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History and Its Relevance to Public Administration

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

By Stephen R. Rolandi
December 2, 2022

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George A.N. Santayana (1863-1952)

I have often heard this quotation made by the Spanish/US-American philosopher, George Santayana, essayist, poet and novelist who is identified with the pragmatic and naturalist school of philosophy, and consider it very appropriate when looking at why past events turn out (or do not turn out) the way they should. So this month’s column looks at history and its relevance to public administration.  

As I look back and reflect on the arc of my career in public administration and government, I remember being very fascinated at an early age by history; for example, I took every history and social studies course offered in my high school’s curriculum, and at one point seriously considered becoming a history teacher and professor. My passion for history led me to study political science and ultimately, public administration, and to a career in public service, broadly defined (government, not-for-profit sector, etc.).

History is part of the family of the social sciences, which includes economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, public administration and law. I always wondered how historians do their job—which involves a continuous process of digging for facts, verifying those facts, analysis, writing (and re-writing) and interpretations of past events and occurrences.

History teaches us about these things:

  • Why do some societies succeed and others fail?
  • Why do nations go to war?
  • How do people change society for better, or for worse?

The broader question to ask ourselves is this—what is the point of studying history? How do we know about the past? Does an objective historical truth exist and can we (and future generations) ever access it? Also, what lessons can historians draw not only for current readers and students, but also what can future generations learn from historical events? Does history repeat itself or, as many contend, does it rhyme?

When I was a freshman (first year student) as an undergraduate, I read for an introductory survey course in Western Civilization, a short work (“What is History?”) written by Edward Hallett Carr (1892-1982), who in addition to a career as a historical scholar and journalist, was also a diplomat and delegate from the United Kingdom to the 1919 Paris/Versailles Peace Conference following the end of World War I. Carr’s basic approach to history was from the perspective of someone who had lived through some of the major events of the 20th Century, including the Two World Wars, The Great Depression, Holocaust and the Cold War. He saw history as a continuous dialogue between the past and present; further, historians are influenced by the society that surrounds them. Carr believed that history was more of a science than art, and contributes to contemporary understanding of international politics and relations.

So how does history relate to public administration? What can the public administration community (academics, teachers, practitioners and students) learn and appreciate from history?

History provides valuable materials and tools for the study of public administration, which is an inter-disciplinary field that draws from the other social sciences, such as economics, social developments, government, organizations, etc. History is the laboratory of human experiences. Indeed, all administrative experiences of history make up the subject matter of peoples’ experiments. To study a nation’s administrative system would be incomplete without examining that country’s historical experiences. In our own country, the first serious effort to write a detailed history of administration was made by Professor Leonard D. White in two books—“The Federalists” (1948) and the Jeffersonians (1951).

There is also a very valuable contribution provided in the area of decision-making, which is a frequent topic/subject matter in public administration research and courses. For example, one of the classic studies in decision-making and crisis leadership is that of the 1962 Cuba Missile Crisis where then U.S. President John F. Kennedy faced a confrontation with then USSR Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev over the Soviet government’s decision to build long-range and short-range nuclear warheads placed on missiles from Cuba. Both sides averted a nuclear war; in studying this crisis, we have developed various models of decision-making (see for example, “Essence of Decision” written by Dean Graham T. Allison).

Another important work appeared in 1986 “Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers” co-authored by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May (Professor Neustadt wrote many works about Presidential Power and Alliance Politics). Thinking In Time is a critical analysis of how one can use the ideas we have learned from history to interpret modern day situations and guide the actions of decision-makers.

The authors begin this work by exploring some successful example from history, starting with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The Marshall Recovery Plan for Europe, and the Bi-Partisan Commission to Reform the Social Security Program in 1983. After these examples, the authors take a deep dive into the methodology of how to properly remember and interpret history so that it can shape and guide policy decision and practices. This consists of finding a piece of relevant history that closely matches the situation a decision-maker (and policy analyst) is facing. The next step is to question the assumptions that are right and wrong—to ensure that one remains unbiased and can make the right (or best) judgment about the policy options that are available.

As we begin the holiday season, I would strongly recommend reading “Thinking in Time” and how decision-makers, policy analysts and citizens can profit from the lessons history provides us.

Happy Holidays and New Year!

Author: Stephen R. Rolandi retired in 2015 after serving with the State and City of New York. He holds BA and MPA degrees from New York University, and studied law at Brooklyn Law School. He teaches public finance and management as an Adjunct Professor of Public Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) and Pace University. Professor Rolandi is a Trustee of NECoPA; President-emeritus of ASPA’s New York Metropolitan Chapter and past Senior National Council Representative. He has  served  on many  association boards in Washington, DC and New York. He is a frequent guest commentator on  public affairs and political issues affecting the nation and New York State.

You can reach him at: [email protected] or [email protected] or  914.441.3399 or 212.237.8000.

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