Public administration can be broadly described as the study and implementation of policy. As a moral endeavor, public administration is linked to pursuing the public good through the creation of civil society and social justice. The adjective 'public' often denotes 'government', though it increasingly encompasses Non-governmental organizations such as those of civil society or any entity and its management not specifically acting in self-interest.
The term public administration sometimes is taken to refer to bureaucracy (as in the federal administration in the USA). Although often used negatively as a term of abuse, bureaucracy is needed to perform day-to-day functions of government. Public administration and bureaucracy are, in a sense, the same thing.
Until the birth of the national state, the emphasis lay principally on the problems of moral and political nature, and on the organization of the public administration. The operation of this administration was a less urgent problem. Machiavelli wrote the book The Prince, which offered a guideline for European rulers. The operation of the administration, and not only the organization, also profited from the attention it received in this book.
From the 16th century, the national state was the reigning model of the administrative organization in Western Europe. These states needed an organization for the implementation of law and order and for setting up a defensive structure. The need for expert civil servants, with knowledge about taxes, statistics, administration and the military organization grew.
Lorenz von Stein, since 1855 professor in Vienna, is considered the founder of the science of public administration. In the time of Von Stein the science of public administration was considered to be a form of administrative law, but Von Stein thought that opinion was too restrictive.
According to Von Stein the science of public administration was an interaction between theory and practice. He considered the public administration as leading practically, but the theory had to form the base.
Von Stein thought that the science of public administration should strive to adopt a scientific method.
In the United StatesWoodrow Wilson was the first to consider the science of public administration important. Wilson was more influential to the science of public administration than Von Stein, primarily due to an article Wilson wrote in 1887 in which he argued in favor of four concepts:
Separation between politics and the public administration.
Consideration of the government from a commercial perspective.
Comparative analysis between political and private organizations and political schemes.
Reaching effective management by training civil servants and assess their quality.
The separation between politics and the public administration, which Wilson argued, has been the subject of fierce debates for a long time, and the different points of view on this subject differentiate periods in the science of public administration.
The second generation
The discussion about the separation between politics and the public administration as argued by Wilson continued to play an important role up to 1945.
Luther Gulick and Lyndall Urwick were the founders of the Science of Administration. They integrated the ideas of earlier theorists like Henri Fayol into a comprehensive theory of administration. Gulick and Urwick believed that the thoughts of Fayol offered a systematic treatment of management, which was unique at that time. They believed that this could be applied as well for the management of companies as for administrative sciences. They did not want to separate the two disciplines, but believed a single Science of Administration, which exceeds the borders between the private and the public sector, could exist. Later on the Science of Administration would focus primarily on governmental organizations. The reasoning of the Science of Administration was largely borrowed from the fourteen principles of organization of Fayol.
The third generation
After 1945 the third generation arose which questioned the ideas of Wilson and the second generation.
Initially the distinction between politics and the public administration was strongly relativized by the third generation, but the discussion would continue. Because of the unsuccessful American intervention in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal politics got discredited and in the eighties there was again a plea in favor of bureaucracy, especially in the United States. The public administration had to detach itself from politics.
After Louis Brownlow from the University of Chicago chaired the Hoover Commission on the Reorganization of Government, he founded Public Administration Service on the University of Chicago campus (at 1313 E. 60th Street). From 193 until the late 1970s PAS provided consulting services to governments at all levels: cities counties, states, the federal government and many foreign countries.
Rational choice models of bureaucracy
An influential new stream of rational choice analysis in public administration was inaugurated by William Niskanen, whose (1971) 'budget-maximizing' model argued that rational bureaucrats will always and everywhere seek to increase their budgets, thereby contributing strongly to state growth. Niskanen went on to serve on the US Council of Economic Advisors under President Reagan, and his model provides a strong underpinning for the worldwide move towards cutbacks of public spending and the introduction of privatization in the 1980s and '90s. Niskanen's universalist approach was critiqued by a range of pluralist authors who argued that officials' motivations are more public interest-orientated.
The bureau-shaping model (put forward by Patrick Dunleavy) also argues against Niskanen that rational bureaucrats should only maximize the part of their budget that they spend on their own agency's operations or give to contractors or powerful interest groups (that are able to organize a flowback of benefits to senior officials). For instance, rational officials will get no benefit from paying out larger welfare checks to millions of poor people, since the bureaucrats' own utilities are not improved. Consequently we should expect bureaucracies to significantly maximize budgets in areas like police forces and defence, but not in areas like welfare state spending.
New public management (NPM) and its potential successors
Outside the USA, especially in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia, a high proportion of modern scholarly work in public administration has focused on the concept of new public management or NPM. NPM is defined by Patrick Dunleavy and co-authors as focusing on themes of disaggregation (splitting large bureaucracies into smaller pieces, for instance via purchaser-provider separation), competition (especially private firms and voluntary organzations competing with government bureaucracies to deliver public services), and incentivization (shifting away from reliance on mission-commitment and public service ethics amongst government staffs, and towards pecuniary or economic motivations). These ideas have had sweeping impacts in governance across much of the Western world.
Critics argue that NPM has failed in the UK and other countries where it has been applied, so that is is now 'dead'. One claimed successor to NPM is digital era governance focusing on themes of reintegrating responsibilities into government, needs-based holism (doing things in joined-up ways) and digitalization (exploiting the transformational capabilities of modern IT| and digital storage).
Public administration as an academic discipline
A Public Administrator can fill many voids. The academic field evolved in the United States from both academic political science and law as a separate study in the 1910s. In Europe, notably England and Germany (Max Weber), it started as a separate scholarly field in the 1890s, but it was first taught in Continental universities in the 1720s. The Federalist Papers several times referred to the importance of good administration, and scholars such as John A. Rohr see a long history behind the constitutional legitimacy of government bureaucracy.
A few public administration theorists advocate a bright line differentiation of the professional field from related academic disciplines like political science and sociology. But, in general, the interdisciplinary nature of PA is acknowledged and it is viewed as a field of study rather than a discipline.
As a field, public administration can be compared to business administration, and the MPA viewed as similar to an MBA for those wishing to pursue governmental or non-profit careers. An MPA often entails substantial ethical and sociological aspects not usually found in business schools. There are derivative and related degrees that address public affairs, public policy, and the like. Differences often connote program emphases on policy analysis techniques or other topical focuses such as the study of international affairs as opposed to focuses on constitutional issues such as separation of powers, administrative law, problems of governance and power, and participatory democracy.
Public administration theory is the domain where discussions of the meaning and purpose of government, bureaucracy, budgets, governance, and public affairs take place in the field. In recent years, public administration theory has occasionally connoted a heavy orientation toward critical theory and postmodern philosophical notions of government, governance, and power, but many public administration scholars support a classic definition of the term which gives weight to constitutionality, service, bureaucratic forms of organization, and hierarchical government.
There is minor tradition that holds that the more specific term public management refers to ordinary, routine or typical management concerns, but in the context of achieving public good. Others see public management as a new, economically driven perspective on the operation of government. This latter view is often termed "new public management" by its advocates and can be seen as a reform attempt aimed at reemphasizing the professional nature of the field versus its academic, moral or disciplinary characteristics.
Notable public administration/bureaucracy scholars