MPA 500: Public Administration M1D1 Public administration has two dimensions: theory and practice.
Traditionally speaking, public administration is thought of as the accomplishing side of government. It
comprises all activities involved in carrying out the policies of elected officials and some activities
associated with the development of those policies. This is the practice side of the field and the most
obvious. The academic side includes a long history of questions related to the uniqueness of American
political thought, which include concepts such as democratic idealism, responsibility, accountability, and legitimacy. In this section, you will examine the purpose and scope of public administration
“A major difficulty in arriving at a precise and universally acceptable definition arises in part from the
rapid growth in the twentieth century of public administration, which today seems to be all-
encompassing.” (Stillman, 2010, p. 1).
Examples of Public Administration
Public administration is a difficult concept to define, not by the words per se, but because the functions,
structures, and roles of the participants are so complicated and vast. Consider the following examples:
Perhaps public administration is defined as managing and strategically planning for resources and
utilities? The following example describes the challenges that public off icials face when figuring out how
to best serve their communities, both on an individual citizen and wide-scale infrastructure basis. In this
case, two cities address potential water shortages, both immediate and long term. The following videos are closed-captioned.
• Water Shortage (2:13 mins)
• Cities’ Responses to Water Crisis (2:07 mins)
From a different perspective, should public administration be defined by managing finances? This
example focuses on the financial challenges to meet budget deficits. In one city, public services have to
be prioritized when the community is impacted by the inability to manage their own finances. Another
city faces a difficult decision with its public services due to decreased tax revenues. In particular, these
videos focus on the political aspects of finances in public administration. Consider how these
communities were impacted by financial issues. Videos are closed-captioned.
• Debate over decline of public services (2:26 mins)
• Cutting Public Services in Colorado Springs (4:09 mins)
“Colorado Springs has also dropped more than 40 of its police officers. Not because crime is over in
Colorado Springs. It’s because they’re broke.” Colorado Springs Police Officer
Should public administration be defined by its long term strategic urban planning? In this case, a
metropolitan transit authority allocated funds for an extensive study designed to assist local
governments in the region with a long-range transportation and economic development plan. This video
emphasizes not only planning urban expansion but also class differences.
• The Urban Landscape (3:18 mins, closed-captioned
Our final example focuses on the federal government, particularly concerning the federal budgeting
system and the impact of politics on that process. With that in mind, is public administration defined by
having to manage organizations in light of the political differences inherent to the system? The United
States entered a government shutdown, curtailing most of its routine operations when Congress failed
to legislate appropriating funds for the fiscal year 2014, and more recently, had the longest government
shutdown in American history. The role of political polarization plays a major role in this issue.
• United States in Financial Collapse (2:53 mins)
• Recession & Distrust of Federal Government (1:46 mins)
• So Why HAS the US Government Shut Down? (2:16 mins)
Purpose of Public Administration
Building upon these examples, one could develop a broad definition of public administration, which may
read, “The process of identifying and using resources to address the problems facing governments and citizens.”
These real-life situations all represent critical aspects of public administration. And, while these
situations provide examples of public administration in action, a practical definition of public
administration eludes practitioners and scholars. Public administration could be defined by skills such as
preparing budgets, patching potholes, and collecting taxes while at the same time be defined by its ro le
in responding to social issues and creation of public policy. Public administration might also be defined
by the organizations that it is comprised of or the goods and services that it provides.
Considering the examples, how might you define public administration?
Who Are Public Administrators?
One way of understanding the scope of public administration is to answer the question, ‘who are public administrators?’
Public administrators may be classified by organizational level: elected officials such as presidents,
governors, and mayors; political appointees; and career civil servants. Most public administrators work
in the public sector -government. Aside from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, there are
numerous independent executive agencies, regulatory commissions, and government corporations
staffed by public administration professionals.
The non-profit sector is another area in which we find many public administrators. Non-profit
organizations increasingly provide a host of public services including community care, workforce development, and substance abuse training.
The actual size of the non-profit sector is unknown because large portions of the sector are
unincorporated and the available data is incomplete. In 2014, nonprofits accounted for 9 of all wages
and salaries paid in the U.S. (Roger, Blackwood & Pettijohn, 2014).
How do public administrators perform management tasks and what knowledge base do they need?
Obviously, public administrators must have knowledge of political institutions and processes. The ability
to be a good administrator includes strong leadership, decision-making, and interpersonal
communication skills. Furthermore, with the increasing use of technology and social media, public
administrators must be able to operate in a virtual world. These challenges contribute to the ongoing development, purpose, and scope of public administration in the twenty-first century.
To assist in understanding how the field of public administration functions today, it is useful to study the
development and rationale for its creation. The next section will examine the development of public
administration in America.
Foundations of Public Administration
Public administration can trace its roots through historical, political, and legal development. Various
scholars have identified various “eras” of public administration. In this section, you will explore some of the highlights of the development of public administration.
The development of public administration can be traced to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S.
You may want to begin this module by taking a look at these two documents and ask yourself—where
do these mention public administration? While both documents do not mention public administration
by name, they contain key concepts that have shaped the development of American public
administration. These key concepts include the government of laws, federalism, and separation of
powers, natural rights, and popular sovereignty.
The Federalist papers discuss these concepts in detail. They were a series of essays published in the
newspaper in 1787 and 1788 by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay to promote the ratification of the Constitution.
James Madison recommended a delicate balance of power and vigorous competition among political
interests as the best protection against the concentration of too much power in bureaucracy .
Hamilton presented a perspective on the role of administration in American society that was different
from Madison’s. For example, his Report on Manufacturers argued for an activist state with a strong administrative apparatus to carry out publicly defined goals.
The conflicting perspectives of Madison and Hamilton continue to influence the approach of scholars to the study of public administration.
In Federalist Papers Nos. 10 and 51, you get a better idea of what the founders had in mind for the
concepts of federalism and the division of power. Authored by James Madison, these essays address the
question of how to guard against certain factions and the importance of checks and balances. The
federalist perspective has long shaped American public administration. Beginning in 1926 with the first
public administration textbook and continuing through the early 1990s and the onset of the re -founding
movement, modern public administration has developed and continues to develop as it operates within periods of adjustment.
“Therefore, U.S. administrative thought has never been – nor can ever be – defined as a fixed doctrine or
set of doctrines but instead stays in flux, always chasing the shifting constitutional-democratic priorities
of each new American generation” (Stillman, 2010, p. 19).
One of the early significant contributions to public administration in the United States that is still
influential today was written by Woodrow Wilson in 1887. Recognizing the progress of government,
Wilson’s A Study of Administration is recognized as one of the first to differentiate between the
administration of government and the politics of government. Written at a time when the first federal
civil service reforms were being established, Wilson encouraged the development of a skilled public
administration workforce and was the impetus for the development of public administration
education. As you read Wilson’s A Study of Administration, focus on his discussion of the politics-
administration dichotomy and how the administration of government fits into the Constitution,
specifically concerning the distribution of powers. Wilson also focuses on the role of the administration as well as the role of public opinion in the administration of government.
Contemporary public administration scholars have also argued about the relevance of the Federalist
Papers to current practices. For an interesting take on the different approaches to public administration, refer to the following articles:
• Federalist #10: How do factions affect the president as administrator-in-chief?
• Alexander Hamilton and the study of public administration
• History of Public Administration: Alexander Hamilton vs. Woodrow Wilson
Paradigms of Public Administration
Understanding historical foundations is an important element of the study and practice of public
administration. Along with understanding those historical foundations comes understanding how approaches and perspectives have changed over time.
The United States at the time of Wilson’s A Study of Administration was about two decades after the
Civil War. Government organizations up to that point had been characterized by less than admirable
practices of corruption and nepotism, which was an impetus for the civil service reforms of the
time. Over the next 100+ years, there have been various “eras” of public administration. Various
authors have identified different approaches to the practice of public administration at different times
in our nation’s history.
Herbert Kaufman, for example, focused on the pursuit of three values that define public administration
over the years. In his writing Emerging Conflicts in the Doctrines in Public Administration, he examines
how each of these three values can explain different reforms and focuses of public administration.
Nicholas Henry’s Paradigms of Public Administration examines four paradigms of American public
administration, particularly with regard to the study of administration. As you read these articles, think
about whether Kaufman’s three values either align with or is in conflict with Henry. From your own
perspective, do you agree with one author over another? Do you have any other examples that fit with these author’s approaches?
Talk About It
How does the field of public administration define itself today in contrast to Wilson’s 1887 perspective? How has the field of public administration changed since Wilson’s 1887 perspective?
Consider the changes in theoretical public administration perspectives as well as the social changes over
the last century. Use course readings and contemporary examples to support your position.
In recent decades, the growth and reduction of government activity and public bureaucracy are among
the most significant social phenomenon of recent decades. It has become a double-edged sword.
Citizens and scholars alike discuss the scope and size of bureaucracy, while at the same time politicians criticize it at all levels of government.
Bureaucracy or a bureaucratic organization may be characterized by the following:
• An internal division of labor;
• Specialization of work performed;
• Vertical hierarchy or chain of command;
• A system of internal rules, regulations, and record keeping
Max Weber made significant contributions to the field of public administration and the concept of bureaucracy.
Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist who had a profound influence on the development of
public administration and who was the first to fully articulate the bureaucratic form of organization. He
was widely known in Europe during the early twentieth century, but Weber’s work was not translated into English until the 1940s.
Weber’s model of bureaucracy was intended to identify the components of a well -structured
government bureaucracy. In addition to five key elements (division of labor, hierarchy, formal rules and
procedures, and system of record keeping), Weber sought to describe three ideal-types of authority. These authority types explain why individuals throughout history have been willing to obey their rulers.
It is assumed that most of those working in a bureaucracy are professionals in their specialties and that
their occupational loyalties rest with their organization rather than with a political party or other
external affiliation. Because much of public management occurs within bureaucratic structures, there is
a tendency to use the word bureaucracy as another term for public administration or public
management. Furthermore, many use the term in a negative light. It is often characterized by
inefficiency, red tape, and among other things, secrecy.
“Bureaucracy is a fighting word.” (Stillman, 2010, p. 50)
Charles Goodsell (2004) and other public administration scholars suggest that government
bureaucracies and administrators do not deserve such harsh criticism. Goodsell argues that despite
shortcomings inevitably found in all organizations, America’s government bureaucracies perform quite well.
Despite these varied interpretations, Stillman reminds us that students of public administration should
grasp the central importance and meaning of this phenomenon and that “the term in serious
administrative literature denotes the general, formal structural elements of a type of human organization, particularly a government organization” (Stillman, 2010, p. 50).
Talk About It
As you read Weber’s Bureaucracy, consider how “ideal-types” might resonate in your own organization
or one that you are familiar with. Define the elements of Weber’s model of bureaucracy. Using your
course readings and contemporary examples, discuss whether Weber’s theory still applies in today’s society? Would you add anything to his theory