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Public Administration From the 100,000-foot View

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

By John Pearson
November 12, 2018

Each of the 195 countries on this planet has a public sector and public administration in one form or another. There are major variations among these countries as to size and scope of the public sector. Very poor countries tend to have small public sectors because of their limited tax base. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has a per capita GDP of $800 and national government spending of $3.4 billion. The US, by comparison, has a per capita GDP of $59,500 and national government spending of $4 trillion.

The majority of countries are considered democratic to some degree. Some countries follow generally established international norms of behavior and others do not. The press has recently reported on several countries that have engaged in extra-judicial killings. Some countries do not have a clear separation of church and state.

Some countries have a severe corruption problem that hurts their economic prospects. The CIA World Factbook says this about the DRC: Systemic corruption since independence in 1960, combined with countrywide instability and intermittent conflict that began in the early-90s, has reduced national output and government revenue, and increased external debt.

In other countries like the US, government corruption is rare, and most government decisions conform to the rule of law. Countries like the U.S. have a well-developed court system that ensures that the rule of law applies.

In the US, the rule of law is a primary public value. After that, public officials are expected to use their limited resources as efficiently as possible in pursuit of a multitude of objectives defined by law or oversight agencies. For example, managers face pressure to improve the customer service experience while at the same time minimizing program error rates. Individuals, organizations and even countries have values. It cannot be said that public administration as a field has values any more than the field of chemistry has values.

Some public sector functions have no counterpart at all in the private sector such as:  legislatures; the courts; the central bank; the military; police agencies; agencies that regulate the environmental or banks, agencies that administer entitlement and welfare programs, and agencies that operate mass transit programs. Other government functions may have private sector counterparts. There may be government hospitals and schools as well as private hospitals and schools. There may be a government weather service and a private weather service.

All governments must decide on the level of taxation and the composition of services to be provided.

Most governments have not adopted socialism – government ownership of business enterprises. Most well off countries, instead, have adopted welfare state policies that redistribute income through the tax system and through entitlement and welfare benefits.

For FY 2018, U.S. government outlays are estimated at $4.1 trillion and revenues are estimated at $3.3 trillion. The deficit is $793. Debt held by the public (the accumulated deficits) is $15.7 trillion.

For the US, total outlays for national security related issues exceed one trillion. The major components include:

  • Department of Defense ($786.5)
  • Department of Veterans Affairs $152.2)
  • Department of Homeland Security ($76.4 billion)
  • Department of State ($23 billion)

The Social Security ($777.5 billion) and Medicare ($804.5 billion) programs are significant parts of the budget.  Both of these programs also have a significant welfare (income redistribution) component as well.

Other programs are entirely a form of income redistribution:

  • Earned Income Tax Credit ($57.9 billion),
  • Supplemental Security Income ($47.7 billion)
  • Food and Nutrition Assistance ($78.4 billion)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ($12.5 billion)
  • Head Start ($5.5 billion)
  • Child Tax Credit ($57.9 billion)
  • Payments for Foster Care ($18.3 billion)
  • Medicaid ($334.9)
  • Obamacare subsidies ($39.7 billion)
  • Child Medicaid ($17.1 billion)
  • Indian Health Services ($4.6 billion)
  • Rental Assistance ($6.9 billion)
  • Public Housing ($2.2 billion)
  • Homeless Assistance ($6.9)

There are many additional welfare type programs.

Government agencies at least in the U.S. are creatures of the legislature. They are subject to political supervision by both the legislature and political appointees in the executive branch. Their decisions are also reviewable in the courts. The legislature defines the mission of government agencies and may specify in great detail exactly what the agency is supposed to do. Government agencies have a product line fixed by law unlike private organizations that are free to add or discontinue products and services as they see fit.

Congress has delegated administrative decisionmaking to numerous agencies including the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration. Such agencies process literally millions of decisions regarding the rights of individuals.

Government agencies may divide their responsibilities into a headquarters and field staffs. For example, the Social Administration has a headquarters and numerous field offices. Government agencies have political appointees at the top who are loyal to the elected executive and can attempt to execute his policies.  The permanent staff of civil servants is theoretically non-partisan. Of course, these individuals do have differing opinions and values and sometimes these differences may affect decision outcomes if discretion exists for a decision.


Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [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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