Academic journal article Public Administration Review

History Lessons for Reinventors

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

History Lessons for Reinventors

Article excerpt

Toward the end of the Waldo Symposium at Syracuse University in 1996, Paul P. Van Riper averred that, as a field, public administration was neglecting its history and allowing others, lacking deep knowledge of its literature and institutional development, to define its past for many faculty, students, politicians, pundits, and journalists. The price could be high if myth replaced historical understanding and the field was misconstrued in self-serving ways by those seeking to reinvent or otherwise change it. Laurence E. Lynn Jr.'s "The Myth of the Bureaucratic Paradigm: What Traditional Public Administration Really Stood For" hammers Van Riper's point home. He brings great intellectual energy to showing why we must reclaim and re-examine American public administrative history. One does not have to agree with every aspect of Lynn's historical analysis to embrace his larger argument. Historical knowledge is a prerequisite for grappling productively with the larger purposes of public administration in the U.S. constitutional system. Lynn's example of the "myth of the bureaucratic paradigm" is well chosen because it clearly highlights the weaknesses of the reinvention literature and the weaknesses of an academic discipline and profession that quickly gave it wide currency.

An "Orthodoxy"?

The metaphor of "a bundle of sticks" is sometimes used to characterize property rights in American law. For instance, the right to exclude others from one's property is such a stick. It is a useful way of thinking about public administration's putative orthodoxy as well.(1) The orthodoxy is an intellectual construct used to denote a number of interconnected ideas that were advanced primarily from the 1870s through the 1930s. It had some institutional, organizational, and social manifestations, but one could espouse orthodox ideas without being a self-conscious member of any movement or group.(2) On these terms, it is inherently contestable whether "the orthodoxy" is a useful construct for understanding part of the field's past. Lynn thinks it does too much damage to public administration's historical heterodoxy. Along with others, I have found it a useful label for the following group of ideas:

1. There should be a separation between partisan politics on one hand, and the organization and staffing of the civil service, on the other. The civil service reformers of the 1870s-1890s were the primary source of this idea (Rosenbloom 1971, ch. 3). They promoted it both before and after Woodrow Wilson wrote what some consider the field's foundational essay in 1887. The elimination of partisanship from the civil service was later conflated with a broader politics-administration dichotomy in which policy making as well as partisanship was considered distinct from administration. The broader dichotomy is often attributed to Frank Goodnow (1900), who provided a bridge between reformers and Progressives by showing how political reforms for improving the expression of the people's will were connected to administrative reforms for executing it. Eventually, politics and administration were treated conceptually as largely separate endeavors with fundamentally different value scales (Gulick and Urwick 1937, 10, 192).

2. Much of what government does is "business" and should be insulated from control by elected officials. The reformers made this claim with respect to the civil service. Later, the Progressives used it to promote city management and the establishment of "authorities" for infrastructure (which, like patronage-based public employment, was a major source of corruption and power for political machines).

3. Public administration could be a design science. Wilson (1887) raised this idea in his essay, but it gained prominence with the publication of Frederick Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management (1911). By 1923, if not before, science was claimed as the basis for a fundamental administrative technology--that of position classification. …

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