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Paradigm Shifts in Public Administration – Towards New Benchmarks and Best Practices

Column 1: Towards New Merit System Standards

By Siegrun Fox Freyss

Public administration theories and practices are experiencing a substantial transformation from the modern to the postmodern epoch. High-tech developments and increased population diversity are important aspects of the transformation. They contribute to greater complexity in governance issues. In the coming months this column will describe several approaches that have emerged as possible new benchmarks and pathways into the future.  

benchmarkThe 75th anniversary of ASPA is an appropriate milestone to compare modern with postmodern benchmarks in public administration. The adoption of the merit system across the country was undoubtedly one of the most important benchmarks of the modern age. It introduced standardized testing procedures, provided job security and required political neutrality of public employees. The adoption of classification systems and fixed pay structures became additional measures of merit systems.

In general, the modern public bureaucracy was set up to maximize efficiency. It was to function like a well-tended machine that could serve the industrial economy by building a strong infrastructure. Considering the degree of corruption in government, we know that this goal was not always achieved but at least benchmarks had been established.

In the ensuing years, the merit system model came under attack for its rigid rules, especially hiring, tenure and pay policies. Texas abolished its merit system for most of its state and local employees in the 80s. Georgia followed in the 90s, and many other states tweaked various aspects of traditional civil service provisions.

What is postmodern about these developments? It is the greater flexibility and decentralization of managerial decision-making. Postmodernists argue that under high-tech conditions, the future of best practices is fuzzy and rigid rules should not be adopted. They could function like straightjackets and be counterproductive.

One example is the traditional pyramid structure of organizations. It establishes a top-down hierarchy and clear chain of command. This setup works when superiors are more knowledgeable than their subordinates. Under high-tech conditions, however, mid- and lower level employees may be more knowledgeable and faster learners of new hardware and software.

A learning partnership is recommended in such a situation, where seniors pass on their organizational and substantive knowledge, while junior partners share their tech savviness. To make such an exchange successful, hiring and promotion procedures need to include the testing of applicants for their willingness to learn, as well as for their ability to communicate their expertise. Overall, employers are advised to make learning a core value of their organizational culture or a best practice.

A note on the concept of best practices is appropriate here. The concept is controversial in some quarters. Opponents argue that it is pretentious and prefer more modest terms like recommended practices. A theme of postmodern criticism is the opposition to scholarship that seeks to uncover grand theories of a foundational nature. For these critics, postmodern best practices are an oxymoron.

However, in public administration theory and practice, the concept does not imply a universal truth. Instead, the acceptance of best practices is tenuous since they can be revised by various methods, such as statutory law, case law and judicial rulings, the work of professional organizations and measures adopted by public and private employers. Discourse and the acceptance of change are integral parts of the learning process.

Let me illustrate this learning process using the merit system as example. In a graduate seminar we studied the history of the merit system and its evolution over time. We also discussed the objections raised in Texas, Georgia and other states. Quite a few students agreed with the criticism, especially the automatic step increases and promotions, because the students felt that their agency would work better with younger and more competent leadership.

But then an international student spoke up. In his diplomatic voice (he was a consul from an African nation) he asked students to reconsider their criticism of the merit system. He argued quite correctly that substantial corruption still existed in many countries around the world. As a solution, he expressed support for the merit system principles and strict enforcement. In his view, it would set a very bad example abroad if a substantial number of American governments, federal, state or local, abolished the merit system.

Only a few years later severe corruption cases surfaced in a dozen local jurisdictions in Southern California, thanks to the diligent work of the Los Angeles Times. The cases demonstrated that a written merit system policy was no guarantee against corruption. Cases in other states, like Illinois, led to the same conclusion. The Governing journal is a good source of information on merit system changes across the country. Table 1 is an attempt to bring some order to the various arguments. Future columns will describe management innovations that work better when merit system standards are simplified.

Table 1: The Merit System – Towards New Practices


Degree of Corruption


Merit System in Place







examine possible deficiencies, e.g. rigid rules, that justify simplifying merit system


perhaps adoption of a formal merit system not necessary



enforce the law

adopt a merit system law or ordinance and enforce it 

A brief explanation of the concept “paradigm” is in order. The term refers to large-scale, fundamental assumptions embedded in society, culture and knowledge accumulation. A paradigm shift means fundamental changes in these assumptions. The term was introduced into the academic vocabulary by Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the idea of “postmodern.” The transcendence of the modern, industrial age has taken interesting turns in many disciplines. In the field of public administration, it seems the term was introduced in the 1990s, facilitated by the Public Administration Theory Network, which publishes the journal Administrative Theory & Praxis. True to the founders’ inclination, the Network and journal lean towards a critical, polemic analysis of public administration phenomena.


Author: Siegrun Fox Freyss is professor emerita at California State University, Los Angeles. She taught, and still teaches part-time, graduate and undergraduate courses in public administration. She is the co-author and editor of two books on public sector HRM. Other publications appeared as journal articles and book chapters. Fox Freyss received her Ph.D. in Government from the Claremont Graduate University and a Master’s Degree in applied geography from the Technical University, Munich, Germany. She can be reached at [email protected].

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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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