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Practical Comparative Public Administration: Apples and Oranges

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

By Thomas Poulin
November 30, 2018

All public agencies face the challenge of addressing unlimited problems with limited resources. In any setting, public administrators face ongoing challenges to provide the highest quality of services possible. No public administrator seeks to re-invent the wheel in pursuit of these goals, but they often face push-back in comparing their organizations to others, hearing a common refrain from those in their own organization that they are comparing apples and oranges. I do not disagree, but how you perceive this comparison is important, and a practical approach to comparative public administration can make all the difference. As noted in the table below, oranges and apples are similar in many ways, though not all. Understanding and appreciating those differences can be critical in achieving successful comparisons.

We might find that focusing solely on the differences between objects (including other organizations and disciplines) limits our ability to learn from others. Clearly, we must recognize those differences, but also must consider the similarities. This will help us to learn from both the best practices and the errors of others, helping us to take our organizations into the future. The similarities will serve as potential areas of learning and growth. The differences have to do with our understanding of context, to determine if we can use that learning in our own areas. For those in the public sector, some points of almost universal similarity to consider are:

  • Service-oriented organization, not production oriented.
  • Tend to have formal, hierarchical organizational structures.
  • Tend to have workforces organized across differing geographical areas and sometimes across temporal areas (shift work)
  • The larger the organization, the more specialization in positions. The smaller the organization, the more likely employees will have to be cross-trained to carry out many tasks on a routine basis.
  • Budgets tend to be controlled by external, elected, political bodies.
  • Subject to legislative controls related to hiring, promotion, compensation, and benefits.
  • May have unionized work force, but most do not.
  • Senior officials of each department are typically appointed by elected officials, but some are elected.
  • Front line personnel do the work, front line supervisors insure work is done properly (often acting as a working supervisor), mid-managers coordinate and oversee activities, with upper management focusing more on policy
  • Leaderships is important in all organizations.
  • For most positions, a tendency to promote from within, or at least from other public sector organizations.
  • Structures and policies may limit the ability of leadership to excel, but many mid- and lower-ranking individuals may not have the ability to change structures or policies

These points focus more on the sector itself, but we will also see many similarities within disciplines. Health departments provide screenings. Law enforcement investigates crime. Social service agencies deal with helping at-risk individuals within the community. This is common across local, state, and national boundaries. Unquestionably we will find some differences in how the services are provided depending on the community size and setting, but often the service delivery has been institutionalized. Emergency medical services in the United States are provided using differing modalities, including third-agency, fire-based, police-based, health-based, hospital-based, volunteer or private sector contracting. However, the services they provide are largely the same, meaning each could learn from studying others, regardless of the sector – the discipline becomes an effective focal point for comparison.

When engaged in comparative public administration, consider BOTH the similarities and the differences. Try to find what you can from other organizations and other disciplines. You may find some aspects are wholly different – that might very well happen. However, in many instances, you will find you may face the same challenges as many in both the public and private sectors, meaning we can learn from them and they can learn from us. Approaching issues through a rigid vision of the apples and oranges argument may limit the resources available to us to be more successful in any field. This is something we all might wish to consider, if we are truly serious about serving our communities as best we can.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is a core faculty member of Capella University’s public administration programs. Prior to that, he served in local government for over thirty years. He may 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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