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An Independence Day Review: How the Scope of Public Administration in America Has Changed Since Its Inception

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sean Ziller
July 11, 2019

The Inauguration of Washington by Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives (1975)

It would be an oversimplification to state that over the course of 243 years, the United States of America—in innumerable ways—has transformed. Whether these changes have occurred demographically, socioeconomically or geographically—taking place incrementally or all at once—such shifts have had a direct impact on how public administrators at each level of government directly serve their constituents. Therefore, as we enter into a new year of this, “American experiment,” it is important to reflect, as best we can, on how far this field has come and where it is positioned today. Doing so would allow both the practical and academic sectors of the discipline to then better understand where the field is potentially headed. Particularly as we look to continue best serving our fellow citizens in our own respective corners of the public sphere, it’s critical that we recognize the original intentions underpinning public administration in early America. This will help us ensure that any reforms occurring today are to the ultimate benefit of the process and the people.

Throughout our collective history, scholars have looked to analyze the public administrator’s place in the current political and governing climate. What legacy does the discipline continue to leave, and what are the current innovations that leaders are employing to best serve their constituents? In a 1976 article entitled, “Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Heritage of American Public Administration” in Public Administration Review, renowned political scientist Lynton K. Caldwell reemphasized the concept that public administration in America, “Has been a process of adapting the theories and practices implicit in this [the Founding Father’s] new political order to the radically changing circumstances of American life.” Crucial to this theory is, ostensibly, understanding the original intentions of leaders like Jefferson and Madison in how to best activate each level of government in serving the public. This understanding is critical to the field’s continued subsistence. But the processes of public administration must also be prepared to meet the demands of a changing American landscape without sacrificing those principles of self-governance.

As Caldwell explains, during the first decade following America’s birth, government-makers were naturally predisposed to maintaining an Executive branch with more limited authority and, generally, processes of public administration would remain closely tailored. Much of the thinking at the time can be revealed through careful review of documents such as the United States Constitution or deeper commentary contained within The Federalist Papers. Federal government administering, in particular, and the thinking surrounding it, rapidly changed during early presidencies. How states and local entities operated were thus directly impacted, notably at a time when their full powers and reach were still being dissected. As the country has continued to encounter increasingly complex challenges, the field of public administration has, therefore, been routinely tested in new ways.

Numerous entries could be written regarding how public administration has transformed both globally and over the course of nearly the last three centuries in the United States. Analysts now mark more global shifts in the field by categorizing them into models, distinguished by their approach and the time period during which they are employed. As highlighted by the Global Centre for Public Service, these approaches include the Old Public Administration and New Public Management of the 1980s and 1990s, and also more recent forms like New Public Governance. Public administration saw an even more radical transformation after the recession that occurred in the late 2000s, as both the federal government and states faced greater burdens under which they had to continue to deliver services. Nonprofit administration has also been impacted by these variations; having to readily respond to changing conditions across levels of government while still supporting their respective communities.

Apart from considering how changes ushered in through elections have massively impacted the delivery of certain public services over time, the observable changes to the field of public administration remain at the forefront of any cursory analysis. For instance, the methods through which public administration is conducted have radically revolutionized. Augmented by a larger and more connected bureaucracy across all levels of government, mechanisms such as new technology have allowed for often quicker service delivery and more immediate accessibility to data that helps to inform decision-making. As noted by Professor G. Terry Madonna in a 2016 PA Times article, emerging demographics such as millennials—possessing their own unique insights and knowledge—are also helping to transform how public administration is conducted. As the larger demographics of the country change, so do those involved in contributing to its success—influencing public action through their own experiences. However, what connects each generation to the historical framework of this discipline is, as Susan T. Gooden states in her PA Times article entitled, “Our Bold and Noble Profession”, the, “Values-based approach,” to achieving the larger objective. In other words, despite juxtaposing processes, changing external forces and transforming ways of thinking, administrators today share the same ethical commitment to our communities that those of the past hopefully possessed, while simultaneously helping to preserve the larger democratic process through the fulfillment of our work.


Author: Mr. Sean L. Ziller is a policy analyst / consultant with Conduent State and Local Solutions, Inc. in Philadelphia. He possesses a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science – King’s College (PA) and a Master of Public Administration – Penn State University. All opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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