The "State of the Discipline" in Public Personnel Administration

By Hays, Steven W | Public Administration Quarterly, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview
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The "State of the Discipline" in Public Personnel Administration

Hays, Steven W, Public Administration Quarterly


As the new millennium looms on the horizon, virtually unprecedented changes confront every component of public management. Decades of dissatisfaction with government generally and bureaucracy in especially have culminated in an apparent "paradigm shift" that is gradually redefining both the substance and the process of public administration (PA). Although every management function is targeted for some form of "reengineering" or "reinvention," Public Personnel Administration (PPA) status in the dawning era of change may be especially precarious.

Ever since the 1920s, Public Personnel Administration (PPA) has been somewhat self-conscious about its role and image within public organizations. This is easily understandable given the field's checkered past. Even the most casual observer of the discipline is familiar with Sayre's (1948) famous quote regarding the "triumph of technique over purpose." Personnel's preoccupation with technology, coupled with its traditional focus on insulating the civil service system from political influences, resulted in a disciplinary bias toward control. By enforcing torrents of picky rules and regulations, personnelists drove a wedge between the staffing function and line managers. Personnel offices came to be viewed as impediments to be overcome rather than allies in the pursuit of effective management.

According to some commentators, this depiction of personnel's role in public management is outdated and inaccurate. Personnel offices have been transformed over the past few decades, they argue, in response to a stunning variety of externally imposed demands. Demographic shifts, technological advances, economic pressures, and spiraling legal complexities have forced PA assume a more progressive and proactive organizational role (Newland, 1984). Detractors, in contrast, assert that the traditional role and functions of personnelists have not undergone the metamorphosis that the discipline's defenders claim. Instead, they argue that most personnel functions continue to be handled in an introverted and defensive manner that often impedes organizational performance. Extremists even suggest that the time has come to abolish personnel offices after outsourcing any functions that cannot be handled directly by line managers (Stewart, 1996).

Ordinarily this debate might be dismissed as simply another academic "tempest in a teapot." No one would seriously consider eliminating an entire staff function or dispersing its duties to the far corners of the organization. Or would they? Although it would take draconian failures to lead to the disappearance of PPA as a formal organizational fixture, even the optimists within the professional community should recognize the threats (and potential opportunities) confronting the discipline. "People issues" dominate much of the reform agenda thereby suggesting that personnelists will be (for better or worse) in the spotlight for the foreseeable future.

Most of the pressing management issues of the day--including deregulation, privatization, reinvention, and the ballooning fixation with managerialism--have direct and profound impacts on the staffing function. To rise to this challenge, the profession will clearly need to alter its practices, to refine its techniques, and essentially to redefine itself within the management structure. If PA succeeds, personnelists may emerge as "the new corporate heroes" (Meyer, 1976). If they fail, the negative consequences may be just as dramatic.

The purpose of this brief article is to itemize the specific challenges that PPA faces and provide an overview of the discipline's capacity to respond. The central question that is addressed focuses on personnel's need to maintain its relevance within the contemporary administrative context. What must personnelists do to avoid obsolescence? How can they become partners with other managers in the quest for improved performance? Finally, what role do academics need to play in assisting their practitioner brethren?

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