Political Science and American Public Administration: A Necessary Cleft?

By Keller, Larry; Spicer, Mike et al. | Public Administration Review, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

Political Science and American Public Administration: A Necessary Cleft?


Keller, Larry, Spicer, Mike, Whicker, Marcia Lynn, Strickland, Ruth Ann, Olshfski, Dorothy, Public Administration Review


Marcia Lynn Whicker, Ruth Ann Strickland and Dorothy Olshfski in their article, "The Troublesome Cleft: Public Administration and Political Science," argue for a rapprochement between political science and public administration. In their thoughtful piece, they call for mutual and amicable work at the "common interface" that focuses on "questions that target concepts and variables of common interest." For them, the advantages of working at the common interface is an increase in knowledge about how the political system converts inputs into outputs. Furthermore, they would expect the field of public administration to become more "rigorous" from the interaction. For them, public administration lacks the scientific rigor necessary to answer questions with which public managers must cope. The lack of rigor is best rectified by political scientists and public administrationists working at the "common interface." We applaud their contribution to the ongoing debate about political science and public administration but find their call for work at the interface troublesome. In making their arguments, the authors appear unaware of on-going and important controversies within the field of public administration.

Whicker, Strickland and Olshfski have a largely instrumental view of both political science and public administration. For them, government is just a conversion process, turning inputs into outputs. We hear the echoes of a by-gone public administration whose systemic role is to turn the demands of political leaders into efficient public services. It is no accident that they use "public management" and "public administration" interchangeably as if the management of financial, human and physical resources was the sum total of the administrator's task. Neither should we be surprised that they use the analogy of an "internal combustion engine" to describe the role of public bureaucracy in governing. Harkening back to the early days of public administration as a field, they apparently see administrators as neutral and passive servants of their political masters. They would find an unseemly succor in a politics/administration dichotomy. They seem unaware of, and apparently would assign small importance to, the ongoing debate in public administration over the role of the public service in governance. While their view of public administration has had its advocates from Herman Finer to Theodore Lowi, it is also true that others from Carl Friedrich to George Frederickson and John Rohr have seen as appropriate a more active and political role for public administrators in the governance process. They seek a simplistic political system shorn of troubling normative attributes not amenable to their brand of scientific analysis. Needless to say, such a view hardly comports with the governance of a complex society in a global economy.

Given the authors' instrumental view of public administration, it is hardly surprising that they advocate more rigorous quantitative training. In essence, their approach to public administration is a continuation of, and even a legitimation of, what Orion White and Cynthia McSwain (1990) have criticized as "technicism. …

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Political Science and American Public Administration: A Necessary Cleft?
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