Principles of Public Administration

Principles of Public Administration

Throughout the 20th century the study and practice of public administration has been essentially pragmatic and normative rather than theoretical and value free. This may explain why public administration, unlike some social sciences, developed without much concern about an encompassing theory. Not until the mid-20th century and the dissemination of the German sociologist Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy was there much interest in a theory of public administration. Most recent bureaucratic theory, however, has been addressed to the private sector, and there has been little effort to relate organizational to political theory.

A prominent principle of public administration has been economy and efficiency, that is, the provision of public services at the minimum cost. This has usually been the stated objective of administrative reform. Despite growing concern about other kinds of values, such as responsiveness to public needs, justice and equal treatment, and citizen involvement in government decisions, efficiency continues to be a major goal.

In its concern with efficiency and improvement, public administration has focused frequently on questions of formal organization. It is generally held that administrative ills can be at least partly corrected by reorganization. Many organizational principles originated with the military, a few from private business. They are:

  • Organizing departments, ministries, and agencies on the basis of common or closely related purposes,
  • Grouping like activities in single units,
  • Equating responsibility with authority,
  • Ensuring unity of command (only one supervisor for each group of employees),
  • limiting the number of subordinates reporting to a single supervisor,
  • differentiating line (operating or end-purpose) activities from staff (advisory, consultative, or support) activities,
  • Employing the principle of management by exception (only the unusual problem or case is brought to the top).

The classical approach to public administration described above probably reached its fullest development in the United States during the 1930s, although since that time, through educational and training programs, technical assistance, and the work of international organizations, it has also become standard doctrine in many countries. However, some of its elements have been resisted by governments with British or continental-legal perspectives, and even during the 1930s it was being challenged from several quarters. Since that time study of the subject has greatly developed. It has also become somewhat confused as a result of certain inconsistencies in approach.

The orthodox doctrine rested on the premise that administration was simply the implementation of public policies determined by others. According to this view, administrators should seek maximum efficiency but should be otherwise neutral about values and goals. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, and even more so during World War II, however, it became increasingly evident that many new policies originated within the administration, that policy and value judgments were implicit in most significant administrative decisions, that many administrative officials worked on nothing except policy, and that, insofar as public policies were controversial, such work inevitably involved administrators in politics. The supposed independence of administration from policy and politics was seen to be illusory. Since the 1930s there has thus been increasing concern with policy formation and the development of techniques to improve policy decisions. Although the concept of a value-free, neutral administration is regarded by many as no longer tenable, no fully satisfactory substitute has been offered. How to ensure that responsible and responsive policy decisions are made by career administrators, and how to coordinate their work with the policies of politically elected or appointive officials, remain key preoccupations, especially in democratic states.

It was with governmental efforts to combat the Depression that new informational devices were introduced, including national income accounting and the scrutiny of gross national product as a major index of economic health. The applied techniques of fiscal and monetary policy have become established specializations of public administration. Economists occupy key posts in the administrations of most nations, and many other administrators must have at least elementary knowledge of the economic implications of government operations. France, Sweden and other Scandinavian nations, Great Britain, and the United States were among the leaders in developing economic planning techniques. Such planning has become a dominating concern of public administration in many of the developing countries.

Public policy approach

From the early 1970s increasing analysis of the way government policies affected the public resulted in a concept called the “public policy approach” to administration. This examines to what extent each stage in devising and executing a policy affects the overall shape and impact of the policy. According to the concept, the way a problem is conceived in the first place influences the range of remedies considered. The nature of the decision-making process may determine whether a course of action is merely incremental or truly radical. Indeed, it has been argued that the nature of the decision-making process shapes the outcome of the decision itself, particularly when the process is dominated by a powerful interest group. Moreover, the willingness of the government to evaluate programs, and modify them if necessary, affects the outcome. Many supporters of the public policy approach regard the concept as an important tool for constructing a body of knowledge on which recommendations can be based.

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