Approaches to Public Administration

The field of public administration is a complex and multifaceted one, marked by a range of approaches that have evolved over time to understand its intricacies. In this article, we’ll delve into key approaches to public administration and explore the ideas and perspectives associated with each.

Different approaches to Public Administration

Institutional Approach

The institutional approach represents one of the earliest ways of looking at public administration. It is rooted in the belief that public administration revolves around the government’s obligations to society and its adherence to legal rights. This approach places a significant emphasis on formal relationships within government and the separation of powers among its three branches.

A cornerstone concept of the institutional approach is the notion of the “politics and administration dichotomy.” In simple terms, it suggests that the role of administration is to execute and implement policies formulated by the political arms of the government, such as legislators. This approach often relies on formal analyses of organizational structures and the constitutional delegation of authority and responsibility to government branches.

One of the central concerns of this approach is the question of responsibility. It seeks to understand how public administration can be held accountable to elected government branches and the average citizen.

Structural Approach

The structural approach to public administration draws influence from scientific management principles and the American societal focus on organizational structure and personnel management. This approach concentrates on the study of formal administrative structures, their functions, and the constraints they face in carrying out their activities.

Proponents of the structural approach view public administration as a non-political, purely technical organization governed by scientific principles. They maintain that public administration is separate from politics and policymaking, with its primary role being the effective and efficient execution of politically determined policies. In this view, organizational tasks are predefined, and employees are expected to adapt to their assigned roles.

Critics of the structural approach argue that it tends to overlook the political context in which public administration operates and neglects the fact that organizations are composed of individuals. Ultimately, decisions within organizations are made by people, which this approach sometimes fails to acknowledge, earning it the moniker of the “organization without people” approach.

Behavioral Approach

The behavioral approach to public administration shifts its focus towards human relations, emotions, attitudes, and sentiments and their influence on organizational and administrative outcomes. Advocates of this approach argue that it is impossible to understand how organizations function without a deep understanding of why individuals and groups act as they do within them.

The primary goal of the behavioral approach is to develop a body of knowledge that aids in comprehending, explaining, and predicting human behavior in administrative settings. This approach relies on methods like survey analysis and tackles methodological challenges to generalize human behavior within organizations.

Notable figures in the development of the behavioral approach include Herbert Simon and Robert Dahl, who have played pioneering roles in applying psychological and sociological insights to the study of public administration.

System Approach

The system approach to public administration views the administrative machinery as a complex system comprising interconnected and interdependent components. This approach is rooted in the idea that public administration takes in “inputs” in the form of societal demands and transforms them into “outputs,” which manifest as goods and services.

The origins of system theory can be traced back to biologist Ludwig Von Bertalanffy. In the realm of sociology, Talcott Parson applied the system approach to examine social structures, while political scientists like David Easton and G. Almond applied system analysis to political science, enriching the literature on empirical political theory.

This approach fosters information exchange among various parts of the administrative system, making it particularly relevant for the study of intricate public organizations with diversified structures.

Ecological Approach

The ecological approach delves into public administration as a social institution continually interacting with the broader societal subsystems encompassing politics, culture, economics, and more. It posits that bureaucratic actions influence these sub-systems and, conversely, are influenced by them.

Fred W. Riggs is a prominent advocate of the ecological approach, asserting that administrative institutions are both shaped by and shape their social, economic, cultural, and political environments. To gain a deeper understanding of a specific administrative system’s nature, operations, and behavior, it’s crucial to comprehend the myriad environmental factors that influence it.

In essence, the ecological approach offers insight into how administrative systems function in practice by examining their dynamic relationships with the larger societal context.

Comparative Approach

The comparative approach to public administration centers on the comparison of administrative structures across different nations, each embedded in unique socio-cultural settings. It posits that every country’s administrative structure and functioning are distinctive, influenced by their specific societal contexts.

Woodrow Wilson initially emphasized the need for comparative studies in public administration, and Robert Dahl later underscored its utility in developing a theory of public administration. However, the comparative approach gained popularity post-World War II, particularly as new nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America grappled with modernization and technological development challenges.
The first such effort was by the Comparative Administration Group of the American Society for Public Administration set up in 1963 under the chairmanship of Fred Riggs to study the administrative problems of developing countries with respect to its political, social, cultural, economical environment.

Figures like Ferrel Heady and Fred Riggs have made significant contributions in this field. Beyond theory-building, the comparative approach aids in determining the applicability of administrative practices from one nation to another, fostering a deeper understanding of administrative models and their adaptability in different political systems.

In 1967, during one of the meetings of Comparative Administrative Group, Riggs outlines three trends in comparative public administration:
a) From normative towards more empirical approaches.
b) shifts from ideographic (individualistic) towards Nomothetic (universal).
c) shift from a predominantly non- ecological to an ecological basis for the study of public administration.

Also, in 1968 under the Minnowbrook Conference I, the future of CPA was discussed.

Public Policy Approach

The Public Policy Approach is a systematic and scientific study of public policy with the aim of enhancing the public policy process. Its primary focus is on understanding and improving the mechanisms involved in policy-making. This approach was first articulated by D. Lerner and Harold Lasswell in their work, “The Policy Science,” in 1951.

Public policy plays a pivotal role in any political system, addressing the concerns of the public and their problems. It functions as a tool to shape society for the better. By employing the Public Policy Approach, scholars and policymakers seek to make the policy-making process more effective and responsive to the needs of the people.

Political Economy Approach

The Political Economy Approach to public administration delves into the interdisciplinary relationships between political science, economics, and law. It seeks to understand how political institutions, the economy, and the political environment interact and influence one another.

Economists like Anthony Downs and Gordon Tullock have applied economic methods to political problems within this framework. This approach explores various aspects, such as the impact of elections on economic policy choices, lobbying, the political business cycle, redistributive policies, reforms, and deficits in developing countries.

In recent years, this field has expanded to explore broader topics, including the origins and rate of change of political institutions and the role of culture in explaining economic outcomes and developments.

Public Choice Approach

The Public Choice Approach emerged in the early 1960s as a method to study the allocation of scarce resources within society. Vincent Ostrom, along with notable scholars like James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, William A. Niskanen, and William C. Mitchell played a pivotal role in developing this theory.

At its core, the Public Choice Approach emphasizes individual choice, with citizens seen as consumers making rational decisions to maximize their interests. It advocates for aligning government actions with the values and interests of its citizens.

Vincent Ostrom suggests that public administration scholars should shift away from traditional bureaucratic approaches in favor of the Public Choice Approach. 

In this context, Niskanen, Downs, and Tullock’s argument revolves around the premise of administrative self-interest. They view bureaucrats as self-centered individuals who, unless their self-serving actions are appropriately limited, could potentially have a negative impact on public well-being.

Niskanen proposed several measures to address this concern:

  1. Imposing more stringent oversight and control over bureaucrats through either the executive branch or the legislature.
  2. Introducing increased competition in the provision of public services to enhance efficiency.
  3. Implementing privatization or outsourcing to minimize inefficiencies and waste.
  4. Enhancing the dissemination of information for the benefit of the public.


In conclusion, the various approaches to public administration offer a multifaceted lens through which we can analyze and understand the intricate workings of governance and bureaucracy. These approaches, including the Institutional, Structural, Behavioral, System, Ecological, Comparative, Public Policy, Political Economy, and Public Choice, provide valuable insights into the field’s dynamic nature.

From the traditional focus on formal structures and responsibilities to the contemporary emphasis on human behavior, system dynamics, and interdisciplinary perspectives, each approach contributes to a richer understanding of public administration’s challenges and opportunities. Moreover, these approaches empower scholars, policymakers, and practitioners to adapt and innovate in response to ever-evolving societal needs and complexities.

As our world continues to change, the adaptability and synergy of these approaches will remain crucial in shaping effective and responsive public administration practices that serve the betterment of societies worldwide. In essence, the study of public administration is an ongoing journey marked by a rich tapestry of theories and approaches, each adding to our collective understanding of governance in the modern era.

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