Public Administration-The State of the Discipline: A View from the Urban and Local Management Literature

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This article examines the current state of public administration by examining one of its subfields: urban and local government management. Topics covered include the revival of interest in regionalism. privatization and "contracting out," the use of management techniques, citizen-local government relationships, and reinvention and entrepreneurship. In review, this article notes the lack of attention to police and criminal justice issues by public administration scholars, our tendency toward faddishness, and the need to question the "reinvention" movement.


As a discipline, public administration is often self-critical and unsure of itself. Historically, there are sound intellectual reasons for the self-criticism and uncertainty.

This author's view of the discipline stems from reading, reflecting, and teaching in one subfield: urban and local government management. His choice of topics reflects debate in the literature. Thus, he covers the revival of interest in regionalism and a variety of other management topics: privatization and "contracting out," management techniques, citizen-local government relationships, and reinvention and entrepreneurship. Obviously, there is a great deal of overlap in these latter management topics.

It seems to this author that the literature develops in definite patterns. First, there is a "new idea" or a "new administrative reform," resulting in a series of essays about the idea (e.g., why entrepreneurship is a good thing for local government or a bad thing, etc.). Second, there emerges a series of preliminary case studies and other anecdotal, impressionistic material (e.g., why entrepreneurship was the best thing that ever happened to TroisRivieres, Quebec or the "success" story of an individual entrepreneur). Finally, we teach a stage of more systematic and more analytical materials. These may be systematic case studies, surveys, and/or statistical analyses. Example of all of these will abound in the literature below. Sometimes the cycle begins all over again.


For this student of urban administration, the revival of interest in regional approaches to government has been a significant recent development. Like so many other subjects in public administration, interest in regional approaches has risen and waned over the years. In a review essay in PAR, Norman Krumholz (1997)1 delineates five phases of regional reform in this century. In the first phase (19001937), big city officials frequently argued that their territory should include the suburban populations. The second phase (1933-1943) included such ambitious New Deal efforts as the Tennessee Valley Authority which was a regional government aimed at improving the quality of life in a seven state area and the National Planning Board.

The third era, in the 1950s and 1960s included federal funds for planning agencies and the establishment of councils of government (COGs). The fourth phase, in the 1970s and 1980s, consisted of topdown regional land use. The current phase aims at facilitating regional growth and economic development through the creation of cooperative partnerships.

Let this author make a couple of observations about the works considered here. Of the six books discussed, only one author (Henry Cisneros) is a public administration person in the strict sense. Downs has written a public administration classic but his main interests are in urban land use. Peirce is a journalist. Byrum is a former planning director. Rusk is an elected official (Mayor of Albuquerque) turned consultant and Orfield is a member of the Minnesota State Legislature. These are not "ivory tower" academics.

These books are based upon the observations and experiences of the authors and, in that sense, are empirical. Peirce presents case studies of six cities--Baltimore, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle, St. Paul, and Owensboro, Kentucky. None of these works are aimed at "theory building" in the social sciences. …


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