Black swans in public administration

Administrative scientist Professor Wolfgang Seibel from the University of Konstanz awarded a Reinhart Koselleck Project to carry out pioneering research into serious organisational failure

Serious organisational failures in public administration involving risks for life and limb are rare but dramatic in their consequences. Salient examples include collapsing buildings or devastating fires caused by insufficient public oversight or failure to comply with fire safety regulations, child abuse due to the failure of child protection authorities, or the failure of security agencies as in the case of the NSU serial killings in Germany. Rareness does not necessarily imply insignificance. “Given their dramatic consequences, cases of serious organisational failure in public administration cannot be treated as negligible statistical outliers”, says Professor Wolfgang Seibel of the University of Konstanz, who has been granted a sum of 500,000 euros for related research within the framework of the German Research Foundation’s (DFG) prestigious Reinhart Koselleck programme, which was set up to support “particularly innovative and risk-prone research”. The research project, which is entitled “Black swans in public administration: rare organisational failure with severe consequences”, will be funded for a period of five years.

The fact that life-threatening failures of public administration are rare does not imply that the relevant causal mechanisms are rare as well, providing Seibel with a reason to investigate structural flaws and systemic weaknesses within public administration. Despite the fact that public administration in rule-of-law-based democracies is committed to a zero tolerance policy when it comes to risks to the physical integrity of humans, risk-prone decision-making and dangerous organisational flaws do occur. Seibel analyses the institutional mechanisms and leadership behaviours that inform related risks and threats. The main empirical fields of his research are public infrastructure and construction, public child protection, counter-terrorism and criminal investigation, disaster relief and the planning and organisation of mass events and crowd management.

Funding within the framework of the Reinhart Koselleck programme is granted in support of pioneering research that, according to DFG guidelines, is “risk-prone in a positive sense”. That criterion applies to Wolfgang Seibel’s research on drastic organisational failure in public administration since it is dependent on human sources and insider knowledge. In that context, researchers may face latent or manifest resistance, concealment strategies and biased narratives.

The project title “Black swans in public administration” refers to a famous metaphor used by the philosopher Karl R. Popper. The idea that all swans are white is instantly neutralised (or "falsified", as Popper puts it) by the occurrence of a black swan. It is precisely the extreme rareness of the black swan that triggers research into its specific genetics. According to Wolfgang Seibel, the same logic applies to rare and extreme cases of organisational failure in public administration that violate the physical integrity of human beings. These are extremely rare deviations from regular administrative procedures. However, for ethical reasons alone – including prevention – they cannot be treated as negligible statistical outliers. As Seibel emphasises, any research into this phenomenon has to focus on the genetics or general causal mechanisms that underlie disastrous outcomes.

Wolfgang Seibel is one of the leading scholars of public administration in Germany and a member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. His latest book is “Verwaltung verstehen. Eine theoriegeschichtliche Einführung” (understanding public administration. a history-of-theory-based introduction), Suhrkamp Publ., 2nd printing 2017. Amongst other things, Seibel is responsible for the scientific agenda of the special programme on “Security, society and the state” funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, which also includes the research area “Public administration and human safety”.


  • Reinhart Koselleck Project awarded to Professor Wolfgang Seibel, professor of politics and public administration at the University of Konstanz.
  • “Schwarze Schwäne in der Verwaltung: Seltenes Organisationsversagen mit schwerwiegenden Folgen” (black swans in public administration: rare organisational failure with serious consequences).
  • Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).
  • Total funding: 500,000 euros, plus an additional 110,000 euros in DFG overhead funding.
  • Funding period: five years.Reinhart Koselleck Projects are awarded by the DFG for “exceptionally innovative, higher-risk projects”.