From Institutions to Dogma: Tradition, Eclecticism, and Ideology in the Study of British Public Administration

By Rhodes, R. A. W. | Public Administration Review, November-December 1996 | Go to article overview

From Institutions to Dogma: Tradition, Eclecticism, and Ideology in the Study of British Public Administration


Rhodes, R. A. W., Public Administration Review


Has British Public Administration lost its sense of coherent identity? This article describes the major changes of the postwar period. It describes the decline of traditional Public Administration with its distaste for theory, focus on institutions, and predilection for administrative engineering. The 1970s heralded the era of eclecticism with the British "behavioral revolution" and the advent of organization theory and policy analysis. The 1980s saw these fashions wane under the impact of New Right ideology. If rational choice was a minority interest, the new public management swept all before it. But Public Administration was an observer, not a participant in the rush to reinvent Whitehall. Its institutional base also weakened But all is not doom and gloom in the 1990s. The Economic and Social Research Council invested significant research funds in Public Administration and the future lies in our own hands. We must produce better quality research and prove we can contribute to understanding the changing institutions of government.

Editors note: This is the second article in a two part series on the intellectual development of public administration that was organized by Jack Rabin. We greatly appreciate his contribution to PAR.

British Public Administration(1)(*) is insular, a quality it shares with its American counterpart, but it is also unreflective. There are few histories of the subject, and there is a lack of interest bordering on distaste for agonizing over the future of the subfield. We prefer to leave such soul baring to others. In this article, I provide the first review of the development of British Public Administration that covers all the postwar period.(2)

To document this development is to describe two declines. The critical, institutionalist tradition that prevailed for the first half of the 20th century began a long and lingering death in the 1960s. A flurry of social sciences invaded Public Administration in the late 1960s on the back of rapid expansion of the universities. But their day in the sun was short. A new star rose in the firmament, and the eclecticism of the 1970s came to a rapid standstill as New Right ideology dominated the 1980s. In the 1990s, British Public Administration has lost its coherent identity, has not found a new role, and is losing its institutional base in the universities. An optimist would describe the future as bleak. A pessimist would be living and working in America.

The Era of Traditional Public Administration

Bill Mackenzie was the doyen of British Public Administration in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1951, he wrote that the subject was in "rather a queer state." The teaching involved a "smattering of history," "a little law," and some current affairs. The number of researchers was small: "it is hard to think of more than half-a-dozen names altogether," and the tradition was "descriptive and critical" (Mackenzie, 1975; 4, 7-8, and 9-10).(3) William Robson's (1975; 73) delineation of traditional Public Administration is remarkably similar.

The general university approach was essentially

institutional. It concentrated attention on the

authorities engaged in public administration,

analysed their history, structure, functions,

powers and relationships. It enquired how they

worked and the degree of effectiveness they

achieved.

Mackenzie's comments on criticism and Robson's reference to effectiveness both highlight the reformist strand in traditional Public Administration. Public Administration was criticized "by reference to what may be crudely called `common sense'" (Mackenzie, 1975; 9). The Fabians, with their belief in administrative engineering, epitomize this social-critic component of the British tradition (Rhodes, 1979; 70).(4)

With the focus on institutions and the predilection for criticism goes a distaste for theory. A distaste clearly expressed by William Robson (writing in 1961):

On this side of the Atlantic we have avoided, or at

least not emulated, the abstract approach which

characterises the work of such American exponents as

Herbert Simon, Chester Barnard, Edward Litchfield, or

Philip Selznick. …

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