Public Administration

Public administration is the implementation and management of government policies, programs, and services to serve the public interest and ensure effective governance. It involves tasks such as planning, budgeting, personnel management, and policy execution at various levels of government.

Introduction – What is Public Administration?

Public administration is a multifaceted field of study and practice that revolves around the management and implementation of government policies, programs, and services. The term “administration” refers to the act of serving, managing affairs within an organization, or taking care of people. Public administration, a subset of administration, specifically pertains to the management of governmental affairs with the objective of serving and ensuring the welfare and interests of citizens. 

In simple words, Public administration is the management and implementation of government policies and programs. It involves the coordination of resources, decision-making, and service delivery to meet the needs of the public. Public administrators ensure effective governance, efficiency, and accountability in the public sector to serve the interests of society.

Dimock and Dimock describe public administration as the achievement of politically determined objectives. They emphasize that public administration is more focused on policy rather than techniques or the orderly execution of programs. It should be practical enough to solve problems and achieve societal goals while also being exploratory and innovative in seeking improved methods based on a broader understanding of effective group activity. Likewise many scholars provide their own definitions of Public administration. Some of the important definitions are given below:

Woodrow Wilson defines public administration as the detailed and systematic implementation of public law, stating that every specific application of general law is an administrative act. 

L.D. White defines a system of public administration as the combination of all the laws, regulations, practices, relationships, codes, and customs that exist at any given time in any jurisdiction to fulfill or execute public policy. 

Dwight Waldo defines Public administration as art and science of management as applied to the affairs of state.

According to Pfiffner and Presthus, public administration involves coordinating individual and group efforts to carry out public policy and is primarily concerned with the routine work of government.

For M.E Dimock, Public administration is concerned with “What” and “how” of Government.

Felix A. Negro highlights various aspects of public administration: it is a cooperative group effort in a public setting, encompasses all three branches of government and their interrelationships, plays a significant role in the formulation of public policy as part of the political process, differs substantially from private administration, and closely collaborates with numerous private groups and individuals in providing services to the community. 

During the Minnowbrook Conference III in 2008, public administration was defined as a socially embedded process of collective relationships, dialogue, and action aimed at promoting the well-being of all individuals.

Public administration can be described as a government branch responsible for translating political decisions made for the benefit of the people into action. Essentially, it serves as a tool for implementing legislative and political decisions, overseeing not only the achievement of political objectives but also the management of government affairs. In simpler terms, public administration deals with the operational aspect of governmental organizations, bridging the gap between policy making and practical execution.

Nature and Scope of Public Administration

The nature of public administration has two main views: the managerial view and the integral view.

Managerial View

According to the managerial view, administration includes only those involved in managerial tasks. They believe that administration is more about making things happen rather than doing the actual work. 

Luther Gulick, Henry Fayol, Herbert Simon, Donald W. Smithburg, and Victor Thomson are the main supporters of this view. Gulick has summed up the managerial activities in the acronym POSDCORB. It stands for the seven functions of the chief executive: P-Planning, O-Organizing, S-Staffing, DDirecting, CO-Coordinating, R-Reporting, and B-Budgeting. This view is also known as the ‘narrow view of administration’.

Integral View

The integral view considers all activities within an organization as part of administration, including technical, clerical, managerial, and manual work. According to this view, every employee, from the lowest-ranking to the highest-ranking, contributes to the successful accomplishment of tasks.

The main supporters of this view are Woodrow Wilson, L.D. White, Marshall E. Dimock, and John M. Pfiffner. This view is a wider perspective of the organization and defines contribution of the whole system necessary for fulfillment of its objectives

Regarding the scope of public administration, traditional writers believed it only included the executive branch responsible for implementing policies. However, modern writers have a wider view, stating that public administration encompasses all three branches of government: the Legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary. This broader view is widely accepted today.

Evolution of Public Administration: 5 Phases

Woodrow Wilson is credited with establishing Public Administration as an independent and distinct subject of study in 1887. To comprehend the current state of the discipline as a field of inquiry, it is crucial to examine its evolution.

Nicholas Henry in his book “Public administration and Public affairs” described the evolution of Public administration.

Phase I: The Politics/Administration Dichotomy (1887-1926)

Woodrow Wilson’s 1887 essay, “The Study of Administration,” established the foundation for the early study of Public Administration. Wilson emphasized the need for scientific development in the discipline and introduced the “politics/administration dichotomy,” distinguishing between political and administrative activities within public organizations. However, some scholars, like Richard J. Stillman II, argue that Wilson was aware of the inherent political nature of public administration and may have misinterpreted German literature on the subject. Despite this, Wilson’s dichotomy paved the way for the study of the evolution of Public Administration.

Frank J. Goodnow continued Wilson’s views in his 1900 book, “Politics and Administration,” defining two distinct functions of government: politics and administration. Goodnow highlighted that politics involved policy-making, while administration focused on executing policies. Goodnow’s distinction aligned with the classic separation of powers, suggesting the need to entrust different organs with policy formulation and execution. Public Administration gained popularity in the early 20th century due to scholars’ interest in public reforms in American universities. This led to the establishment of the Committee on Practical Training for Public Service in 1912, which recommended the creation of professional schools for public administrators. This committee eventually evolved into the American Society for Public Administration in 1939.

In 1926, Leonard D. White published “Introduction to the Study of Public Administration,” considered the first comprehensive book dedicated to the discipline. White emphasized that politics should not interfere with administration, asserting that Public Administration could become a value-free science focused on efficiency. This further strengthened the idea of a distinct politics/administration dichotomy. Public Administration scrutinized the executive branch with a scientific and factual approach, while the study of public policy-making was left to political scientists. This emphasis on science laid the foundation for the discovery of scientific principles of administration.

Phase II: The Principles of Administration (1927-1937)

During this phase, scholars believed that Public Administration was a distinct field with its own principles. In 1927, W.F. Willoughby asserted in his book “Principles of Public Administration” that there are fundamental principles applicable to administration, similar to principles found in any science. These principles could be discovered and applied by administrators to increase efficiency.

Notable works during this phase include M.P. Follet’s “Creative Experience” (1924), Henri Fayol’s “Industrial and General Management” (1930), and James D. Mooney and Alan C. Reiley’s “Principles of Organization” (1939). The Taft Commission on Economy and Efficiency undertook the first comprehensive investigation of federal administration. Its recommendations closely followed scientific management principles. 

This period reached its climax in 1937 when Luther Gulick and Urwick coined seven principles ‘POSDCORB’ (Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, Coordinating, Reporting, and Budgeting) in their essay ‘The Science of Administration’. Thus, this period marked by the tendency to reinforce the idea of politics–administration dichotomy and to evolve a value-free science of management. Economy and efficiency were the main objectives of the administrative system. 

Max Weber was the first theoretician who theorized concepts and principles of public administration and showcased its practical applicability. His contribution with ‘ideal type’ bureaucracy defined how administrative work can be ‘value-neutral’ and ‘dehumanized’. Therefore, as Peter Blau suggests, it should be considered as an ‘organization that maximizes efficiency in administration or an institutionalized method of organized social conduct in the interests of administrative efficiency’. 

Following the World wars, the dichotomy of politics and administration came under attack. All the previous traditional theories that focused on scientific efficiency and effectiveness proved false in ensuring flexibility, creative and quick decision making in the wartime environment. The rigid hierarchical proverbs of administrative practices were totally ineffective in such a situation. Therefore, a focus on the broader social, moral, and political theoretical effectiveness to challenge the dogma of managerial effectiveness was reintroduced. 

Phase III: Criticism and Challenges (1937-1950) 

This phase marked a significant shift in the field of Public Administration. Chester I. Barnard’s book “The Functions of the Executive” (1938) challenged the idea of the politics/administration dichotomy and questioned the scientific validity of principles in public administration.

The rejection of the politics/administration dichotomy was further emphasized in the book “Elements of Public Administration” (1946) edited by Fritz Morstein Marx. It argued that administration cannot be separated from politics and plays a role in both policy implementation and formulation. This rejection fundamentally changed the field and diminished the significance of the dichotomy.

The notion of principles in administration was also challenged. Herbert Simon’s work, including the article “Proverbs of Administration” (1946) and the book “Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making in Administrative Organization” (1947), argued against the existence of universal principles. Simon proposed a behavioral approach to public administration, emphasizing decision-making instead. He called the ‘classical principles’ of Public administration as ‘merely proverbs’ and unscientific. 

Robert Dahl’s 1947 essay titled ‘The Science of Public Administration: Three Problems’ challenged the notion that public administration could be considered a science. He contended that the pursuit of administrative principles faced hindrances in the form of three factors: values, individual personalities, and the social context. Robert Dahl argued that the attainment of scientific status for public administration required the incorporation of various conditioning factors, including historical, sociological, economic, political, and others. Therefore, he advocated for a broader perspective that considers these diverse elements to gain a comprehensive understanding of how public administration functions.

Dwight Waldo’s book “The Administrative State” (1948) echoed the critique of unchanging principles in administration. They highlighted the need to clarify normative values, better understand human behavior in public administration, and consider comparative studies for discovering transcendent principles.

The criticisms by Simon, Dahl, and Waldo effectively buried the belief that principles of administration could be discovered like scientific laws. By the mid-20th century, both the politics/administration dichotomy and principles of administration were abandoned as defining pillars of Public Administration.

Phase IV: Crisis of Identity (1948 – 1970) 

This Phase marked a period of identity crisis for the field of Public Administration. The abandonment of the politics/administration dichotomy and principles of public administration led scholars to seek new linkages for the discipline.

In terms of Political Science, Public Administration was often considered an emphasis or area of interest within the field. John Gaus stated in his article “Trends in the Theory of Public Administration” (1950) that a theory of public administration meant a theory of politics as well. However, political scientists were not receptive to this idea.

During this phase, two developments occurred: the rise of the Case Study Method and the emergence of Comparative and Development Administration. The case study method reflected the influence of the behavioral revolution in social sciences. Comparative and Development Administration gained prominence as scholars realized that cultural factors could significantly impact administrative settings. Comparative Public Administration started in universities and colleges, with the establishment of the Comparative Administrative Group in 1960. Here it is important to note that it was Fred Riggs who brought comparative approach to Public Administration.

In search of a stronger identity, some scholars turned to management as an alternative. They argued that organization theory should be the overarching focus of public administration. Works like James G. March and Herbert Simon’s “Organizations,” Richard Cyert and March’s “A Behavioral Theory of the Firm,” and James G. Thompson’s “Organizations in Action” provided theoretical support for management as the paradigm of public administration.

Management provided a focus rather than a specific institutional setting. It offered sophisticated techniques and required expertise, but its application to public administration was undefined. Management had a relatively positive impact on public administration compared to political science, but both linkages led to a loss of identity for the discipline.

Overall, Phase IV represents a period of crisis in which the Public Administration struggled to define its identity, whether in relation to political science or management.

Phase V: Public Administration as an Independent Discipline (1970 Onwards

This Phase marked the renaissance of the discipline. Two factors played a significant role in this process. Firstly, interdisciplinary programs focusing on policy science emerged, creating linkages between politics-administration, economics-administration, and organization theory-administration. Secondly, the New Public Administration (NPA) movement, which emphasized values and societal relevance, replaced the traditional focus on efficiency and effectiveness.

Starting from the late 1960s, a new generation of American scholars embarked on a journey to redefine the landscape of public administration. Their discussions at the 1968 Minnowbrook Conference I marked the emergence of the concept known as the New Public Administration (NPA) as the future of governance in post-industrial society. NPA aimed to make public administration more socially relevant and accountable to the general public.

This conference, chaired by Dwight Waldo, led to the publication of a report in 1971 titled “Toward a New Public Administration: The MinnowBrook Perspective,” compiled by Frank Marini. It occurred during a turbulent period in American society characterized by campus conflicts, the Vietnam War, ethnic tensions, and a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional focus of public administration on rationality and efficiency.

The proponents of NPA sought to transform public administration into a discipline that emphasized social relevance, values, transparency, accountability, and a commitment to advancing public interests, social equity, and societal change.

These developments led scholars to seek academic autonomy by distancing themselves from political science and management. The establishment of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) in 1970 further solidified public administration as an independent field of study. NASPAA brought together institutions offering public administration programs and contributed to the growth of separate public administration departments.

Another significant development in the evolution of public administration was the emergence of the Public Choice Approach developed by Vincent Ostrom which highlighted the trend of State Minimalism, calling for small but effective government in the 21st century. This approach is based on Methodological Individualism and rational choice. Daniel Muller defined “Public Choice as the economic study of non-market decision making or simply the application of economic to Political Science”. Additionally, the distinction between administration and management became less relevant as governments engaged in industrial and commercial activities, private enterprises adopted bureaucratic systems, and public and private sectors collaborated due to privatization efforts. 

Unlike traditional views that portrayed bureaucracy as rational and efficient, thinkers like Niskanen, Downs, and Tullock were deeply skeptical of bureaucratic structures and their self-interested behavior. They argued that bureaucrats often pursued their own interests at the expense of public welfare. To address this, Niskanen, in 1971, emphasized the role of the market in ensuring efficient service delivery, advocating for stricter bureaucratic control, increased competition, privatization, and better public information dissemination.

In 1988, the Minnowbrook Conference II, chaired by H. George Fredrickson, introduced the concept of new public management (NPM) as a response to the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of bureaucracy in serving citizens. NPM emphasized organizational restructuring, citizen empowerment, autonomy for public sector managers, performance measurement, cost-cutting, user-pay services, outsourcing, and decentralization.

The book “Reinventing Government” by Osborne and Gaebler in 1992 further reshaped government functions, promoting the idea of an “entrepreneurial government.”

Subsequently, the digital-era governance emerged, emphasizing the integration of government responsibilities through digitalization and information and communication technology (ICT). This came to be known as New Public Service propagated by Janet Denhart and Robert Denhart.

Globalization also played a transformative role, making public administration more adaptable and collaborative, embracing civil society and the private sector to deliver public goods and services.

In summary, the evolution of public administration, as seen through Minnowbrook Conferences and other developments, reflects a shift towards greater responsiveness, efficiency, and adaptability in the face of changing societal needs and global challenges.

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