Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Big Questions of Public Management

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Big Questions of Public Management

Article excerpt

Whenever physicists get together, they discuss the big questions of physics. Physicists have big questions about the universe: How did the universe begin (Weinberg, 1993)? When did the universe begin? How big is the universe (which is the same question as how old is the universe) (Flamsteed, 1992)? Will the universe continue to expand forever, or will it eventually stop expanding and then start contracting (Weinberg, 1993; 37; Ferris, 1988; 354)?

Physicists also have big questions about the composition of matter. What are the most basic building blocks or elementary particles from which all physical objects are constructed? How do these building blocks interact? That is, what are the forces that hold these elementary particles together or push them apart (Adair, 1987; 208-229; Ferris, 1988; 285-299; Rohrlich, 1987; 196-201)?

Indeed, in physics, there are numerous big questions. For example, Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg (1993; 75) writes, "The theory of the formation of galaxies is one of the great outstanding problems of astrophysics." "The formation of galaxies provides one of the thorniest problems in cosmology," observes Michael Rowan-Robinson (1977; 60). "Despite intensive work, no solution has been produced which does not amount to saying: a galaxy forms because the initial conditions of the universe preordained that it would." Physicists all know what these big questions are, what alternative answers exist, and how different people are attempting to sort out these alternatives, to create new alternatives, and answer the questions.

Get a group of paleontologists together, and they, too, will begin discussing the big questions of their field: Why did the dinosaurs die out? When did humans get to the American continents(1) (Gutin, 1992)? One of the big questions for paleontologists and paleoanthropologists is: How did human life evolve? At the moment, there are two competing theories (Gutin, 1992). There is the regional continuity theory: Homo erectus left Africa about a million years ago and evolved independently into three different, modern populations of homo sapiens originally based in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and Africa (Li and Etler, 1992). There is also the out of Africa theory: we are all the direct descendants of a single homo sapien, a woman called Eve, who lived in Africa only 200,000 years ago (Cann, Stoneking, and Wilson, 1987).

Stephen Jay Gould, the prolific paleontologist, describes how the revision of the history of evolution forged by the fossils found in the Burgess Shale of British Columbia "poses two great problems about the history of life." First, why did modern, multicell life erupt in the Cambrian explosion of diversity rather than evolve slowly and continuously? Second, why did some of the creatures created by the Cambrian explosion survive and evolve while others disappeared (Gould, 1989; 55-60, 227-233)?

In July 1900, at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, the mathematician David Hilbert (1902) set forth what he thought were the 23 most important unsolved problems in mathematics--the ones that he thought his discipline should address in the next century. Nearly a century later, mathematicians continue to work on some of Hilbert's problems (Browder, 1974).

Get any group of scientists from any branch of science together, and they will start talking about the big questions in their field, the latest research published about those questions, and how they, through their own research, are attempting to tackle those same big questions.(2) Any field of science is defined by the big questions it asks.

The same ought to be true for scholars of public management. We, too, ought to have our own big questions that we discuss and debate when we get together. These are the questions on which we ought to focus our research. These are the questions we ought to seek data and devise clever methodologies to answer. These big questions ought to define the field of public management. …

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