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Effective public management or the "art of the state" is fundamental to the state achieving its ambitions - economic, environmental, political and social. Central to serving the state in action are the actors, structures and processes that compose the central bureaucracy. In a "small" state, the performance of relatively few players within distinctive institutional arrangements can be critical for steering effective economic and social-policy development. The Irish case is representative of challenges a small state encounters in the pursuit of effective public-sector reform and participation in an enlarged European Union and globalised economy. It is argued that characteristics that set small states apart from large ones - a strategy of greater international liberalisation, a trajectory of social partnership, centralisation of policy-making, personalism, fewer specialists and a predisposition to informal policy coordination are explicitly reflected in the Irish case. The discussion aims to explore how these characteristics have been mediated by the institutional development of the Irish bureaucracy and their influence on the policy and administrative capacities of the state.