Public Administration Global Journals : The Future Of Public
THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION
Public administration faces an interesting paradox. Along with comparative
government, public law, international law, and political theory, it was one of
the fields that shaped the new American Political Science Association a century
ago. Today, however, public administration sits in a disciplinary backwater. For
the last generation, scholars have sought to save or replace it with fields of
study like implementation, public management, and formal bureaucratic theory.
The debate, in fact, has developed to the point that “traditional public
administration” has become a nearly universal pejorative to criticize an
intellectual approach whose time has come—
and gone. Over the last century, like some of the other founding subfields of
the APSA, public administration has slipped from preeminence. Few of top
political science departments offer courses in the field; even fewer train
doctoral candidates for research and teaching careers in political science. Many
political science departments have simply abandoned the field to stand- alone
public policy schools or public administration departments.
Yet as public administration has struggled within the discipline, it has become
ever more central to governance. The International Monetary Fund and the World
Bank played a huge role in managing the Asian economic crisis. European nations
found new mechanisms to link their currencies and their economies to produce
strong economic growth. Assessments of who is most responsible for balancing the
federal budget begin with the Federal Reserve. Management problems within the
Internal Revenue Service shook the Clinton administration while analysts worried
about how to adapt the Federal Aviation Administration’s aging computer systems
to the next century. In the nation’s states and cities, welfare and health care
reform became signature programs. Mayors and governors who found ways to make
their governments perform found that pragmatism trumped partisanship. Wherever
one looks, administrative agencies determine who gets what from government—and
how well government works. There is a profound paradox, therefore, in the
declining attention that political science has given public administration, just
as public administration has never been more important.
But despite the coming of a balanced budget and dramatic administrative
reforms, citizen confidence in government is near an historic low. A 1998 Pew
Research Center poll found that Americans are more frustrated than angry at
government. They want better leadership from elected officials and better
performance from government agencies (Pew Research Center, 1998). The problem
has become global and administrative reform has become, in the United States and
around the world, one of the central strategies to solve it. Indeed, one of the
most striking political phenomena of the last fifteen years is the simultaneous
emergence in all of the world’s major industrialized democracies, and in many
other nations as well, of fundamental efforts at administrative reform.
Public administration, as a subfield within political science, thus finds
itself in an interesting position. It is struggling to define its role within
the discipline even as governments around the world are looking more to public
administration to resolve public performance and citizen confidence problems.
Indeed, one of the most striking features of modern governance is the universal
attention that puzzles like devolution, privatization, deregulation, and the
public interest receive. In many ways, therefore, the dawn of the 21st century
ought to be prime time for public administration—yet it is not, at least within
the broader associations associated with the field.
To be sure, the field has been undergoing a remarkable renaissance within the
APSA since the early 1980s. The organized section on public administration is
one of political science’s largest and most vibrant. But in terms of the field’s
status within the discipline, the sense within political science about the
field’s contributions to the “big questions,” and the field’s foundation in
recognized methods, it is clear the public administration has some distance to
One way to crack this nut is to ask a different question: Could dissertation
advisers, in good conscience, recommend that graduate students make careers in
the field. The answer, I believe, is an easy “yes.” Job prospects remain very
strong as public administration and public policy programs flourish. Everyone
has come to realize that government, of any size and at any level, must be run
well if citizens are to receive their money’s worth. Especially when compared
with other fields in political science, dissertation topics abound. Most active
scholars in the field have several lifetimes of good research topics they will
never get to, while government and its officials produce a never-ending supply
of new puzzles. The field offers a chance to put its theoretical hypotheses to
an immediate, if sometimes brutal test. Indeed, the connections among research,
teaching, and practice are powerful and give the field a lively spark. Few
fields in political science, I’d wager, can match this combination.
Approached differently, however, the field has two problems. First, in a
discipline seeking to become more scientific, public administration has seemed
methodologically to lag behind. It has struggled to engage the broader
discipline in dialogue: either to convince political science more generally that
research in public administration is probing central questions of broad
interest, or to conduct public administration research in ways that the broader
field viewed as producing sound conclusions with scientific merit. Second, the
field’s theoretical work too often seems not to define it. Research tends to lag
practice, and some of the most interesting recent ideas in public administration
have come from outside the field.
Even a casual reading of the APSA’s history demonstrates just how central
public administration was for its first decades. The association’s first
president was Frank J. Goodnow, best known for Politics and Administration
(1900). In his presidential address, he said that the APSA ought to devote
itself to three big questions: “the expression of the State will,” “the context
of the State will as expressed,” and “the execution of the State will.” Indeed,
Goodnow believed that administration ought to be the preeminent focus for the
new association. APSA, he argued, ought to focus on helping government achieve
“what is best attainable” (1905, p. 46). Public administration gave voice to the
new association and leadership to its early activities. Indeed, five of APSA’s
first eleven presidents were from the public administration subfield.
Especially after World War II, however, the subfield and the broader
discipline became increasingly estranged. Both sides of the relationship
contributed to the problems. Focused, as Goodnow prescribed, on helping
government be all that it can be, public administration has long been
prescriptive. Since Woodrow Wilson’s “The Study of Administration” (1887), its
work has had a heavy normative character. How should government administer its
programs? How much power should be put in the national government, and how much
devolved to the states? Should government be organized by function, area,
process, or client? Moreover, public administration has long been grounded in
eternal, unanswerable conundrums. What should be the balance between
centralization and decentralization? How can we devise an accountability system
that gives operating officials enough discretion to do their jobs without having
elected officials lose control over key policy decisions? And who will watch
those who watch, to keep them honest and accountable? (Juvenal worried about
this problem—in ancient Roman times.)
Political science has long been impatient with public administration, a field
grounded in the search for clear, convincing, prescriptive solutions to problems
that rarely have good answers (and few answers remain good for long).
Implementation research has sought to shift the focus from agency behavior to
program results. Bureaucratic politics focused on explaining the behavior of key
agency officials instead of its structure. Public management has struggled to
find the sources of leverage on government’s outcomes instead of designing its
processes. And economic theories of bureaucracy have simply swept away the
century’s detritus and replaced it with simple assumptions of self-interest and
deductive models of the results these assumptions produce. For a field grounded
in structures and processes, it has become harder to defend answers when so many
scholars have decided that the questions are no longer interesting or important.
While public administration has labored in the search for prescriptions,
political science increasingly has sought predictions. What are the repeating
patterns of political life? How will voters vote, or judges decide? What
motivations will drive the behavior of bureaucrats or elected officials? Public
administration’s prescriptions flow from a textured understanding of the rich
complexity of administration. Political science’s predictions build on an effort
to simplify the analysis, find the driving assumptions and critical variables,
and build replicable knowledge. Indeed, the rising importance of economic and
rational models is an effort to boil down explanation to its central forces.
Public administration, meanwhile, has long built on complexity and explored
conundrums. Theory in public administration has tended to deductive approaches,
while political science has moved more to induction, which requires stripping
complex behavior down to its core components. As political science has struggled
to win respect for itself among social sciences—especially economics—by moving
toward ever more-abstract analysis, public administration has been faced with a
governmental world that has, if anything, become more complex. It is little
wonder, therefore, that the marriage is under strain.
There are very hopeful signs that these struggles are shifting, however. Some
public administration scholars have sought to integrate administration with
formal theory, on formal theory’s own turf. Some public administration scholars
have used network approaches to advance organization theory and to link it with
other social sciences. Other scholars have moved far past the “it’s
complicated!” explanation in which implementation research was trapped for a
decade. More broadly, skilled scholars have woven together the bureaucratic
politics, implementation, public choice, and traditional public administration
approaches into fresh and useful syntheses. From the other side, the political
science discipline has come to understand—if sometimes grudgingly and
never universally—the centrality of administration. Administrative reform has
become a critical touchstone for comparative politics. Notions of civic
engagement have linked public administration to political theory. International
relations and political economy increasingly hinge on the behavior of
interesting administrative mechanisms like the International Monetary Fund. And
any careful understanding of American institutions is increasingly informed by
the role of federalism and bureaucracy. Meanwhile, public administra- tionists
have devoted themselves to becoming major institutional players within APSA
It would be an exaggeration to say that public administration has returned to
the central role it enjoyed at the founding of the APSA. But it is also clear
that the subfield has become ever more central to the puzzles driving modern
political science: in part because its scholars have con- sciously sought to
speak in the language that the rest of the discipline understands, and in part
because the rest of the discipline has come to understand better that it ignores
administration at its intellectual peril.
Leading or Following
If public administration is winning increasing respect within the academic
community, however, it faces a growing problem in meeting Goodnow’s founding
goal of improving practice. Many critics charge that, in the self-conscious
search for greater academic respect, public administration’s ability to speak
truth to power has diminished. When Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower
looked for ways to improve the management of the United States governments, they
turned to public administrationists. When Presidents Nixon and Reagan sought
reform, they turned to private sector managers. In charting the “reinvention” of
government, Vice President Al Gore looked to a journalist, a former city
manager, state government officials, and an army of federal bureaucrats. The
reinventers were quite explicit about not turning to academics. Government
reformers have often looked outside political science—and outside public
administration to private management—for answers to government management
Does public administration have anything to say in this debate? If not, does
this mean that public administration has gradually changed its stripes over the
last century? If so, why has its voice been only dimly heard? In part, the
answer lies in an enormous growth industry: consultants and private-sector
reformers who have generated piles of ideas to help hard-pressed private-sector
managers cope with accelerating marketplace challenges. Indeed, many of these
ideas—from total quality management and downsizing to customer service and
reengineering— have proven attractive concepts and at least marginally useful in
transforming private companies. Hard-pressed public officials have looked for
help wherever they can find it. Coupled with a widespread, cynical sense that
market competition is invariably superior to government management, these
private-sector reforms have driven much government change.
There are hopeful signs: Congress and executive-branch agencies has
increasingly been turning to organizations like the National Academy of Public
Administration and to some scholars for advice. At the state and local levels,
universities have worked hard to provide more useful counsel and to train their
students more effectively to tackle public problems. But there remains a large
gap between the literature of political science and the answers that
practitioners seek from it—a gap between the theory and the world it seeks to
All has not gone smoothly in the effort to acquire ideas from private-sector
experts. Bright ideas of private-sector consultants have rarely worked smoothly
(and sometimes not at all) in private companies. Government, however, has often
embraced major ideas like Planning- Programming-Budgeting Systems and massive
downsizing/reengineering just as their warts have emerged in private companies.
Moreover, learning what works—and why—has rarely shaped the idea transfer.
Public-sector reformers have often borrowed the ideas in caricature. They have
embraced privatization on the assumption that market competition is good, while
forgetting that everything really interesting in microeconomics comes in the
textbook after the initial chapters on the basic virtues of markets. They have
reengineered public organizations by shrinking the workforce and eliminating
middle managers—but they miss the reengineer’s argument that a careful
definition of an organization’s mission must come first, followed by a study of
how to focus the organization on the needs of its customers, then by how to lead
the organization in change. Half-baked recipes applied out of context and then
followed half-heartedly, not surprisingly, tend to produce unsatisfying results.
They also produce demand for the next round of half-baked, ill-focused,
Even when they seek to understand private sector reforms more carefully,
public sector managers have often failed to ask how well private reforms fit the
public sector. For example, everyone knows that private organizations have
sought improvements by focusing on their customers. Some public sector managers
have mindlessly followed suit. There are, of course, very useful applications of
the model. Public organizations involved in direct service delivery, like
drivers’ license bureaus and social security offices, could do a much better job
in treating citizens with courtesy and care—and some government agencies have
become models for the approach. In the public sector, however, there are often
multiple “customers” with conflicting expectations, from partners in service
delivery (such as federal, state, and local governments, as well as private
contractors and nonprofit organizations) to elected officials with their
critical concern about accountability. Even the word “customer” gets in the way
of specifying just how public managers can behave more responsively—and what
“responsive” administration means in a democratic government. The rich
complexity of the “customer” idea has not been thought through by many of those
advocating it for the public sector.
Thus, public administration has found its agenda slipping from its control.
Eager, anxious public officials have sought quick solutions wherever they can
find them, and those solutions have been easiest to grab in the private sector.
At the same time, public administrationists— preoccupied with regaining their
place in the discipline by producing more-scientific work or entrapped in old
hierarchical- and authority-based models that fit new government problems
poorly—have failed to engage the cutting-edge issues. So government reformers
have looked instead to journalists, consultants, private management gurus, other
nations, and even to each other.
Public administration, of course, does have important things to say to public
officials. Public administration has a rich theory and an even richer tradition
analyzing what is truly public about government management, and this is the
piece most prominently missing from the public reform debate. It has a deep
understanding of the tensions between policy making and administration. It has a
sense of the subtle influences that shape a public organization’s environment.
It understands that organizational structure and administrative process matter.
In short, public administration is at its best at explaining (and shaping) the
management of public programs, in a direction determined by public
organizations, in the public interest.
If public administration has important things to say, however, it has too
often failed to say it clearly. Too much of the work in the field is not well
informed by the problems with which today’s public managers are struggling. The
management of intergovernmental programs, con- tracts, loans, and regulations
has not received attention proportionate to government’s growing reliance on
them. Government managers are groping their way along trying to redesign their
financial and personnel systems without the intellectual support they need. A
troubling thought is that public managers fail to listen to what public
administration has to say because it does not speak in a language they hear.
Moreover, what they do hear might too often seem an answer to yesterday’s
problems instead of the new issues on their desks today.
This is an argument for better theory. It is also an argument for shaping
research questions by listening more carefully to public administrators and the
problems to which they most need answers. Indeed, many researchers are struck by
the gap between the published literature—often aimed at resolving issues defined
in previous research—and the dilemmas facing practicing man- agers—sometimes
new, often connected only slightly to the driving puzzles of earlier published
research. What will it profit the field to gain theoretical purity at the cost
of answers that matter to no one? One of the best reasons to do empirical work
in public administration, in fact, is not because of the answers it produces but
because of the questions it defines. Public administration has much to say. What
it needs today is thinking harder about what we most need to know. That, in
turn, offers great potential for cementing the subfield’s theoretical
Public Administration’s Rich Future
Theoretical work in public administration is messy, contentious—and exciting.
Few fields in political science can match the sheer vitality of research in
public administration today. This isn’t to say, however, that the subfield can
rest. Too much of the research is derivative: sometimes shaped by mindless
formalism, in an effort to be more scientific, instead of careful specification
of formal models that produce useful insights; and sometimes borrowed too much
from private sector reforms, in an effort to be relevant, instead of defined by
that which is truly public.
Public managers today are developing new problems faster than public
administration is developing an understanding of them. The subfield does not
have to respond by being trendy. But if theory is to have real bite, the
subfield must be theorizing about the problems that matter, and those problems
are rapidly evolving. In attacking these issues, however, public administration
has an important gift: a keen sense, grounded in a century of work within the
discipline and centuries past of rich thinking, of the enduring problems and
important themes. The key to redefining public administration’s future lies in
shaping the future by building on this past, and in recognizing that the
critical linkage is a keen diagnostic sense of the new twists that fresh
problems present. Understanding administrative coordination today must include
the wholesale interconnectedness of the public and private sectors, and of
federal, state, and local governments. Understanding administrative
effectiveness today must incorporate new approaches to making large and complex
bureaucratic organizations more responsive to citizens and their needs.
Understanding administrative accountability today must build on charting the new
relationships among elected officials and the administrators who implement the
programs they create.
As public administration has sought respect within the discipline, it has
risked distancing itself too much from practice. That matters not only because
most of the subfield’s members were been drawn to public administration by the
excitement of real people tackling real problems. It also matters because it too
often has weakened our ability to understanding the questions that most need
answering. That, in turn, has weakened public administration’s theoretical
development. Theory without the ability to predict and understand something real
and important is not worth doing; theory well-grounded in questions central to
government officials and scholars alike is inescapably lively and exciting. The
keystone to public administration’s rich future lies in solid social science,
grounded in enduring puzzles, that help provide answers to the future’s
What implications does this picture suggest? One is that public
administration has become more, not less important, both to governance and to
political science. Government, in the United States and around the world, hinges
more centrally on administration than ever before. More- over, public confidence
in political institutions depends increasingly on their ability to perform.
Making political science without adding public administration is like making
bricks without straw.
Another is that public administration will be impoverished to the degree to
which it is backward looking. It is tempting to seek to rebuild public
administration on the greatness of its past. Indeed, one of the field’s great is
the eternal nature of its fundamental questions. The key, however, lies in
understanding that the problems with which today’s government administrators are
wrestling are categorically different from many of the problems earlier theories
charted. The interconnections among the public, private, and nonprofit sector
are unprecedented. So too is the increasing globalization of public policy.
Faced with these tough challenges, administrators are blazing their trail
through a thick forest with few guides. Their paths—the issues with which they
are grappling and the solutions they are finding—offer valuable clues for the
future of public administration research. Making public administration and the
study of governance forward looking requires grounding it in the field’s ageless
questions; using the new problems administrators face to define new theoretical
puzzles; and learning from the successes and failures of administrators to chart
the field’s empirical research. That requires using practice to inform
theory—asking the questions that most need to be answered, and identifying the
answers that are most persuasive.
It would be hard to find theoretical puzzles more lively or important. The
theoretical and practical challenges demand political science’s best minds.
Political science will be poorer if they do not invest in the intellectual
challenges that public administration presents.
Goodnow, Frank J. (1900) Politics and Administration: A Study in Government (New
York: Russell and Russell).
Goodnow, Frank J. (1905) “The Work of the American Political Science
Association” Proceedings of the American Political Science Association, 1904
(Lancaster, PA: Wickersham Press).
Pew Research Center (1998) “Deconstructing Distrust: How Americans View
Government,” (Washington: Pew Research Center).
Wilson, Woodrow (1887) “The Study of Administration,” Political Science
Quarterly 2: 197-222.
Sources : Donald F. Kettl, Professor and Former dean in the School of Public Policy
at the University of Maryland.