Administrative Science as Reform: German Public Administration

Article excerpt

What characterizes German public administration since the 18th century is its early modernization relative to the political regime. Germany is not a classic constitutional state. The identity as well as the stability of German statehood are based on administration and its organizing principle of public law. Even when the political regimes completely broke down, as was the case in 1918 and 1945, public administration never ceased to operate more or less regularly.

Regardless of the criticism against bureaucracy, the reliability of public administration has its place in German collective memory. Inclination to change basic modes of administrative operation is, therefore, limited. German public administration has a remarkable history of self-reform. Examples are the integration of the nonruling bourgeoisie into the administrative elite stratum during the 18th century, the reorganization of state bureaucracy as well as the partial democratization of municipal administration after Prussia's defeat by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806, the several waves of readjustment of county and regional administration during the 19th century, the flexible adaptation to the new political regimes during the 20th century (a more than ambiguous flexibility during the Nazi regime, 1933-1945), and the territorial reform of county and regional administration in the 1970s. Those processes were mostly initiated by top-level bureaucrats (at least it was never enforced against them) and then smoothly organized by the rank-and-file professionals. The prerequisite of this pattern of administrative behavior was a combination of rigidity and flexibility that was provided by public law and the people handling it. What the Germans call the Rechtsstaat evolved in the course of the 19th century as a compromise between the "rule of man" (i.e., the monarchy) and the requirements of a modern administration. Modern administration as a complex machinery demanded a reliable mechanism to keep it running. This mechanism was provided by the law and by those knowing the law and how to apply it (Rechtsanwendung). Germans are far less apt than Anglo-americans to think in terms of enforcing law as the will of the constitutionally organized public. What the Germans call public law or state law, by contrast to the civil law governing in civil society, became a nonpublic affair of professionals. In a decisive period that roughly covers the second half of the 19th century, the scholarly treatment of public administration changed from a common sense-based catalogue of what administration actually did (Stein, 1866-1884) to strictly formalized prescriptions of professional administrative procedures (Mayer, 1895). Not surprisingly, these legalistic prescriptions shaped scholarly approaches to public administration directly and indirectly in several respects. First, the science of administration became dominated by jurisprudence. The study of public administration was interpreted and developed by lawyers. Second, the influence of jurisprudence in shaping administrative behavior became relatively independent from parliamentary lawmaking. Instead, jurisprudence-under the label of state-law precept (Staatsrechtslebre)--acquired a crucial separate power in terms of how to apply the law.

The structural and the political conditions for sustaining this academic monopoly were particularly favorable. The relatively rigid legal structure that was the backbone of public administration turned out to be a desirable counterweight to the volatility of the political structure in 20th century Germany. By the same token, however, the German public law system was compelled to incorporate structural flexibility when adjusting the guidelines for public administration. Beneath the surface of parliamentary lawmaking, lawyers in academia, in the courts, and in public administration shared the role of defining and adjusting what was right and wrong, what was "appropriate" and what was not. This flexibility enabled German jurisprudence to preserve its hegemony over the academic discipline of public administration despite considerable practical and academic challenges. …


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