A Critical Approach to Public Administration Course Design

What is ‘good’ theory?

The purpose of a good theory is to provide a conceptual framework for viewing and understanding phenomena.  From this perspective a theory is either useful or not useful.  A theory helps guide and focus attention, identify and define important variables, and postulate the relationships among them.  A good theory is not just another ‘good idea,’ but it is based on empirical data that makes it an adequate map of the territory for the current time.  Furthermore, a good theory is never “proven,” which would mean that it holds up under all known conditions–that simply cannot be tested.  Instead, scientific method finds it easier to “disprove” or eliminate certain alternate explanations (hypotheses) which means that what is left over is more probable and closer to the “truth.”

Frederickson, et al (2012) declares the underlying utility of any theory is its capacity to describe, explain, and predict. He maintains that a theory should parsimoniously and systematically describe the phenomenon under study and logically connect its elements into a clear understanding of the actors, institutions, and processes involved. Knowing how to evaluate a theory is an important skill in deciding which framework is most appropriate for examining a given situation.  Alternately, if you must use a weak theory, at least you will know the precautions for interpreting its data including limitations and biases.

Building a Foundations of Public Administration Course

The history of public administration as a field of action is inextricably linked to theories of knowledge. The earliest writing, dating from the late nineteenth century, parallels the emergence of positivism as the dominant research foundation. In recent writings the importance of pragmatism, bureaucratic politics, post-modernism, and governance are explored themes.

As is generally accepted, familiarity with the leading writers in the field is a primary way to ground sound study in public administration. Many leading scholars serve as mentors in leading the next generation of thought leaders. Learning how they developed their intellectual identities will be a beneficial experience as is the basis of the creation of this course.

In this paper I will evaluate and decide which theories within the field of public administration will be grouped together for a potential master’s level course “foundations of public administration.” The curriculum will be based on only four of the eight theories discussed and bounded by Frederickson, et al in the 2012 edition of The Public Administration Theory Primer.

Evaluation and Selection of Content

Similar to many other “foundation” type courses, I will work under the premise that the main purpose of this course is to achieve an understanding of public administration as a field of study by exploring its historical development, including noteworthy changes in subject matter and the underlying knowledge frameworks. A course of this nature would most likely examine major historical periods; leading scholars who helped to define the field; and knowledge frameworks within which those scholars designed and carried out their work.

As, in publishing The Public Administration Theory Primer a majority of the aforementioned criteria have been met, yet there are still limitations as to what can be covered in a semester, the final deciding criteria for this paper was to make an effort to select based on four popular and truly foundational pillars of public administration theory categorized into: Positivism, Pragmaticism, Interpretivism/Antipositivism, and Post-Traditional theory. Going forth, I’ve either identified one reading from each category from Frederickson’s work or tried to demonstrate its role within said category.

Pragmaticism [Theories Political Control of Bureaucracy]

Theories of political control of bureaucracy have a basic objective to explain and ensure how administration can be accountable and subordinate to the formally designed institutions of decision making (Frederickson, et al, 2012). This objective would maintain that one could separate administration from politics. This thought alone, represents both the fundamental strength and fundamental weakness of this framework. As long as the dichotomy holds, the theories in this chapter can provide solidly, explanation of public administration that serves as a guide to action for public engagement.

At the most basic level, public administrators are responsible for making programs “work” in a pluralistic, problems-oriented environment. Public administrators are also responsible for the day-to-day work with citizens. Dewey’s participatory democracy can be applied in this environment. Dewey and James’ notion of theory as a tool helps administrators craft theories to resolve policy and administrative problems (Whipple, 2005). The birth of American public administration coincides closely with the period of greatest influence of the classical pragmatists. According to the classical pragmatists, knowledge is always shaped by human interests, and the administrator’s focus on ‘outcomes’ simply advances their own interest, but that this focus on outcomes often undermines their citizens’ interests, which often are more concerned with process (Frederickson, et al, 2012).

In thinking about public administration theory, the dichotomy of politics-administration separation is helpful in that it provides parsimony to theory development and application; to the contrary however, sometimes the real world doesn’t act dichotomously in this regard and overlap or poisoning of the dichotomy occurs. One powerful reason to include this theology into the coursework is that Dwight Waldo’s foundation writings (1947) come into play here, particularly from the aspect that it isn’t possible for the fundamental level of administration to be separated from politics. Frederickson (2012) points out that an attack by Waldo is one that presents a difficult challenge to the rooting of any dichotomous ideal in the past or in the future and represents a cornerstone for any student studying public administration.

Positivism [Theories of Bureaucratic Politics]

The positivist movement emerged based on the fundamental notions that knowledge was human-made and that inquiry created a foundation for progress.  Early writings from Comte, Spencer, and Durkheim framed a new dialogue claiming that scientific observation and empirical discovery would lead to a greater society. Theories of bureaucratic politics show utility when the intellectual poverty of the politics-administration dichotomy became apparent.

Although the positivist ideals were later criticized the impact of positivist thinking on the modern social sciences is undeniable.  Positivism, and its subsequent variations, identified the necessity for a more scientific approach to the study of social phenomena and, consequently, introduced validity into the social science realm (Janousek, nd).  As such, positivism has altered the methods by which humans perceive and study the natural world, society, and public administration.

Regardless of the broader impact, the principles of positivism have remained a continual source of debate and identity confusion within the social sciences.  This internal struggle becomes more contentious in disciplines such as public administration, in which an identifiable necessity for a well-defined practicable functionality diverges, and in some cases conflicts, with the foundation of a discernible construct of theoretical knowledge (Janousek, nd).  For instance, institutions within the field of public administration, such as professionalism, espouse the appropriateness for a theoretical and metaphysical structure of purpose, ethics, and values to guide decision making and develop professional character, yet heavily rely on positivist tenets and universal principles to verify the most productive and consistent processes and to substantiate professional practices and recognition (Janousek, nd).  Therefore, it is comprehensible that a dichotomous debate pertaining to the role of positivist science in public administration continues to confuse its identity as an academic discipline.

Dwight Waldo (1984) saw some respectability in the “classical approach” and did not entirely refute its contributions; nevertheless, he recognized several inherent flaws in the classical logic and criticized the notion that public administration could be reduced to a series of measurable “facts.” Waldo (1972) viewed public administration in terms of ambivalence and ambiguity, and he proposed the integration of a multitude of supposedly contentious dichotomies that he identified in the classical approach.  He also asserted that an absolute science of public administration was, in fact, unattainable and undesirable, and he argued that the study of social elements is inherently different and would be limited by the canonical pursuit of scientific application (1956).

Waldo’s objections to the science of public administration were predicated on the notion that there existed other methods by which to accumulate practical and academic knowledge within the field.  According to Waldo, there was much more to the study of public administration than simplified scientific principles; therefore, he advocated for the possibility of new approaches to understanding and developing the discipline. In his 1952 work, Waldo made the claim that any theory of administration has to be a theory of politics. Waldo’s deep reach into public administration theory makes his works a must read in any fundamental class in public administration. This chapter allows readers to make a sense systematically of the confusing arena of public administration as practiced in the “real world” (Frederickson, et al, 2012).

Interpretivism/Antipositivism/Post-Positivism [Postmodern Theory]

Postmodern theory rejects the possibility that any given paradigm is capable of producing universal truths about any social phenomena (Frederickson, et al, 2012). As postmodernists have rejected the politics-administration dichotomy that is present in traditional theory, and without prescribing any suitable replacement, this theory is concentrated on the fact that any given question will have several possible answers, all of which might be valid.

As postmodernism rejects the possibility of a ‘best’ method to organization of administration processes, and believe that traditional theory is wrought with boundaries and constraints; this theory introduces multiple points from which to examine administration. Through this theory examination of relativism can be used as a tool and layers of rational choice and decision making theory can be brought to light in examination of Berger’s social construct of reality. This is a powerful context from which to examine or layer additional theoretical framework upon, yet often produces more questions than it does answers.

Post-Traditional [Theories of Governance]

Much like the human mind, in which layers of experiences combine over time to define the identity of an individual, so, too, the identity of contemporary public administration thought is now composed of an immense complexity and diversity due to a rich heritage of layer upon layer of state-building experimentation and development. Its present-day diversity reflects its vitality, not as some suggest, its decline, or maybe its end (Stillman, 1991).

A tension between accountability and efficiency has marked the contrast of traditional public administration and the new public management (NPM). The traditional model tilts toward accountability. Max Weber’s answer tilted toward accountability in the form of bureaucracy, with strict hierarchical control from the top. Woodrow Wilson’s answer was the politics/administration dichotomy in which civil servants would use efficient techniques to carry out political policy choices. Frederick Taylor’s answer was the tight management control of refined manufacturing techniques of scientific management.

The new public management favors loosening the strictures of the traditional model to allow for more creativity and flexibility in order to achieve new efficiencies and better customer service. It would give lower level managers more flexibility to use their own information and judgment to make decisions. It would encourage managers to take risks and be more entrepreneurial. And it would achieve accountability by measuring outputs rather than by monitoring processes. In states with large public sectors, it encourages privatizing functions, and in states with smaller public sectors it encourages contracting with private organizations for the provision of public goods and services (Frederickson, et al, 2012).

The tension between traditional public administration and the new public management reflects the fundamental tension between accountability and efficiency that has always characterized public administration, but the balance is in flux. In Anglo-American systems the balance has shifted toward efficiency in the late 20th century. While much progress has been made, the main political vulnerability of the contracting out movement in the United States is corruption. The U.S. political system has had long experience with the corruption of public officials by the bribery of greedy contractors. If large scale or high visibility corruption is discovered and attributed to increase contracting, the pendulum will swing back toward accountability. But the advances of the NPM will not be lost entirely, just as the positive contributions of previous management fads were not lost even after their initial formulations had been abandoned (Frederickson, et al, 2012).

A less visible vulnerability of the NPM approach in the U.S. is the gradual eroding of the capacity of the government to oversee competently the production of goods and services. It is difficult for governments to match the higher salaries offered in the business world, even though financial gain is often not the most important incentive for public administrators. But a  strong counter weight to any move by the government to take back control of the production of formerly contracted out services will be the political clout of contractors who will lobby the legislature against elimination of contracting programs (Frederickson, et al, 2012).

New public management approaches can be useful to governments and ought to be seriously considered. But like most frameworks in the field of public administration, NPM is not a one-size-fits-all solution. NPM moreover, allows us to head into a new direction. Including this governance chapter and concept in a fundamentals course allows the student to compare and contrast old and new theories of public administration and adapt them for future consideration and study perhaps inspiring new frameworks yet to be discovered.

What missed the cut?

I’ve spent the majority of this paper explaining which four items I feel would be impossible to live without in a future foundations class for public administration [Pragmaticism, Positivism, Interpretivism, and Post Traditional Theory] and why they are necessary. But what might be of great curiosity to the reader of this paper are what items didn’t make the cut.

Public Institutional Theory

As this is the portion of public administration that is directly concerned with management of a contained or bounded institution or structure and the rules and norms, as well as processes, behaviors, outcomes, and accountabilities that are concerned with the formality of the structure itself, I find it less about public administration specifically, and more of a multidisciplinary theory set. I feel that this set of theories is critical to the background and research into public administration and less directly about or pertaining to outcomes associated with public administration and fairly unreliable. While relevant to the field, it is not a pillar in my foundations model.

Public Management

As this acts as the precursor to NPM, the theories of public management lay the foundation for the science of administration within a positivist frame work (Frederickson, et al, 2012) and therefore act as simply a framework not constituting a theory necessarily or having the influence or impact of theory in public administration. This is a topic of discussion not a pillar for coursework.

Decision Theory

Despite being one of the most empirically based theories in public administration, the basis that it is derived from economic framework and a more sophisticated model almost solely purposed for public administration turns me against it for use in a foundations class. The scope of its predictive power is limited as voiced by Waldo and it takes a hardline toward the administrative behavior of people (Frederickson, et al 2012).

Rational Choice Theory

Finally, this theory didn’t make the top four in that more and more frequently, it is disproven that bureaucrats and humans are not selfish “utility maximizers” but rather individuals who are sensitive to social surroundings (Frederickson, et al 2012) and willing to invest social currency in exchange to engage in organizationally beneficial behaviors (Dirks and Skarlicki, 2004). This would implicate a stereotype for bureaucrats serving in traditional public administration assuming the actors to have drive only for self-interest contrary to public interest. Frederickson’s statement that it lacks both theoretical and empirical evidence within the public administration discipline means that it is probably better emphasized as a multi-disciplinary theory perhaps not a strong public administration theory.

How useful is it?

The one question uniquely related to public administration theory: how useful is it? Despite seeming quite fragmented and often times unclear, the role of theory in public administration has previously served two distinct purposes well 1) assemble facts into a coherent and explanatory whole and 2) to provide perspective on what should be done to create appropriate guides for action (Frederickson et al, 2012); hence very useful in the discipline and gaining momentum through evolution.

No public administration curriculum for foundation or introductory purposes could possibly encompass all that public administration theory is and is not, but it is my belief that inclusion of the four pillars aforementioned that a positive base from which to build can be attained. Much like in the field itself, layering of different theories, experiences, and frameworks aids in growing explanation and the ability to avoid difficulties or problem solve, where another actor has encountered a similar situation and or problem. It is mostly in the combination of approaches that the public administrator will find success.

thank you Nerd Cereal

thank you Nerd Cereal


Comte, A. (1975). A general view of positivism (J.H. Bridges, Trans.). New York: Robert Speller & Sons Publishers, Inc.

Dirks, Kurt T., and Skarlicki, Daniel P. (2004). “Trust in Leaders: Existing Research and Emerging Issues.” In Trust and Distrust in Organizations: Dilemmas and Approaches edited by Roderick M. Kramer and Karen S. Cook. New York: Russell Sage.

Frederickson, H. George, Smith, K.B., Larimer, C.W., Licari, M.J. (2012). The public administration theory primer. Second Edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Janousek,  Christian. (nd). Positivism and Public Administration: A history of positivist thought and an analysis of the debate pertaining to discipline identity and the role of science in public administration. (unpublished article). University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Pfiffner, James P. (2004). Traditional Public Administration versus The New Public Management: Accountability versus Efficiency. Published in Institutionenbildung in Regierung und Verwaltung: Festschrift fur Klaus Konig, A. Benz, H. Siedentopf, and K.P. Sommermann, eds. (Berlin,Germany: Duncker & Humbolt, 2004), pp. 443-454. George Mason University.

Smith, M.J. (1998). Social science in question. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Stillman, Richard J. II (1991). Preface to public administration: A search for themes and direction. Second Edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Waldo, D. (1956). Perspectives on administration. Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Waldo, D. (1972). Supplement: Developments in public administration. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 404, 217-245.

Waldo, D. (1984). The administrative state: A study of the political theory of American public administration (Second Edition). New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.

Whipple, Mark. (2005) The Dewey-Lippmann Debate Today: Communication Distortions, Reflective Agency, and Participatory Democracy. Sociological Theory: 156-78.


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