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Public Administration-Better or Not Here We Come: Making Changes Based on Challenges

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

By Tosha Wilson-Davis
November 16, 2018

Photo Courtesy of http://blogs.cornell.edu

Defining Public Administration

In a nutshell, public administration is simply defined as government in action. Local, state and federal government organizations are responsible for some level of service to American citizens. Yet, there have been several instances where words such as ineffective, inefficient and inaccurate have been used to describe public administration among all levels of government.

On the surface, the definition seems straightforward. Yet, there are several elements within public administration that seems to make this field more complex and ever so challenging. For instance, there is a political context which makes this field public and different from private and business administration. In addition, this field of study includes other contexts such as legal and managerial.

The Political Context

In the political context, public administration in action is the Housing and Urban Development proposal requesting additional funding, the Department of Family and Children services administering the food stamp and WIC program, the CIA agent working diligently to decode the captured messages of terrorists, and finally, FEMA assisting Hurricane Irma and Michael victims. In each of the above examples, government employees are performing tasks that affect the daily lives of all citizens.

With such “goodness” occurring each day ranging from the most heroic to the mundane, why are there still challenges and ineffectiveness within public administration? To help us answer this question, Hal G. Rainey (2014) states that “both elected and politically appointed officials face short terms in office, complex laws and rules that constrain the changes they can make, intense external political pressures, and sometimes their own amateurishness. Many concentrate on pressing public policy issues, and at their worst, exhibit political showmanship and pay little attention to the internal management of agencies and programs under their authority.”

Legal Context of Public Administration

When we examine the legal context of public administration, we do so by reviewing public law. Public administration is the execution of public law, and public administrators must adhere the regulations and laws that the legislation allows their agency when drafting, implementing and executing public policies. But is this always the case? Unfortunately, this is not always the case. This could be due to the constant changes in regulations and the conflicting opinions and viewpoints of the various stakeholders. The chaos ultimately leads to citizens’ distrust in public and governmental organizations’ ability to perform and even an extensive amount of criticism over the past years.

Managerial Context of Public Administration

In addition to its political and legal contexts, public administration (the public’s business) would not get done without the managerial component. It is important to note that management refers no only to the individuals running an organization, but also to the organizational process itself. This includes the CEO making big decisions and outlining the organization’s mission, goals and values.

According to this article, a stout visionary leader is one who is “skillful in designing and creating an organizational culture which will make possible the attainment of the leader’s vision and ideas. In fact, creating this organizational culture may be the most lasting contribution of the leader for it will consist of the enduring values, vision and beliefs that are shared by members of the organization.”

Final Say: Oversight and Accountability Matters

Considering the three different contexts discussed above, defining and understanding public administration can be quite difficult. It is a concept that draws primarily from political science, law, and management. Nonetheless, with its many layers, there is bound to be several challenges.

Lack of oversight and accountability leads to ineffective public administration. As a result, fraud, waste and abuse occurs. Therefore, it is imperative that public administration includes a reasonable amount of oversight and organizations must invest in adequate training for not only subordinates but also leadership. Doing so will ensure an equation of success which is quite simple: Effective public administration leads to favorable outcomes for all involved.

Whether or not there is enough training, resources or accountability, public administration will be carried out daily. Instead of just “letting it happen” or keeping the attitude “this is how it has always been done,” it is time for organizations to perform continuous program evaluation, which allows leaders, managers and policy makers alike an opportunity to adequately review program successes and/or failures and implement meaningful solutions.

The bottom line is simple. Organizations cannot become overly committed to existing policies and programs, because this poses great harm and impede the capacity to learn from experience and to improve government performance. If we look at our current economic and financial landscape, this is something we just cannot afford.


Author: Tosha Wilson-Davis, MPA, MSCJ, Justice Studies Department Chair/Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, Georgia Military College [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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