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Public Administration

Last Updated: 2006

Public administration has been described as the fourth branch of government (the bureaucracy). In many ways public administration is about governance or the capacity of government to ensure that collective goals are met. Public administration is concerned with implementing the programs and policies enacted by elected officials. Grover Starling defined public administration as “the process by which resources are marshaled and then used to cope with the problems facing a political community.” As such, public administration encompasses everything from human resource management to budgeting systems, planning, intergovernmental relations, ethics, leadership, implementation, evaluation, and information technology applications. In short, public administration is the studying and “doing” of managing public sector agencies, just as business administration relates to managing private firms.

The notion of public administration most often traces its roots to the work of former President Woodrow Wilson and an article he authored in 1887. Wilson, while working as an instructor at Bryn Mawr College for Women, wrote an article for Political Science Quarterly entitled “The Study of Administration.” In this piece, Wilson traced the basic history of administrative systems and made a simple observation regarding “modern” government: “It is getting to be harder to run a constitution than to frame one.” With this observation, Wilson laid out his view of how the political side of administration should be conducted and how the administrative side of government activity should be handled. Wilson essentially proposed a dichotomy between the two functions, with politicians setting the course of action; but then, following his strong progressive ideals, Wilson called for administrators to find effective ways to implement the desires of political actors. On paper, this presented a reasonably tight intellectual underpinning from which the administrative apparatus of government could function and grow. In reality this dichotomy between politics and administration has simply never existed. Politicians are keenly aware of the implications of implementation, and administrators are just as aware of political dealings that establish their objectives. Hence, the separation that Wilson called for has never existed.

Public administrators function at all levels of government, both horizontally and vertically. Federalism has always presented a unique set of problems for public administrators since it creates multiple layers of often redundant service mechanisms that must be managed. Generally speaking, the federal government has a program that is also mirrored at the state level and is often re-created at the local level as well. This redundancy often manifests itself in perceived inefficiencies and bureaucratic “red tape.” While public administration cannot make such aspects of our governance system “go away,” it is charged with finding better ways of making the system we have work for the common good.

This considerable horizontal and vertical overlap often gives rise to problems of coordination, control, power, accountability, and performance. Often programs are initiated at the federal level but then must be funded in part or wholly at the state and local levels. These same programs may be created with a “universal” design but then be adapted at the state and local levels. Hence, a program concerning environmental remediation or welfare policy may need considerable modification once implemented by “first-line personnel” (local governments). This subsequent modification can often cause conflict between levels of government who feel they have jurisdiction over implementation issues. In the United States a strong sense of the separation of powers and jurisdictional autonomy exists, and public administrators must balance these concerns while implementing public policy. Also, given the rise of privatization and third-party providers of services, public administrators increasingly find themselves dealing not only with other governmental actors but also with nonprofit or for-profit providers. Further complicating the relationships is the movement toward accountability and performance that has emerged stronger than ever over the past two decades. With such a diffuse set of actors now providing services, it has become very difficult for federal, state, or local entities to measure their performance since so often they are not the sole provider of services; rather, they exist in a complex network of service providers often spread across a wide variety of public, private, and nonprofit programs.

Public administration has always focused on practical application. Questions that might concern an average public administrator include the following: how do you incentivize employees in the public sector when resources are limited and salary is not negotiable? How do you manage programs that are funded and monitored by federal agencies while being administered by state and local governments? What should we value more, efficiency or equity, and do we always have to choose between them? How do you do more with less (i.e., budget cuts)? How might we ensure that elected officials play their proper role in governance but at the same time help them understand the complexity of public policy choices? How do we create jobs for our local economy? How do we integrate seemingly disparate programs into a mix of services to solve “major” problems? What is the proper mix of taxation for our circumstances? These questions could continue, but the point here is that public administrators must seek answers to ordinary and extraordinary questions on a daily basis.

In the quest to balance efficiency and equity, public administrators have always faced the challenge of measuring success when delivering public services. What constitutes success when dealing with systemic poverty, what is success in terms of a space station program, and what is success when dealing with the management of public lands? All of these questions differ by level of government and by location as well. Public administrators, it has been argued, simply have no bottom line from which to measure success. Whereas private firms generally enjoy standard measurements of success that are usually determined by dollars, public administrators in most instances have nothing similar. Yet, this need to verify results creates a constant tension for public administrators to define their world and seek ways to measure it. Given the nature of the problems public administrators are asked to solve (manage and distribute public goods, for instance), it is unlikely that any simple measurement of success will emerge soon.

SEE ALSO: Intergovernmental RelationsPublic LandsWelfare PolicyWilson, Woodrow


James L. Perry, Handbook of Public Administration, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996); Jay M. Shafritz, Albert C. Hyde, and Sandra J. Parkes, eds., The Classics of Public Administration, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004); and Grover Starling, Managing the Public Sector (New York: Harcourt College Publishers, 2002).