Discuss the trends that American Public Administration has gone through with respect to its development as a field of study. In the course of your answer, discuss the theoretical approaches that have had impact on the field and analyze their contributions (and their detriments) to the development of the field. As a result of your evaluation, discuss where the field is going next and what you expect to come out of this next stage in the field’s evolution.
Public Administration is broadly defined as the study, development and implementation of governmental policies and structures. In general, the field is concerned with providing public goods to the people it serves in a democratic and efficient way. In the United States, the academic field was established in the 19th century with the foundational essay by Wilson (1887), the “Study of Administration,” where he argued for the separation of politics from administration. In a sense, the field of public administration consists of three principal oscillations. The first pertains to the establishment of the separation of politics and administration. The second derives from the distinctions between efficiency and democracy. Finally, there is a constant oscillation between the methods that are used to study the field, whether observations of the public administration should be positivist and tested or should be theorized and analyzed by normative methods. This essay will describe these paradoxes and provide suggestions as to where the field is headed into the 21st century.
Writing after the civil war, at time when American political patronage was at its highest, Wilson’s essay called for the separation of politics from administration. His essay was a response to the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which was a federal law that established the merit base system for bureaucrats. Wilson’s essay argued that public administration should take a business-like approach in performing its work in order for it to become more appropriate, efficient and cost effective. The political/administrative dichotomy provided a strong argument to better governmental management. At the turn of the 20th century, academics like Gulick, Goodnow and White found Wilson’s essay and used it as the bases of the progressive movement, which advocated for the improvement of the quality of government, and in particular, local governments. The group set up the New York Bureau of Municipal Research to study how the government was using city resources. The Bureau Men, as Stivers (2000) later coined, not only created an independent government watchdog, but they also envisioned training future bureaucrats to manage city governments, budget and policies.
Many academics took an orthodox view that government administration was free of politics and therefore the field took a very scientific approach to understanding and improving government services. They used materials from other fields such as Taylor’s (1923) scientific studies of how to mechanisms made production more efficient, Webber’s ideal type of bureaucracy or Gulick’s (1937) work on describing the creation of agencies to be efficient with his famous acronym POSDCORB—planning, organizing, staffing, directing coordinating, reporting and budgeting. These types of scientific studies provided a firm base for developing positivist arguments for analyzing efficiency of an administrative agency.
A distinctive change and fluctuation in the field came in the 1940s when political scientists began to study behavioral factors of men in the bureaucracy and the organizational theories that pertain to them. Specifically, Waldo (1948) transformed the field with his analysis of human behavior within an organization. He disliked the positivist’s behavior of the hierarchical control over an individual and suggested that an organization had both leaders and followers within a democratic system. Additionally, Simon’s (1957) critique of administrative behavior describing the field of proverbs, and not principles, radically changed the thinking of many in the field. He suggested that Urwick’s principles—specialization, unity of command, span of control, and organization by purpose, process clientele and place—were nothing more than proverbs because they were unattainable. Dahl (1947) had a similar point suggesting that the field was missing the public aspect of public administration and that it must be based on human behavior within the organizational structure.
Denhardt (2008) points out that this opened the field to a more humanistic study of public organizations. The management of people is not just controlling civil servants to perform better but also engaging them. Barnard’s (1949) study of human motivation using Harvard’s Hawthorne experiences of productivity described how behavior and engagement of subordinates encouraged them to also work harder. Additionally, McGregor’s (1960) study of the human side of enterprise also evaluated behavioral norms of working in a bureaucracy. In his research, McGregor creates a typology of theory X that workers are perceived as lazy, apathetic and needed authoritative command, which was distinctive than theory Y that described workers as self-motivated and enjoying their work. McGregor was one of the first to describe this humanistic approach to engage workers. This research provided a distant move from the first writings of the separation of politics from the administration and the strict scientific management approach to making bureaucracy more efficient, but still focused on how to improve government services.
The second major oscillation within the field of public administration comes from this clash between efficiency and democracy. Democracy comes at cost. Democratic theory suggests that when more people are making a decision, it will take more time and becomes more costly. One of the fundamental principals of the American government is that there are checks and balances within the system. Traditionally, the field of public administration was concerned about the efficiency of the bureaucracy and often left the ideas of the American democracy behind. This became accentuated with the field began using economic theory as a basis for evaluating efficiency.
Many academics began to evaluate the field through a rational choice framework, which separates administrative man from economic man. Simon made this distinction by highlighting that administrative man seeks to suffice and not maximize personal benefits, as would a rational economic man in a free market place. Lindblom’s (1959) theory of “muddling though” and the incremental approach to policymaking added to this approach. The study of bureaucracy evolved into an analysis of an organization, which did not change quickly and actually made institutional disincentives for bureaucrats to do so. Therefore, the study of public policy was separated from public administration.
For example, one of the first studies of public policy was Allison’s (1971) study of decision-making and policy implementation. In his study, Allison created three rational models to understand the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and tried to explain what happened. Furthermore, Selnick’s (1949) study of the Tennessee Valley Authority evaluated the decentralization of policy by state and local actors and its effects on implementation. Additional positivists used rational choice models to evaluate the public good and separated the policymaking process into formation and agenda setting (Kingdom 1997), implementation and evaluation (Dry). Ostrom’s Crisis of an Intellectual helped to shine a light of the conflict between the rational and intuitive approaches to evaluating policy and finally promoted the rational model.
In the 1980s, the field used this rational model and administrative sciences to develop the theory of New Public Management (NPR). The field brought back the Wilson and Taylor’s business-like model of management along with concepts like decentralized government structures, independent authority and rational-based decision making in order to make government more effective. Captured in Osborne and Gaebler’s book (1993) Reinventing Government the ideas was adopted by the Clinton Administration and was advertised by Al Gore within the United States. The NPM movement again swung the study of public administration to seek efficiency over democracy.
The reaction to NPM comes with Janet and Robert Denhardt (2007) proposal of the New Public Service model (NPS). With the motto “serving not searing,” these authors argue that democratic principles are important and the field needs to change its focus back to the citizen whom they serve. Additionally, King and Stivers’ (1998) book Government is Us promoted democratic ideals at a time of anti-government fervent. One main point of this book encourages street-level bureaucrats to utilize democratic processes by engaging citizen and beneficiaries to participate in the implementation of public policy. The field’s new focus on governance highlights this involvement of various social actors—such as business people, general citizens and public officials—into the creation of better public goods by the government. This involvement engages people at the local, regional, national and supranational levels into the making of public policy.
These arguments corroborate with Frederickson’s (1997) book The Spirit of Public Administration and Rawls’ (1999) book A Theory of Justice. Both highlight that democracy does not seek efficiency but it is the system of government that promotes equity for everyone in a society. These authors agree with Lowi’s (1964) typology of distribution, regulation and redistribution is necessary in order to ensure that every member of society benefits from public policies and that different policies have different functions. Frederickson and Rawls argue for a fair society. Democracy may not be the most efficient way of making a decision, but it is the most fair.
Finally, the last oscillation in the field of public administration is the method to analyze public problems. This major tension derives from a positivist versus more normative methods. The method of analysis may originate from how an author treats the other two tensions. For example, whether they view politics as being separated from the administration and how important they see democracy from studies of efficiency. Clearly, the method used either subscribe to more rational modeling like public choice theories and more positivist evaluations, to a more normative view of describing how politics and democratic influences how inefficient a bureaucracy is at implementing public policies.
Apparently, after each step towards a more rational model, the field’s response has been a more humanistic approach to the problem. First, for example, is the scientific approach to administration from Taylor to McGregor’s’ humanistic approach to management. Alternatively, Wilson’s separation of politics from administration to Waldo’s response that administration is politics. Furthermore, the proliferation of New Public Management into the field of New Public Service often generate more empirical research that question these theories, but also generate more normative views of how the American administration actually works.
As outlined above, the last contradiction is the method to evaluate a governmental organization or policy. Purely rational responses yielded scientific method, testing data with systematic results. This, however, often resulted in non-practical responses to be too rational and not close to reality. The field has academics and practitioners; therefore, studies need to not only be tested, but they also must reflect society’s human side. For example, Fox and Miller’s (2007) postmodern view and Stiver’s (2000) use of feminist approach to study public problems both question the epistemology of the field, as well as the method used to analyze public problems. Therefore, the method of analysis and how to evaluate public problems often describes contentions within the field of public administration.
To conclude, the field of public administration will not resolve these tensions in the future but will expand across the globe. For example, the field will analyze the same old problems but will do so through different lenses including increased representation by genders, multiple races or different classes in academia. It will also expand the different techniques (narratives, path dependency, comparative case study or quantitative data analysis) utilized to analyze the wicked problems. The next cohort of public administration theories and academics will need to evaluate issues such as climate change, terrorism, transnational migration, economic decline and global governance. The field will expand globally through the analysis of promoting democracy and global institutions within the context of supranational governance like the United Nations. Furthermore, there will be a proliferation of schools of public administration and development, which will span throughout the developing world. Because these schools will become stronger academic institutions, due to such documents like the Standard’s of Excellence (Rosenbaum 2007), developing countries will be able to evaluate public problems for themselves. Therefore, the field will continue to have these same contentions between politics and administration, democracy and efficiency or positivist and nominative methods, and they will expand abroad and not only look at American institutions alone.