer (2016, p. 356) suggest, “So long as they continue to ‘do something’ and visitor arrivals increase then they are likely to survive”. As they argue:

Providing DMOs are perceived as continuing to attract tourists, they will be regarded as serving a usefill role by industry interests as well as other stakeholders. This also includes with respect to the attraction of public funds for tourism promotional and other campaigns that would otherwise not be obtainable to support the industry. If this occurs, then the growth coalitions and tourism interests that formed the DM0 will likely continue to advocate its necessity and continuation... the adage that “if there is an increase in visitor numbers it is because of the successful marketing efforts and if there is a decline it is because of unavoidable external factors” certainly seems to apply to most DMOs.

(Hall & Veer, 2016, p. 355)

Interestingly, research suggests that organisational characteristics may actually have relatively little influence on public agency survival (Adam et al., 2007; Lewis, 2002), although the effects of some variables may change over time. In the US, having a committee/board structure increases a public agency’s risk of termination initially although after 6.5 years this feature appears to work to the advantage of agency survival. Independence shows a similar pattern. Initially a liability, it becomes an asset for survival after a slightly shorter period (Boin et al., 2010). Nevertheless, as potentially may be expected, there is some evidence that a change of party in government increases the risk of agency termination (Lewis, 2002), while termination also appears less likely when politicians are fiscally constrained and more likely during periods of unified government (Carpenter & Lewis, 2004). There is therefore a suggestion that, rather than economic and technological change being factors in termination, public organisation survival may be connected more to political factors.


This chapter has furthered the discussion on the value of institutional and cognate theories to the understanding of public and private tourism organisations. It began by emphasising the multiple layers of the institutional environment that exist and their importance in understanding organisational behaviour. The various layers are interrelated to the jurisdictional and constitutional structure of individual countries, but all of these, though different, are overlaid by the international sphere, which is extremely important in terms of international tourism and mobility given the wide range of multilateral and unilateral agreements that exist.

The chapter then examined different dimensions of the analysis of these multiple institutional layers, including the use of institutional logics, effectiveness, legitimacy, and governance. The chapter then discussed the survival of institutions and organisations, noting especially the question of are government organisations immortal? However, a constant issue that besets institutional analysis is that institutional immortality, like a number of issues in institutional studies in a tourism context, lacks longitudinal and historical analysis. Therefore, in the next concluding chapter, we provide comments on methodological guidance for institutional analysis, and potential future research directions.

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