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Attack on the Administrative State

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

By Ferd H. Mitchell and Cheryl C. Mitchell
March 10, 2017

The Trump administration has begun an overt attack on the “administrative state,” in which unelected officials are essentially writing new laws, making political decisions and redirecting public programs according to their values. The field of public administration is under a type of pressure that has not been experienced in the past, and the future of the field will be determined by how administrators and faculty choose to respond.

There are three types of responses that may take place: administrators can simply “ride with the waves” and try to continue business as usual; attempt a counterattack and try to neutralize the pressures; or assess the situation and adapt as deemed most appropriate. The most effective response will likely involve a combination of these strategies. Administrators may try to continue some administrative activities unchanged despite pressures (passive resistance), try to push back wherever deemed important to protect specific activities (active resistance) and assess and adapt to respond to the situation.

It is essential to recognize the future of public administration lies in the attitudes of the public toward the activities of government. Without public support, agencies will find themselves subject to constant charges they are not serving a legitimate and valuable function. A combination of passive and active resistance can help maintain the stability of existing administrative operations, but may be a completely inadequate response to the changes now threatening to sweep the field. There is an urgent need to assess where public administration is today, consider the strengths and weaknesses of the field and adapt in the most effective ways.

change 3Without such a willingness to seek new ways for evaluating and dealing with the basic activities of the field, there is a real risk public administration will become associated with an image of a behind-the-scenes, invisible and unaccountable government that does not operate in support of average people. It is important to be able to demonstrate the field is a key positive means for creating public programs that work and contribute to everyone. There is a need to demonstrate in an effective way that public administration is a valuable and essential contributor to the welfare of the country.

For these reasons, assessment and adaptation will also be required if the field is to operate effectively and be recognized for its contributions.

We have described how the field of public administration may most effectively evolve and adapt in a time of constant change. We have indicated how such approaches may be used to develop effective programs. We have also demonstrated how these strategies may be used to evaluate proposed changes in Obamacare by drawing on lessons learned from the past.

We have proposed all program designs and changes, and plans for program implementation, should explicitly include an analysis of the likely reactions by individuals and organizations to these changes. In this way, program outcomes will more closely reflect expectations, lead to more public satisfaction and reduce widespread frustration with public programs. Only through such means will it be possible to improve recognition of those in the field, and counter charges that public administration is “part of the problem” with demonstrations of the value and relevance of an effective administrative state.


Authors: Ferd Mitchell and his wife, Cheryl (MPA), are both attorneys and authors. They are partners at Mitchell Law Office in Spokane, Washington and work together on programs and activities related to health care and the elderly for over 30 years. Ferd’s degrees include a DPA from the University of Southern California.

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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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