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Is American Public Administration in Decline?

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

By Michael Ford
August 27, 2018

No. Despite the recent conclusions of Francis Fukuyama, Public Administration (PA) is not a field that has “lost its way again” after a “period of innovation and creativity driven by the economists.” The main flaw in Fukuyama’s argument is his narrow conceptualization of PA as a small number of university programs aimed at providing practical skills to future federal employees. In fact, our field is comprised of hundreds of programs populated by pre- and mid-career students working (or training to work) across sectors and levels of government.

While I happily concede that Fukuyama is correct “there has been no dominant approach to public sector reform generated by administrative scholars” since the 1990s, I will not concede this is a bad thing. As Woodrow Wilson wrote in the same seminal essay quoted by Fukuyama: “Wherever regard for public opinion is a first principle of government, practical reform must be slow and all reform must be full of compromises. For wherever public opinion exists it must rule.” Those working in the United States’ 89,000 local governments must govern in a way that respects the needs and values of the governed in each unique context. Administering the contested values of the governed in an equitable and efficient manner requires the study and implementation of diverse approaches… and that is exactly what is happening in PA today.

Take the pillar of social equity for example. Though first embraced as a concept in our field, it is now being operationalized, measured and implemented in ways that are improving the performance and legitimacy of governments across the country. Or consider the idea of representative bureaucracy, which is increasingly shown to improve citizen trust in government, as well as government performance. Both of these approaches are spurring innovations that take on the challenge of “America’s pathological distrust of government,” which Fukuyama called “the biggest factor blocking serious public administration reform.” An equitable and representative government improves citizen trust and enhances government legitimacy.

Or look at the sprawling work related to governance. Research on network governance, meta-governance and the New Public Governance is confronting (and working to address) the practical administrative challenges resulting from the increased use of non-government actors in the delivery of public goods and services. A cursory glance at almost any PA journal reveals a plethora of innovative research on the study of micro-governance, i.e. the administration of organizations delivering public goods and services, and macro-governance, i.e. the management of public goods and services at the societal level.

These examples scratch the surface of the theories and approaches being developed, tested, studied and implemented by PA scholars and professionals. Though the multi-disciplinarian nature of PA may make it look chaotic or impure from the outside, it is what gives our field the potential to meet the challenge of administering a complex and democratic society where definitions of what works and what is most efficient are dependent on both hard measurables and citizen values.

Of course, the diversity of the field does not mean there are not hard practical skills taught to all students in PA programs. In my own MPA program we offer budgeting, research methods, grant writing, human resources and, yes, administrative law. Our recent graduates are applying these practical skills in state government, local government, the nonprofit sector, education administration and federal agencies. My program is not some outlier, these practical courses are the norm across MPA programs and national data from NASPAA indicate that a MPA is still very much a pipeline to public service.

Fukuyama does raise some valid points. Distrust in government remains a huge barrier to government effectiveness. Economists (and plenty of scholars from outside PA) have and continue to make important contributions. Yes, like all academic fields, we have our problems, but the conclusion that American PA is in decline is inconsistent with the reality of PA education and scholarship today. Recent political shocks, high profile attacks on the administrative state, and the changing ways citizens interact with government are challenging us, but they are also sparking the creativity and innovation that Fukuyama says is lacking.

To be fair the decline argument is, as previously stated, based on a narrow view of American PA. This poses some important questions for the PA community to ponder. Is Fukuyama an outlier or is there a broader perception of a narrowly defined PA in decline? If that perception exists, does it matter? Is there more we can do to connect our work, at the local level in particular, with external audiences? How can we build better connections across PA programs of different sizes and specialties? And as always, how can we improve the relevancy of our field? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I do know ours is a remarkably diverse field whose broad scope, interdisciplinary nature, growing methodological and theoretical rigor, and penchant for self-reflection suggests anything but decline.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.

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