THE EVOLUTION OF PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION: SCIENCE AND PROFESSION IN MOTION

*written by Eran Vigoda [University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel]  on Public Administration, An Interdisciplinary Critical Analysis


An ordinary citizen of an ordinary modern democracy fortunate enough to undertake a journey backwards in time is likely to find meaningful similarities between public administration of our era and administrative systems of old cultures. The foundations of modern public administration can be discerned thousands of years ago, across cultures and in various nations around the globe.

The Bible mentions a variety of hierarchical and managerial structures that served as prototypes for the governance of growing populations. Ancient methods of public labor distribution were expanded by the Greeks and the Romans to control vast conquered lands and many peoples. The Persian and Ottoman empires in the Middle East, like imperial China in the Far East, paved the way for public administration in the modern age, wherein European Christians, and later Christians of the New World, were in the ascendant. All these, as well as other cultures, used a remarkably similar set of concepts, ideas, and methods for governing and administrating public goods, resources, and interests. They all employed professionals and experts from a variety of social fields. They all used authority and power as the cheapest control system for individuals, governmental institutions, and processes.

All of them faced administrative problems close in type and in nature to problems of our own times: how to achieve better efficiency, effectiveness, and economy in government, how to satisfy the needs of the people, and how to sustain stable political hegemony despite the divergent demands and needs of sectorial groups.

Not surprisingly, all the above cultures and nations also used similar managerial tools and methods aimed at solving problems of this kind. They all used, fairly effectively, division of labor, professionalism, centralization and decentralization mechanisms, accumulation of knowledge, coordination of jobs, complex staffing processes of employees, long-range planning, controlling for performance, and so on. Intuitively, one feels that nothing has really changed in the managerial and administrative process of public organizations for centuries, possibly millennia, but this feeling is of course exaggerated. Some major changes have taken place in recent centuries to create both a totally different environment and new rules to which rulers and citizens must adhere and by which they must adjust their operation. In fact, a new kind of governing game has taken shape in which public administration plays a central role.

Despite basic similarities, public administration of our times is an organism entirely different from public services in the past. It is larger than ever before, and is still expanding. It is more complex than in the past, and is becoming increasingly so by the day. It has many more responsibilities to citizens, and it still has to cope with increasing demands of the people. It is acquiring more eligibilities, but more than ever before it must restrain its operation and adhere to standards of equity, justice, social fairness, and especially accountability.

Moreover, modern public administration is considered a social science, a classification that carries high esteem but also firm obligations and rigid constraints.

For many individuals who decide to become public servants it is also a profession and an occupation to which they dedicate their lives and careers. Most important, however, public administration is one of the highly powerful institutions in modern democracies. It wields considerable strength and influence in policy framing, policy making, and policy implementation, hence it is subject to growing pressures of political players, social actors, and managerial professionals.

An overview of the relatively short history of modern public administration reveals that the field is far more eclectic than might be thought. The science of public administration was born toward the end of the nineteenth century when the business of the state started to attract social–academic attention. The revolution that turned public administration into an independent science and profession is traditionally related with the influential work and vision of Woodrow Wilson (1887) and Frank J. Goodnow (1900). These scholars were among the first who advocated the autonomy of the field as a unique area of science that drew substance from several sources. In the first years, law, political theory of the state, and several ‘‘hard sciences’’ such as engineering and industrial relations were the most fundamental and influential mother disciplines. Over time these fields strongly influenced the formation and transition of public administration, but the extent and direction of the influence were not linear or consistent.

Kettl and Milward (1996:7) argued that traditional public administration as advocated by the progenitors of the discipline consisted in the power of law. Representatives of the people make the law and delegate responsibility to professional bureaucrats to execute it properly. Highly qualified bureaucrats, supported by the best tools and resources, are then expected to discharge the law to the highest professional standards, which in return produce good and accountable managerial results that best serve the people. According to Rosenbloom (1998), the legal approach views public administration ‘‘as applying and enforcing the law in concrete circumstances’’ and is ‘‘infused with legal and adjudicatory concerns’’ (p. 33). This approach is derived from three major interrelated sources:
  • Administrative law, which is the body of law and regulations that control generic administrative processes
  • The judicialization of public administration, which is the tendency for administrative processes to resemble courtroom procedures, and
  • Constitutional law, which redefines a variety of citizens’ rights and liberties


Several legal definitions argue that public administration is law in action and mainly a regulative system, which is ‘‘government telling citizens and businesses what they may and may not do’’ (Shafritz and Russell, 1997:14). Over the years, however, it has become obvious that law in itself does not maintain satisfactory conditions for quality public-sector performance to emerge. Constitutional systems furnish platforms for healthy performance of public administration, but do not account for its effectiveness or efficiency.

Stated differently, good laws are necessary but insufficient conditions for creating a well-performing public service. One such important contribution came from the classic hard sciences of engineering and industrial relations. In its very early stages public administration was heavily influenced by dramatic social forces and long-range developments in the western world. The ongoing industrial revolution in the early 1900s, which was accompanied by political reforms, higher democratization, and more concern for the people’s welfare, needed highly qualified navigators. These were engineers, industrial entrepreneurs, and technical professionals who guided both markets and governments along the elusive ways to economic and social prosperity.
Various fields of engineering, the subsequent evoking area of industrial studies, and other linked disciplines, such as statistical methods, became popular and crucial for the development of management science in general and were also gradually found useful for public arenas. The link between general management and public administration has its roots in understanding complex organizations and bureaucracies, which have many shared features.

With time, dramatic changes occurred in the nature, orientation, and application of general organizational theory to public administration of modern societies.

A major transition resulted from the exploration of the Hawthorn studies in the 1920s and 1930s, conducted by a well-known industrial psychologist from Harvard Business School, Elton Mayo. A behavioral apparatus was used to drive a second revolution, beyond the revolution that originally produced the theory, which swept the young science into its first stages of maturity. Today, trends and developments in the public sector cannot be fully understood without adequate attention to behavioral, social, and cultural issues, which are also an essential part of the present volume. These aspects conjoin with questions of policy making and policy evaluation, as well as with managerial, economic, and organizational contents, to better illuminate public systems. The human and social side of public organizations became central and critical to all seekers of greater knowledge and comprehension of the state’s operation. People and groups were placed at the heart of the discussion on organizational development and managerial methods.

The human side of organizations was made an organic part of the art of administration. It is still an indispensable facet of the craft of bureaucracy. All who are interested in the healthy future and sound progress of public organizations and services both as a science and as a profession have to effectively incorporate humanistic views into their basic managerial ideology.

Major transitions still lay ahead, however. International conflicts during the 1930s and the 1940s forced immense changes in national ideology and democratic perspectives in many Western societies, consequently public administration and public policy had to be transformed as well. During the Second World War theoretical ideas were massively supported by advanced technology and higher standards of industrialization. These were pioneered by professional managers and accompanied by new managerial theories. Ironically, the two world wars served as facilitators of managerial change as well as accelerators and agents of future developments and reforms in the public sector. The political leaders and social movements of the victorious democracies were convinced that the time had come for extensive reforms in the management of Western states. The assumed correlation of social and economic conditions with political stability and order propelled some of the more massive economic programs in which the state took an active part. The rehabilitation of war-ravaged Europe involved governmental efforts and international aid, most of it from the United States.

Major attention was dedicated to the creation of better services for the people, long-range planning, and high-performance public institutions capable of delivering quality public goods to growing numbers of citizens. To build better societies was the target. A larger and more productive public sector was the tool.

In many respects the utopian vision of a better society generated by the postwar politicians and administrators in the 1940s and 1950s gradually crumbled and fell during the 1960s and 1970s. A large number of governments in the Western world could not deliver to the people many of the social promises they had made. The challenge of creating a new society free of crime and poverty highly educated and morally superior, healthier and safer than ever before, remained an unreachable goal, so during the 1970s and 1980s, citizens’ trust and confidence in governments and in public administration as a professional agent of governments suffered a significant decline. The public no longer believed that governments and public services could bring relief to those who needed help, and that no public planning was good enough to compete with natural social and market forces. The promises of modern administration, running an effective public policy, seemed like a broken dream. Political changes took place in most of the Western states, most of them stemming from deep frustration in the public and disapproval of government policies. By the end of the twentieth century the crises in public organizations and mistrust of administrators were viewed both as a policy and managerial failure (Rainey, 1990).

In addition, this practical uncertainty and disappointment with governments and their public administration authorities naturally diffused into the scientific community. Theoretical ideas for policy reforms in various social fields, which once seemed a key for curing malaise in democracies, proved unsuccessful. Within the last decade the search for new ideas and solutions for such problems has reached its peak, and premises originally rooted in business management have been increasingly adapted and applied to the public sector. Among these ventures are re-engineering bureaucracies (Hammer and Champy, 1994), applying benchmarking strategy to public services (Camp, 1998), reinventing government (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992), and the most influential movement, of New Public Management (NPM) (Lynn, 1998; Stewart and Ranson, 1994). These receive growing attention, accompanied by large measures of skepticism and criticism.

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