Public Administration: The State of the Field
Donald F. Kettl
The scholarly study of bureaucracy and the administrative process has long been a contentious business. Scholars, in fact, have pointedly chosen to label the field in different ways. For traditionalists, the term of choice is "public administration." Many political scientists prefer "bureaucracy" instead, while others embrace "the new economics of organization" or "the new institutionalism." "Implementation" has its followers, while some scholars in public policy schools pursue "public management" and explicitly separate themselves from political science, in both traditional and new forms. Scholars from these different approaches rarely cite each other. They frequently suggest, at least implicitly, that those from other approaches have little to contribute to the really important questions. Of course, they rarely agree on what those important questions are. If anything characterizes the study of public administration, it is fragmentation.
Important questions in public administration, not surprisingly, have long revolved around problems of boundary-drawing. Woodrow Wilson, in "The Study of Administration" ( 1887), drew public administration's most famous boundary in stipulating a distinction between politics and administration. The Wilsonian politics- administration dichotomy has long dominated the way scholars have attacked the basic questions in the field. It has also directed the way they have answered them. It has allowed some public administrationists to distance themselves from indelicate political battles, and political scientists to immunize themselves against administrative complexity. The dichotomy ultimately has led many within political science to abandon the unruly child of public administration. It has also played into the cause of elected officials who were eager to use "administration" to pursue political ends and to blame administrators for political failures. The politics-administration dichotomy has fueled the struggle but not enhanced the debate. The challenge of drawing these boundary lines led to often difficult battles -- indeed, estrangement -- between public administration and political science.
The different approaches, as a result, are struggling for the very soul of the field. Some of the conflict comes from fundamental disagreement over defining the basic questions. Some comes from stark differences in method, which especially distances newer, mathematically based approaches from older, descriptive approaches. Most fundamentally, however, the controversy flows from three fundamental problems.
First, different approaches to the study of administration usually come from one of two conflicting traditions in American politics -- and each tradition leads to a very different perspective on the role of administration in American democracy (see Table 1). Some students of administration come to the subject with a fundamentally Hamiltonian bent. Like Alexander Hamilton, they seek a vigorous state vested with a strong administrative apparatus. They see the task of administration as carrying out publicly defined goals effectively; they see an energetic government doing good. Other students of administration, however, are fundamentally Madisonians. Like James Madison, they are wary about too much government action, and they are cautious about the concentration of governmental -- especially administrative -- power. Like Madison, they see in a delicate balance of power the best protection against tyranny. The competition of political interests, in their view, lessens the risk that bureaucracy can abuse individual liberty. 1
Second, different scholars have pursued very different ends in their study of administration. Some scholars have sought to build a body of theory that would explain the role administration plays in society. Their central goal has been to establish the study of administration firmly among the respected social sciences. Other scholars have recognized the importance of theory- building, but for them theory was just a step toward a more important goal: understanding the administrative process so that its functions can be improved. The distinction is based on the traditional theory-practice issue, but it is more than that. The two approaches differ sharply in how important finding practical solutions to administrative problems ought to be. They also differ on how important these problems ought to be in defining the central questions for the study of administration. Some