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Beyond Scientific Management

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

By Yunsoo Lee
September 26, 2020

A few years ago, the Korean central official training institute had launched a curriculum for educating public servants to be the, “Steve Job of Public Administration.” This example represented how the Korean government stressed innovation in the public sector. In recent years, a good deal of attention has been focused on how government motivates public servants to be more innovative. Unfortunately, many attempts often failed. One answer to these failures lies in the question, “Is the Steve Jobs of public administration well suited to scientific management?”

For a long time, numerous governments have been pursuing principles of scientific management. Due to the efforts and development of technology, some administrative work has become computerized and accomplished with precision. Ironically, advanced scientific management highlights the importance of creativity and innovation in the public sector. My central argument is that public servants need to do what machines cannot do and need extra time and resources to be innovative.

Taylor’s Efficiency and its Limitation

Frederick Taylor once said, “Under scientific management the initiative of the workmen is obtained practically with absolute regularity, while under the best of the older type of management this initiative is only obtained spasmodically and somewhat irregularity.” His words were persuasive because many government jobs were largely expected. Meanwhile, computer technology has considerably increased the information available to monitor or detect deviation from normal patterns of field offices. For now, machines are executing many parts of tasks once conducted by public servants. For instance, mundane paper work like verifying proof of residence is now issued by machines. In some sense, technology embodied what Taylor dreamt. When it comes to ordinary computerized work, machines perform even better jobs than public servants. Therefore, what public servants need to do should be what machines cannot do. In addition, as complexity mounts, scientific management emphasizing machine-like efficiency often cannot respond to unexpected events and changing work environments. This is where public servants do their job.

It became common belief that innovation is crucial in the public sector. However, the problem is that innovation may oppose principles of scientific management. Some previous research argued that the availability of slack resources improves creative performance. This can contrast with Taylor’s view. What Taylorism emphasizes is to minimize slack resources through scientific management. Therefore, Taylorism can conceive that the necessary condition for innovation is inefficient and ineffective. From my perspective, however, innovation can be inefficient but effective. Public servants continue to work the same way they did before. Sometimes, however, the old way should be changed because the external environment is altered. At this moment, public servants find out new ways to work where they need innovation. In the short term, it can be inefficient because changing has cost. In the long term, however, it is effective because innovation provides new ways for new circumstances.

Work Performance in the 21stcentury

Diverse factors can contribute to organizational creativity from organizational culture to individual characteristics. Among numerous factors, I accentuate the ability to adopt citizens’ opinion. In the past, public administrators viewed citizens as subjects, where administrators have control over the people. These days, however, citizens can play a very large role in creativity in the public sector because citizens know what they want. Thus, public servants need to put citizens’ voices into practices. Their recommendable capability is to harness citizens’ thoughts in an innovative way. If public servants adopt citizens’ ideas well—the effect of collaboration—a value of cooperation and teamwork between citizens and government would be huge and eventually would lead to better quality of public service.

It is hard to eliminate all the routinized work of the public sector, and accordingly Taylor’s scientific management is still rudimentary to running governments. In recent days, the Korean public authorities are attempting to keep track of who visits government buildings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, many frontline officers have to spend their time on checking visitors’ identities. The problem is that there is a trade-off between innovative and mundane tasks such as checking citizens’ identities. Checking identities absorbs vast amounts of time that could have been used for researching how to innovate their process and help citizens. Technology might play a significant role in resolving this tradeoff. For instance, technology such as a Quick Response (QR) code can relieve the burden of checking citizens’ identity. Public employees can spend their time and efforts educating citizens who do not know how to use a QR code. In the meantime, public servants should focus on investigating what citizens want in depth and examining how to improve tasks. In doing so, government performance would improve. In order for the government to provide better quality of public service, Taylor’s scientific management is not enough. Technology coupled with innovative management should be implemented in the public sector.


Author: Yunsoo Lee is an assistant professor at School of Political Science and Public Administration, Shandong University. He holds a PhD in public administration and a master degree in public policy. His main research interests are public management, citizen trust in government, and airport.

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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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