Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Administrative Discretion in a Turbulent Time: An Introduction

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Administrative Discretion in a Turbulent Time: An Introduction

Article excerpt


Administrative discretion is a fundamental, but unresolved, issue in American public administration. It is especially important in terms of changes in our administrative state and in society. Information technology and E-Government will shape the understanding and practice of discretion, but discretion is determined ultimately by the dominant political culture and discourse that is subject to social trends. The five articles in this symposium are reviewed in this introductory essay.


Administrative discretion involves almost every aspect of public administration. Important as it is, the concept is not well defined and the factors affecting its exercise are not clearly studied (Scott, 1997). This ambiguity leads one commentator to claim that "seemingly no aspect of Public Administration engenders more discussion and controversy than the idea of discretion" (Cox, 2000: 20). Discretion poses a great dilemma: it is both necessary and problematic (West, 1984). The reality is that despite great reservations and numerous political attempts to control discretion, administrative agencies exercise tremendous discretion in relation to elected officials and courts, and public managers exercise tremendous discretion in relation to policy mandates and bureaucratic rules (e.g., Spence, 1999).

In turbulent times such as ours, the controversy as to discretion is understandably prominent. The reform initiatives associated with Reinventing Government and the New Public Management call for unshackling politics, increasing discretion, and empowering agencies and managers. Many scholars have criticized this tendency. More importantly, the 9/11 tragedy, the War on Terrorism, the operation of the Department of Homeland security, and the Columbia Shuttle incident have led to a new round of reflection on administrative discretion: should we give public administrators more latitude, should we control them more closely, or should we find other alternatives to control and discretion?

This introductory essay relates administrative discretion to several contemporary public administration issues, including trust in government and ?-Government. It demonstrates that perceptions of administration discretion are involved with social problem solving and dominant political climate, and web-based information technology will play a considerable role in shaping the practice of administrative discretion. Finally, this essay introduces the four articles organized in this symposium.


Administrative discretion has to be approached with a consciousness as to history. The image and practice of discretion hinges upon society's recognition of its dominant social problem and policy preferences. Aberbach and Rockman (1988: 606) note that discretion and accountability is elusive and unclear in the United States because "the separation of powers system clouds any straightforward principal-agent relationship between political authorities and career officials." As a result, how the dynamics plays out depends on the prevailing political climate.

For example, in the Progressive Era, separating administration from politics, establishing a neutral public service system, and designing an effective Weberian bureaucracy was perceived as reformers' first tasks. The perception was legitimate considering the historical need to replace the "spoils" system and to deal with increasingly complex government responsibilities. As a result, early reformers emphasized the importance of administrative discretion. For example, Wilson (1887: 372) says that "...the administrator should have and does have a will of his own in the choice of means for accomplishing his work." Goodnow (1905: 44) concludes:

This [administrative] service will then have that freedom of action so necessary to its efficient exercise of those powers of social control with which it must be endowed, if we are to hope to secure the highest public welfare in the industrially and socially complex age in which we are living. …

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