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Definition: public administration from The Macquarie Dictionary

the administration of government policy.

(plural public administrations)


Summary Article: Public Administration from The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

Definitions of this term vary widely due, in part, to the differing roles and perspectives of public administrators. However, definitions of public administration often include the following common elements: (a) the formulation and implementation of public policies, (b) a wide range of problems concerning human behavior and cooperative human effort, (c) the production of public goods and services, and (d) a foundation rooted in law. Public administration includes the practice of government, but public administration also refers to an academic field of study and can be compared with business administration. An MPA degree is similar to an MBA, except that the MPA degree entails ethics and sociological aspects usually not found in MBA curricula. Public administration developed as an academic study in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a result of industrialization and urbanization in the United States.

Lorenz von Stein is considered the founder of the science of public administration. In the late 19th century, he promoted public administration as a science rather than a form of law. Von Stein recognized that public administration is a discipline comprising sociology, political science, administrative law, and public finance. In the United States, public administration as a science began to take shape in an article written in 1887 by Woodrow Wilson, who was a political scientist and the future U.S. President. In his article, Wilson favored (a) separation between politics and public administration, (b) consideration of government from a commercial perspective, and effective management through training civil servants and assessing their performance quality.

Public administration focused on the development and implementation of rational methods of managing production, especially large-scale production in the urbanized areas of the post-Industrial Revolution era. Beginning with Frederick Taylor's scientific management principles in the early 20th century, the focus was on maximizing the efficiency of work processes. Scientific management principles, coupled with the results of the Hawthorne experiments, promoted the view that organizations are highly rational. There was little or no accounting for the social or psychological side of human activity.

Whereas the 1920s stressed productivity, the 1930s stressed the management of large-scale organizations. This was exemplified by the acronym POSDCORB (planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, and budgeting), to explain the common functions that managers perform. In the 1940s, the focus began to shift to the positivistic approach of managerial decision making. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that public organizations considered those whom an organization was designed to serve—the public. The shift resulted from perceptions that government was inept and unresponsive. The new public management, with its principles borrowed from economics and the private sector, emphasized empowering frontline managers, who worked directly with the public—its customers, and decentralizing government. The new prescription was to meet the needs of those being served rather than focus on internal production and control.

The 1970s and 1980s also shifted public administration from vertical organizational hierarchies to horizontal forms of control. This has become even more important since public administrations have steadily been dealing more directly with administrations representing the public sector, particularly with contracting goods and services.

Although management in public administrations has not changed greatly in the past 100 years, its greatest utility may be in running large and complex organizations. For more information, see Gillespie (1991), Rabin, Hildreth, and Miller (1998), and Taylor (1911/1967) in the bibliography.

See also

Policy Analysis, Public Management, Public Policy.

Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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