Public Administration in America: Why Our Uniqueness Is Exceptional and Important

By Riggs, Fred W. | Public Administration Review, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

Public Administration in America: Why Our Uniqueness Is Exceptional and Important


Riggs, Fred W., Public Administration Review


In honor of the silver jubilee anniversary of ASPA's Section on International and Comparative Administration (SICA), I was asked to write an introspective essay on my own work and that of SICA. My main point in this essay is: the comparative study of public administration ought to include the United States as well as other countries. I believe that SICA can help us understand our own country better by encouraging the study of our system in comparison with others. We often hear that because our system of governance is unique it cannot be compared with any other. Is that not paradoxical? How can we know it is unique except by comparisons? If we only knew about our own system, we might think it was not exceptional and that all systems of governance work like ours--or ought to. Indeed, that is the implied premise of works by our colleagues that describe public administration in America as though it reflected universal principles, applicable anywhere. And was that not the premise of Americans who went abroad to teach and advise other governments, especially in the new states that emerged when the industrial empires collapsed?

During the 1960s I chaired ASPA's Comparative Administration Group--or CAG as we called it--which was primarily oriented to the problems of development administration that confronted Americans working overseas. Although CAG came to be identified with work on the administrative problems of developing countries, our original focus was more broadly on the comparative study of all systems of government. CAG grew out of an earlier ASPA Committee on Comparative Administration that was created to promote comparativism as a framework relevant to all administrative systems, including our own.

Had we followed up on our original mandate, we might have discovered how truly exceptional our system is, why that is so, and what important differences it makes both in our overseas work and, more fundamentally, in our understandings about the problems we face here at home

The focus of our work was radically changed and our status was also transformed (from a "committee" to a "group") after the Ford Foundation, in 1960, offered a grant to ASPA to support our work, provided we would use their funds to work only on development administration, by which they meant the use of American experience to help newly independent countries enhance their administrative capabilities. The grant narrowed the Scope of our inquiries.

I have not followed the contemporary work of SICA closely enough to say anything useful about its important continuing contributions to the field of development management. However, I think my own recent work on the comparative analysis of American public administration can be helpful to the mainstream of ASPA members. It may also be used by SICA if its members want to return to the original concept of comparative administration as a universally relevant inquiry (Riggs, 1991a).

The Comparative Study of American Public Administration

The mandate to promote "comparative administration," expressed in the ride of SICA, needs to include the United States. The Socratic injunction, "know thyself," applies not only to our personal fives but to our system of government. During the 1960s CAG was sometimes accused of ethnocentrism, usually in the sense that we said to ourselves, rather arrogantly, that "we are better than they are." However, I think we were also ethnocentric in a deeper sense because we failed to understand ourselves. We cannot truly understand the limitations and relevance of our own situation until we compare it with the experience of others. Research and consulting assignments overseas give us an opportunity to do that.

After the Second World War, when former colonies formed new states, Americans began to go abroad to help Third World countries improve their administrative performance as a means to help them accomplish their development goals. …

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