Ethics Policy Advice and Adhocracy

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The blog is written by Lars Wenzel, University of Bielefeld.

Ethics Policy Advice and Adhocracy

While conducting witness and expert interviews for the German and British case studies in the preliminary phase of the “Expertise and Ethics in Times of Crisis” project, multiple interviewees described the landscape of ethics advice during the Covid-19 pandemic as being ad hoc. One government ethics advisor noted a shift in the UK’s policy-science interfacetowards an adhocracy – “where policy is made ‘off the cuff’ with no discernible principles or organisational structure” (Pykett et al. 2022, p. 14). As a result, values embedded in the models shaping policy decisions would go unnoticed, leading to diminished pressure on governments to provide clear and justifiable political explanations for ethically-informed judgments (Pykett et al. 2022, p. 14). Originally, the term adhocracy was coined by Warren G. Bennis and Phillip E. Slater between 1964 and 1968, and later popularized by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book “Future Shock”. It describes “an organizational design whose structure is highly flexible, loosely coupled, and amenable to frequent change” (Toffler 1970; Desveaux 2021). The need for this structure, for formal organizations to be “able to recognize, understand, and solve problems in highly complex and turbulent environments” (Desveaux 2021) arises from the acceleration of change and the clustering of crises. Indeed, our analysis of the institutional ethics advice landscape in both the German and British cases revealed strong signs of situationalism and ad hoc mechanisms, with crisis definitions often emerging coincidentally and from a multitude of different understandings. In Germany, for example, this resulted in “the establishment of ad hoc working groups and the prompt publications of ethics advice, often at a moment’s notice” (Sommer et al. 2023, p. 14).

Ethical Adhocracy

We describe this situation as ethical adhocracy, meaning that “decisions about values are highly contingent, depending on opportunities and situations, with ambiguity and contestation” (Pykett et al. 2022, p. 3). Similarly, ethical expertise under conditions of adhocracy comes in many forms and is provided by different actors: “scientists such as biologists and physicists but also philosophers, lawyers, or theologians” (Sommer et al. 2023, p. 3). In the context of our research, we define ethical expertise as the “explicit interlinkage of both epistemic claims about the validity of certain knowledge and evaluative claims about the relevance and legitimacy of certain values and norms for political decisions” (Sommer et al. 2023, p. 3).

Our findings indicate a fluctuation between multiple, sometimes even contradictory, logics of ethics advice during times of crisis. The understanding of ethical expertise and its connection with ethical decisions can vary significantly – even within a single institution of ethical advice – depending on how problems are perceived, opportunity structures are defined, or interest constellations evolve (Sommer et al. 2023, p. 3). We expect that a further examination of these evolving logics and their contextual conditions, those varieties of ethical adhocracy, will yield practical implications for designing advisory mechanisms that are adaptable to address the contradictory dynamics inherent in crisis situations.Understanding these different logics of ethics advice and how they may clash with public or political conceptions of scientific advice is the first step to developing more effective crisis response systems (Sommer et al. 2023, p. 14).

What can already be learned for the organisation of ethics advice during times of crisis?

Having identified the nature of ethics advice during the Covid-19 pandemic in Germany and Great Britain as being ad hoc and often unstructured, suggests that insights from the original concept of adhocracy can be applied to the organisation and structuring of ethics advice bodies during times of crisis. Adhocracies are commonly short-lived teams of multidisciplinary experts and stakeholders that work towards the solution of a clearly defined problem or goal. To achieve this goal, the respective organization relies mostly on semi-formal structures and horizontal coordination through its members and liaison personnel. Finally, adhocracies are selectively decentralized, meaning that decision-making capacity is allocated according to the availability of information and the required expertise. Accepting the situationalism and shifting demands of policy making in times of crisis and structuring ethics advice organisations around these realities has the potential to enhance the quality and efficacy of advice, subsequently fostering its practical integration into the decision-making process.

Our future work will focus even more closely and in a comparative perspective on the multiple dynamics within the ecosystems of ethical advice in Australia, the UK, and Germany. We also hope to gain insights on the design of more flexible, polycentric crisis mechanisms that are able to cope with the dynamics and requirements of science-policy interactions in turbulent times.   


Desveaux, James A. (2021): Adhocracy | social science. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available online at, updated on 10/23/2021, checked on 10/23/2021.

Pykett, Jessica; Ball, Sarah; Dingwall, Robert; Lepenies, Robert; Sommer, Theresa; Strassheim, Holger; Wenzel, Lars (2022): Ethical moments and institutional expertise in UK Government COVID-19 pandemic policy responses: where, when and how is ethical advice sought? In Evidence and Policy, pp. 1–20. DOI: 10.1332/174426421X16596928051179.

Sommer, Theresa; Strassheim, Holger; Wenzel, Lars (2023): Crisis management and ethical expertise: The role of ethics advice during the COVID‐19 pandemic in Germany. In Risk Hazard & Crisis Pub Pol, Article rhc3.12276. DOI: 10.1002/rhc3.12276.

Toffler, Alvin (1970): Future shock. New York: Random House. Available online at, checked on 3/15/2023.

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