The study of public administration has evolved over the past century, with different eras placing emphasis on distinct theories, approaches, and focal points. Though early notions of a strict separation between politics and administration laid the groundwork for the field of public administration, scholars have since sought to better integrate politics and administration in recognition of their interconnected nature. Broadly, the chronology of public administration can be divided into five stages:
1. The politics-administration dichotomy
2. Principles of administration
3. Era of challenge
4. Identity crisis
5. Public policy perspective
This progression reflects public administration’s growth from a fledgling field focused on the bureaucratic hierarchy to an interdisciplinary social science drawing on fields like political science, economics, sociology, and psychology. Through periods of turmoil and reinvention, public administration has matured into a dynamic discipline engaged with complex policy questions.
Looking back at the evolution of public administration provides insight into the field’s historical foundations and changing nature. Tracing major stages in its development contextualises current theories and allows us to anticipate future directions. This overview examines each chronological stage in turn, charting the discipline’s growth and refinement over more than a century.
Evolution of public administration as a discipline
Stage 1: Politics-Administration Dichotomy (1887-1926)
The first stage in the evolution of public administration is known as the politics-administration dichotomy, spanning from 1887 to 1926. This concept originated in an 1887 essay by Woodrow Wilson titled “The Study of Administration,” in which he argued for a separation of politics and administration. Wilson believed that administrative activities should be separate from political activities. He asserted that administration should be run on scientific principles that are autonomous from political influence. Politics, in Wilson’s view, was associated with policy making, while administration was concerned with policy execution. Under the politics-administration dichotomy, elected officials and policymakers handle the political process and make high-level decisions. Meanwhile, non-elected, professional administrators carry out day-to-day operations and implement policies in an apolitical, neutral manner. The dichotomy aims to isolate administrative decisions from the influence of political parties, interest groups, and electoral pressures. This theoretical separation of politics and administration was highly influential in the field’s early development. It established public administration as a science, lending it legitimacy and autonomy from political science. The dichotomy dominated discourse in public administration through the 1920s. However, it later came under scrutiny as an oversimplified and unrealistic representation of government functioning.
Stage 2: Principles of Administration (1927-1937)
This stage was dominated by efforts to identify the principles of public administration. Scholars sought to define the field and establish it as a science by determining its fundamental theoretical principles.
Key contributions include:
- – W.F. Willoughby’s Principles of Public Administration (1927) which presented ideas like unity of command, hierarchy, accountability, and personnel management.
- – Leonard D. White’s Introduction to the Study of Public Administration (1926) covered issues such as the separation of policies and administration, executive leadership, personnel management, and so on.
- – Luther Gulick and L. Urwick’s Papers on the Science of Administration (1937) put forth the POSDCORB acronym – Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, Coordinating, Reporting, and Budgeting as the key principles of administration.
The principles approach aimed to provide public administration theory distinguishing it from political science and management. However, it was critiqued for overemphasizing rigid, hierarchical principles over adaptability to changing contexts. Still, this stage established public administration’s foundations as a field of administrative science.
Stage 3: Era of Challenge (1938-1947)
There began stage 3 in public administration which is known as the era of challenge, the time being 1938 to 1947. It was a Challenge to the previous age, the challenge to the previous state. Challenge would mean the people who are formulators of this phase, are questioning the previous phase, that’s why the challenge. The challenge is that the previous phase had always been talking of all kinds of principles but this phase says that it is not possible just to go through any kind of understanding of an organization just by formulating and following principles there has to be more to it. The Significant publications in the 1940s, Harvard -Simons Administrative Behavior and Robert Dahl’s essay entitled The Science of Public Administration, Three Problems, were actually if one talks of what this phase talks about, these two publications talked of the entire phase in their entirety. Simon argued in his article, The Proverbs of Administration, 1946, that there are no principles of administration. So he’s trashed is essentially the principal phase that there can be nothing called principles in administration. He added that these proverbs were nothing more than general statements based on person-to-person experience and are always lacking in any kind of theoretical formulation or understanding. For instance, Robert Dahl raised a question about the claim of it being a science once more in 1947. Now the quest for principles of administration according to Robert Dahl, was obstructed by three factors.
Firstly, the an unavoidable need for normative factors in public administration due to objective grounds of efficiency that are based on the communication of necessities. Secondly, he spoke against the machine concept of organization because it was found out that principally the previous school just spoke of organization being something like a machine. Thirdly, Dahl criticizes this tendency to generalize and draw universal principles based upon a few examples drawn from narrow countries and times. So Simon and Robert Dahl once said that there is going to be some kind of principle in administration. One is trashing it. On the other hand, the other person was of the opinion that this can never be public administration, this can never be a science because of certain specific factors.
Overall, the Era of Challenge marked an intellectual turning point for the field of public administration. What had previously been accepted wisdom – the clear separation between politics and administration – was now under serious debate and skepticism. This helped lay the groundwork for new theories and philosophies that would emerge in subsequent stages of the evolution of public administration.
Stage 4: Identity Crisis (1948-1970)
After World War II, the principles-based approach championed by the scholars at the Brownlow Committee began to receive criticism. Public administration struggled to establish its own identity as an academic discipline during this stage. The rigidity of the principles outlined previously failed to account for the complex realities involved in managing large public bureaucracies.Scholars challenged the idea that management principles should be value-neutral. The relevance of private sector practices for public sector management was questioned. Thinkers argued that the unique responsibilities of public administrators demand different principles suited for advancing democracy and the public interest. The politics-administration dichotomy that dominated the field’s early years was heavily critiqued. The intertwined nature of policy making and administration made their clean separation unrealistic in practice. Calls grew for public administration research to become more problem-oriented with direct relevance to the issues facing governments. Overall, the identity crisis of public administration during this period stemmed from the difficulties of applying fixed scientific principles to the ever-changing needs of public bureaucracies. Finding a coherent conceptual framework to guide research and teaching remained elusive. This spurred efforts to redefine the field’s purpose and approach in the following decades.
Stage V-Public Policy Perspective (1971-continuing)
The main theme that has emerged in this final stage of evolution is to ensure that public policy analysis is a central concern. Several fields are demonstrating much interest among public administration scholars, such as policy science, political economy, policy making, policy analysis, etc., which are linked to the field of public administration. With the abandonment of the traditional notion of a politics-administration dichotomy, the public policy approach gained acceptance in administrative analysis. As a result of the separation between politics and administration, Dwight Waldo concluded that the concept had become an “outworn credo”. In the view of Robert T. Golembiewski, there are two basic themes that are woven into the public policy approach stage of the evolution of public administration. The first is the interpenetration of politics and administration at all levels or at a number of different levels, and the second is the programmatic character of every aspect of administration. In general, all of these themes tended to focus attention in public administration on the political or policy-making process as well as on specific public programs or initiatives. By adopting a public policy approach to public administration, public administration has gained social relevance, become more interdisciplinary, and expanded the scope of its activities.
Since the 1970s, there have been several major trends in the evolution of public administration theory and practice:
- New Public Management – This approach aims to make the public sector more efficient by borrowing management techniques from the private sector. There is a focus on performance management, contracting out services, and increasing competition.
- Digital Governance – The rise of information technology has led to e-government initiatives, digitization of public services, big data analytics, and new opportunities for public participation. Many governments are utilising technology to be more responsive, transparent, and efficient.
- Collaborative Governance – There is a greater emphasis on horizontal and vertical collaboration between government agencies, non-profits, private companies, and civic organisations to address complex policy problems. Networks, partnerships, and co-production are becoming more common.
- Evidence-Based Policy making – Policy decisions are increasingly informed by objective evidence and data analysis. Scientific methods, experimental designs, and impact evaluations are used to determine the effectiveness of public policies and programs.
- Participatory Governance – Citizens are participating more actively in public administration through means like open government data, crowd sourcing, participatory budgeting, and social audits. The boundaries between administrators and citizens are blurring.
- Sustainability – Issues like climate change, environmental justice, and social equity have led to greater emphasis on sustainable development approaches in the public sector. Concepts like the triple bottom line (social, environmental, economic) are gaining prominence.
These trends demonstrate public administration’s continuing evolution in response to changing technologies, societal demands, and governance challenges. More innovations will likely emerge in the future as administrators adapt to new realities and priorities.
View of Critiques on Evolution of Public Administration
The chronological evolution of public administration as a discipline has been critiqued in several ways:
- – The rigid periodization into distinct stages oversimplifies the complex and overlapping development of ideas over time. Key concepts emerged gradually through the interplay of various scholars and practitioners.
- – There is debate over the significance assigned to certain scholars, institutions, and publications in driving shifts in the field. Some argue individuals and texts have been unduly canonized at the expense of other influences.
- – The politics-administration dichotomy has been critiqued as an unrealistic separation of policy and administration. Practice shows implementation involves administrative discretion and political influence.
- – Principles of administration were accused of being vague truisms. The search for universal principles applicable across contexts faced doubts.
- – Challenges to the field’s scientific aspirations and quantitative techniques arose as the complex realities of public management prompted a rethink. However, some argue the nuances of administration cannot be captured through strict positivist social science.
- – The public policy orientation has been accused of downplaying important aspects of management, ethics, accountability, and democratic governance in public administration.
- – Throughout its evolution, the discipline has struggled with Insufficient diversity in perspectives encompassed. Critics point to the dominance of Western and particularly U.S. viewpoints.
- – Across stages, gaps persist between theory and practice. Administrators feel academic literature does not adequately capture the complex realities they face and offer limited practical guidance.
- – Calls persist for expanded interdisciplinary engagement to address wicked problems. However, progress remains slow due to disciplinary boundaries and fragmentation.
The critiques highlight areas for improvement and show the chronological narrative alone provides an incomplete picture. More holistic, nuanced perspectives recognizing the field’s ongoing complexity are needed.
There have been various phases in the development of public administration as a subject since the beginning of the last century. The field began with the politics-administration dichotomy in the late 19th century to establish its legitimacy and its independence from political influences. In the 1930s, the next stage of development involved principles of management and administration. The following decades posed challenges to the principles outlined above, as the complexities of public administration became clear.Public administration underwent an identity crisis after World War II as it sought to define its objectives and direction of travel. It is more recently that public administration has adopted a public policy perspective, in recognition of the fact that administration cannot be divorced from broader societal objectives and political process.
In the future, the interdisciplinary nature of public administration, politics, government, and democratic ideals will continue to be challenging issues. As public servants continue to confront transnational policy issues, the field may become more global. A few transformations have occurred in public administration thanks to new public management reforms, information technology, and big data. Diversity and pragmatism are expected to be the defining elements of tomorrow’s public administration theory and practice. However, the field’s ultimate aim to promote the public good through efficient and responsible governance will be unchanged.
Looking ahead, public administration will likely continue grappling with its interdisciplinary nature, relationship to politics, role in governance, and potential as an instrument for realizing democratic ideals. The field may become more globalized as public servants increasingly confront transnational policy challenges. New public management reforms have already transformed aspects of public administration, while information technology and big data will bring further changes. Rather than a single governing paradigm, diversity, and pragmatism will likely define the future of public administration theory and practice. However, the field’s ultimate concern with promoting the public good through effective and accountable governance will remain unchanged.