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Health-care and public sector institutions are high-risk settings for workplace bullying. Despite growing acknowledgement of the scale and consequence of this pervasive problem, there has been little critical examination of the institutional power dynamics that enable bullying. In the aftermath of large-scale failures in care standards in public sector healthcare institutions, which were characterised by managerial bullying, attention to the nexus between bullying, power and institutional failures is warranted. In this study, employing Foucault's framework of power, we illuminate bullying as a feature of structures of power and knowledge in public sector institutions. Our analysis draws upon the experiences of a large sample (n = 3345) of workers in Australian public sector agencies – the type with which most nurses in the public setting will be familiar. In foregrounding these power dynamics, we provide further insight into how cultures that are antithetical to institutional missions can arise and seek to broaden the debate on the dynamics of care failures within public sector institutions. Understanding the practices of power in public sector institutions, particularly in the context of ongoing reform, has important implications for nursing.