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Public Administration and Bureaucracy Essay

There are many differences in public administration and bureaucracy. Some differences are theoretical: the word bureaucracy has a structural connotation, referring to public agencies (not considering their function in the larger political system), while public administration has, following Frank Goodnow’s formulation, a functional connotation, referring to the execution of public policies ([1900] 1981, 83). But too much can be made of this last difference.

In the United States there is a strong though incomplete link between structure and function: A lot of public administrative functions are carried out by public agencies and, conversely, a great deal of what agencies do is administrative in nature. So the two groups often study the same phenomena. The major intellectual and associated institutional differences lie between public administration and bureaucracy. The important point is based on the venerable difference between basic and practical research.

In general, the study of bureaucracy is fundamental research. As a result it is located in political science departments, which are, after all, in schools of humanities and sciences, themselves oriented to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. In general, public administration is applied research. It therefore often is situated, quite appropriately, in professional schools, which by design are oriented in the direction of solving practical problems. The key distinction here is between different kinds of research, not different kinds of scholars.

The institutional history of public administration and bureaucracy since the early 1950s is one of differentiation, the intellectual relation between the two fields requires integration, for scholars in both fields can learn much from each other. It is a common knowledge that the field of public administration originated in practical research. Mosher, for instance, traced the field back to the bureaus of municipal research, noting that the bureaus conducted “pretty strictly ‘applied’ research” (1956,169).

Holden has noted that well into the 1930s financial support for research in public administration was based almost exclusively on practical incentives (1991,82). This did not harm the standing of public administration within political science in the 1920s and 1930s nearly as much as it would today, partly because much of political science itself was practically oriented. To take two prominent examples: Charles Beard, who was both a eminent historian and an well-known political scientist, directed the Training School for Public Service, which was associated with the New York Bureau of Research, from 1917 to 1922.

Charles Merriam, long the chair of the excellent and pioneering political science department at the University of Chicago, was also a member of the Brownlow Committee. Merriam’s contribution was not unusual: Fesler has observed that “political scientists were prominent members of the staffs” of many of the reorganization commissions; that of the Brownlow committee in particular “consisted almost entirely of political scientists” (1957,136). Therefore, as Kettl (1993) and others have noted, public administration had a solid position in political science in the decades before World War II.

Elite departments had specialists in the field (Herring and later Gaus at Harvard, White and Dimock at Chicago). Public administration was so well integrated into the mainstream that the Social Science Research Council had set up a Committee on Public Administration in 1928, and it functioned vigorously until 1945. Public administration and political science started to go their separate ways in the 1050s, the important decade in this institutional history.

The bases for the split were many, Fesler (1975) lists five troubles posed by behavioralism. It is right that behavioralism, with its anti-institutional bent and its emphasis on scientific rigor and quantitative measurement, created a problem for public administration. By themselves, however, behavioralism’s criticisms affected the prestige of public administration within the discipline more than they did public administration’s fundamental location. There are two pieces of evidence for this claim.

The first concerns the effects of behavioralism on other fields in political science. The fields of political theory (philosophy), comparative politics, and international relations were also vulnerable to the criticisms of behavioralists. Consequently, the prestige of these fields probably declined during the heyday of behavioralism. Yet, there was no question that research in these fields, mainly in political theory, was designed to produce knowledge for its own sake rather than to solve real world problems.

And because there is no practical profession of political philosophers, faculty in this field could not be tempted to set up an independent professional school or masters’ programs in political theory. So on the one hand these fields were unequivocally part of a liberal arts education (thus belonging to schools of humanities and sciences); on the other they had no place to go. Therefore, despite some secessionist rumblings (Somit and Tanenhaus 1982, 153), these fields remained in political science.

The other piece of proof about the centrality of the argument over basic versus applied research in political science concerns what happened in other social sciences in the post-World War II era. It turns out that the fate of public administration in political science is not exceptional; it is part of a larger pattern where the study of administration or organization was viewed as applied, the field dropped out of elite departments.

Organization theory has been a prosperous branch of sociology at least since the introduction of Weber’s work in the late 1940s and the subsequent work of Bendix and of Merton and his students (Selznick, Gouldner, Blau). Since there never has been any question that this is basic sociological research, courses on formal organizations are standard fare in all top ten sociology departments, and many of them have organization theory as a field of concentration. More recently, the “new economics of organization” is finding a home in elite economics departments.

In our intellectual histories we have focused so much on the relationship of public administration and political science that we have forgotten to look across the street. The patterns there are consistent with our experience: Practical research on organizations and administration has not flourished in elite social science departments; basic research has. Even though public administration and political science drifted apart, this did not mean that political scientists forgot about bureaucracies.

The study of bureaucracy after World War II was very decentralized. That the study of bureaucracy was thus distributed across other specializations made it hard for political scientists and public administrationists alike to realize that there was a new field in political science oriented toward basic research on public agencies. As Fesler has pointed out (1975), fairly a few distinguished political scientists worked in public agencies during World War II; he listed thirty who would contribute to public administration after the war (p. 04, note 24). A lot of returned to academia with a fresh appreciation of the importance of bureaucracy in both formulating and carrying out policy. The visions of many of them were expressed in an important volume, Elements of Public Administration (1946). The contributors included V. O. Key, Avery Leiserson, Fritz Morstein Marx, Dwight Waldo, and Fesler himself. In his perceptive article, Fesler suggests that this “new public administration” involved four changes of emphasis.

Even though this was unavoidably institutional, it was nevertheless compatible with the other structurally based subspecializations in American politics: legislatures, the courts, political parties, and so forth. Second, the research was consistent with the empiricism of the time, that is, toward gaining a realistic understanding of the role of the armed services in military policy. This is, of course, a manifestation of a basic research orientation.

Though some of their work had practical implications (Armacost’s, for example, suggests how the notorious rivalries among the services can be usefully harnessed), it was focused mainly on gaining a basic understanding of the agencies’ roles in the larger policy process. By its very devotion to Fesler’s properties, this kind of work tended to be agency specific. As such, cumulation was hard to achieve. Despite Rourke’s valiant efforts, the study of bureaucracy largely remained as it had been in the 1940s and 1950s: prone neither to theory building nor to proposing (or testing) empirical generalizations.


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