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What If We Believed in Management in Public Organizations?

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Mary Hamilton

In my last column, I introduced you to Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management by Richard Clay Wilson, Jr., former City Manager of Santa Cruz, Calif. Wilson’s major argument in this book is that government at all levels is ‘managerially deficient.’ Read his book or my column, “Who’s Minding the Store in Government?” to find out what he means.

In this column, I want to provoke you with a secondary theme of Wilson’s: The academic discipline of public administration is failing public managers!

Why Can’t Public Administration Schools and Scholars be More Like Business Schools and Scholars?

hamilton mayWilson laments that private sector executives and managers get a lot of support from the academic discipline of business administration while government career executives and managers get very little from the discipline of public administration.

According to Wilson, private sector leaders and managers have the benefit of studying with professors who, “Are interested in what works—they study performance and outcomes. They develop theories too, but they are outcome-oriented theories, not intellectual abstractions.”

As a result, private sector managers can draw on a robust literature that includes keys to success and reasons for failure. Unlike public sector leaders and managers, private sector leaders and managers are familiar with and use the academic literature in their field, thanks to publications like Harvard Business Review, which has no counterpart in public administration.

In addition, business schools assume that management has something to do with performance and outcomes in organizations. Wilson quotes Peter Drucker on executives, “those knowledge workers, managers or individual professionals who are expected by virtue of their position or knowledge to make decisions in the normal course of their work that have significant impact on the performance and results of the whole.”

Why would this not describe public executives as well as private ones??  Wilson argues that public administration schools do not assume that management in public organizations can significantly impact the performance and results of their organizations because politics get in the way. As a result, Wilson argues, there is no comparable body of performance-oriented material for government managers. Wilson sees this invocation of politics as a cop-out.

Whither Public Administration Scholarship?

So what are public administration scholars doing to support practice? Wilson says, “The academic discipline of public administration is a subset of the larger field of political science. Its practitioners study what happens in the institutions of government, but have little or no interest in the performance of those institutions.”

Wilson goes on to argue that if government managers don’t focus on organizational outcomes and performance, no one in government will. He sees managing the performance of organizations and ultimately organizational success, as the most important role of government career executives and managers.

Unfortunately, according to Wilson, “government career executives looking for guidance from the academic discipline of public administration find almost no clear thinking at all about the nature of administrative work.” Why?

“Two interrelated conceptions prevent us from focusing on government administration as a discrete subject. The first is the supremacy of political values, which tells us that even if administration were a valid domain of its own it would not matter because it is subordinate. The second is the view that the political domain extends into every nook and cranny of government administration, rendering the two inseparable and indistinguishable.”

Wilson claims that these two conceptions influence everything written about the administration of government and hence render scholarly work largely dispensable in the eyes of practitioners.

He goes on to argue that the “academic discipline of public administration . . . is mostly not about administration.” Instead, he contends, all public administration theories of management and organization are political. Wilson allows that this isn’t surprising since most public managers are told that their jobs are to “follow directions” or “implement policy.” As he puts it, “One looks in vain in government’s vast store of administrative content for an articulation of larger and longer-term managerial responsibilities.” Also, “the word ‘management’ is itself virtually taboo in the public sector.”

Given this environment of low expectations of government managers and executives, Wilson cuts scholars a little slack: “In fairness . . . scholars of public administration are more disinterested in than dismissive of management. They are, after all, political scientists.”

If we agree that a major role of government career executives is to manage so that the performance and outcomes of their organizations meet or exceed expectations, then what do practitioners need from scholarly research and education in public administration?  What would it take for public administration as a discipline to provide government career executives and managers with the kind of information on what works and what doesn’t in public organizations that will help them find ways to improve performance and outcomes and make public organizations more successful?  I don’t have the answers. Do you? Maybe we should ask some public executives and managers!

What About the Way We Educate Current and Future Public Executives and Managers?

From my previous column on Wilson’s book, I cited his recommendations about what strong public managers could/should do to manage the performance of their organizations so they achieve what they intend. Here I add to those recommendations my notions of the implied skills/knowledge public managers would need to be successful:

  • Report on the ‘state of the organization’, e.g., candid descriptions of successes, failures, future prospects, even if the politicians don’t want to hear them. Skills/Knowledge needed: data analysis and presentation; communication, both written and oral; interpersonal skills.
  • Ask your political bosses for directions regarding the most salient questions and problems the organization faces, and make sure the questions you ask are managerial ones, not political, e.g., about changing rules to reduce administrative complexity, etc. Skills/Knowledge needed: knowledge of the public purpose and context of their organization; clear understanding of the respective roles of politicians and professional managers (read Wilson for this); communication; interpersonal skills.
  • Report on gaps between the directions received from your bosses and institutional capacity. Skills/Knowledge needed: communication—both written and oral; data analysis and presentation; ability to manage and account for organizational resources; knowledge of policy options and cost-benefit analysis.
  • Report on the present and future cost of following the directions you’ve been given. Skills/Knowledge needed: ability to manage financial resources and estimates; communication—both written and oral; data analysis and presentation.
  • Report regularly on the organization’s productivity, e.g., cost-effectiveness, employee and contractor performance, state and use of equipment and property. Skills/Knowledge needed: data analysis and presentation; cost-benefit analysis; performance measurement; ability to manage organizational resources.
  • Look for opportunities to improve the performance of the public sector as a whole, e.g., focusing on the collective performance of government agencies rather than just your own. Skills/Knowledge needed: solid grounding in democratic theory and practice; systems thinking; understanding of collaboration–what works and what doesn’t; interpersonal skills; communication skills.

These are my ideas about what we should be teaching in our MPA programs if we are to prepare future government executives and managers to actually MANAGE in the public sector and do so successfully. What do you think?


Author: Mary R. Hamilton, Ph.D. is a senior executive in residence at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She can be reached at [email protected].

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