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Global Perspectives of Public Administration: How Adaptable Are They To Contextual Conditions?

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

By Sunday Akin Olukoju

In his book, Globalization and Comparative Public Administration and reproduced in the November/December 2011 Public Administration Review article titled “Commentary – Comparative Public Administration: A Global Perspective,” Jamil Jreisat concludes that “topics ranging from accountability and ethics to applications of information technology are increasingly presented as global perspectives that have to be adapted according to each country’s contextual conditions.” Such contextual conditions may “include societal values, legal norms, politics, international global accords, culture and the state of the economy,” according to Jreisat.

Sunday augustHere as well, literacy level, the climate and in certain cases, racial and religious factors should be taken into consideration. Indeed, Jreisat captures the essence of modern public administration when he opines that “countries in all regions of the world are striving for more successful methods of management to deliver public services of better quality and with less cost,” and that the “processes of accountability, ethics and merit-based appointments to public jobs, for example, have no nationality.” While these may sound ideal, each one of these items has to be context-friendly if it must achieve the right purpose.

But how do we adapt core “objectives of cost reduction, policy responsiveness, improving government as an employer and improving public service delivery,” in public administration—identified by Manning and Parison in their book, International Public Administration Reform: Implications for the Russian Federation—if one does not understand the “political context” in “the existing terrain of each country” – an important factor identified by Christopher Pollitt and Geert Bouckaert in their book, Public Management Reform: A Comparative Analysis?

Public administration seeks to promote justice, fairness and equity. It seeks to be the stabilizing force through the principle of neutrality over divisive issues while promoting legality, inclusivity, integrity, accountability, credibility and legitimacy. It develops and protects strong democratic institutions in the course of promoting ethical, merit-based, performance-driven and cost-effective national development. However, adaptation to contextual conditions could be the ‘game-changer’ in different polities. In a recent news report, Vice President Joe Biden called “on Iraq’s leaders to govern in an inclusive manner, promote stability and unity among Iraq’s population as they seek to combat Isis militants.” President Obama, in his speech, left no one in doubt regarding the need for the Iraq government to unite everyone in order to avoid sectarian conflicts.

The political context as well as the societal values, norms and culture in Iraq, and possibly in many parts of the Middle East and Africa appear to support a winner-takes-all, zero-sum game approach to almost everything. Jreisat rightly submits, “In developing societies, dynamic forces have been at work, altering every aspect of life in these systems, and not always in the preferred way or direction.” Jreisat also alluded to the need “to build essential institutional capacity” in these countries. It is pertinent to add that any attempt to build essential institutional capacity without factoring the “contextual conditions” into the equation will end up where Egypt’s experiment with Muslim Brotherhood ended. It will likely experience the sad hiccups that the Nigerian democracy is currently experiencing with its erratic and corrupt public administration. Just as it was with the Iraq experiment, despite its deep-rooted diversity in societal values, norms and culture, as well as ‘the hard-line’ approach of Hamas both in the Hamas-Fatah conflict in Palestine and the Hamas-Israeli conflict over flying rockets from Gaza.

The idea of adaptation is an acknowledgment that something that works well in Canada or the United States will most likely not work exactly the same way in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is an acknowledgement that it could be counterproductive to expect the same gains of democracy without proper customization or adaptation. Quite unlike North America or Europe, deference for age-dictated seniority is still a factor in many public administrations in other parts of the world. Allegiances to religion, tribes or ethnic groups, and family (kith and kin) bonds are stronger in most developing countries, and will most likely affect the dividends or the expectations of a professionally run public administration in those countries.

Then it makes sense to start exploring ways of introducing the principle of inclusivity into a deeply divided polity without compromising the ideals of a public administration that is determined to engender national development. The first step will be an open acknowledgement of real and potential divisions existing within the system. The next one is the introduction of accountability in a cultural context of secrecy that thrives on corruption. An open recognition and acceptance of a country’s mismanagement of resources could lead to a deliberate decision to ‘whack the bloat’ and work/live smarter. Democracy, and its essential institutions, is still struggling for survival in most developing countries. Sadly, it appears that most struggling democracies have ill-equipped institutions, operating in direct contrast to the contextual conditions subsisting in those countries. In the United States and Canada, adaptation could take the form of consulting with visible minorities like Blacks and Aboriginals to chart the way forward, not only about proper policing that is context-friendly, but also about long-lasting relationship of mutual respect that will catalyze development.

The applications of information technology will work well if the country’s contextual conditions allow openness, tolerance, and healthy competition in an environment where citizens are not only educated but also are allowed unfettered access to education. A lot will also depend on infrastructural support in terms of reliable maintenance and sustainability culture.



Author: Sunday Akin Olukoju is the president of the Canadian Center for Global Studies, a nonprofit organization. Olukoju also teaches at Athabasca University in Alberta Canada.

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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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