Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Public Administration: How it All Started in Egypt, China and Rome

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

By Laila El Baradei
November 3, 2021

“Management of Government programs,” is how we choose to define what the discipline of Public Administration is all about. This is a four-word definition that is much more complicated than how it sounds. In the United States there is always this reference to the article by Woodrow Wilson as the starting point for the study, teaching and establishment of an independent field in Public Administration. Occasionally, there is also mention of the roots of the practice of public administration, and a reference to the Ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Roman civilizations. Although an in-depth investigation of the historical developments of public administration systems in these three ancient civilizations will not be possible in a brief article, remembering some of the basic pillars of government bureaucracy established during these times may serve as inspiration to other scholars and an incentive for conducting more research.

Public Administration in Ancient Egypt:

What is unique about the Ancient Egyptian civilization and the Ancient Egyptian state is that it continued over more than 3 millennia from 3100-343 BC. The term state, although sometimes reserved for more modern 15th and 16th century entities in Europe, was perceived by others to be well established during the Ancient Egyptian times. The main statehood elements were there, including: a clearly marked territory, an administrative apparatus and a population abiding to authority.

A simplified description of the government structure in Ancient Egyptian times marks it as resembling a pyramid. The King/Pharaoh was positioned at the top of the pyramid, held supreme power and his words were considered law. He held ownership of the land and all material resources of the country at large and was the supreme military commander. Beneath the King was the visir, the word now used in Arabic to refer to a minister, but during Ancient Egyptian times it referred to the Prime Minister equivalent. The visir played various roles. He was the King’s Chief Architect, was responsible for all the administration affairs and was also the chief justice. Additionally, on the same level as the visir, there was the High Priest. Middle level officials were responsible for a wide array of functions, including agriculture, the granaries, the treasury, trade, public works and the army. Next, lower level officials were responsible for dealing directly with craftsmen, farmers and soldiers. The country was divided into 42 regions, referred to as nomes, each headed by a nomarch who reported to the visir.

During the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (2050-1780 BC), there are reports of a very sophisticated system for workers’ management, including keeping rosters of names, developing work targets, regularly checking and monitoring performance and paying out wages.

Ancient Egypt had a well-developed education system catering to the development of civil servants so as to prepare them for the jobs they were going to occupy in government. The education given to the future civil servants was described as catering to teaching them the technical aspects of state management plus developing their overall intellectual abilities.

Public Administration in Ancient China:

Meanwhile, the timeline of the Ancient Chinese civilization dates back to 1766 BC to 220 AD, with the Western Han Empire (206 BC – 23 AD) being one of the most prominent and recognized bureaucratic empires. It is reported that under the Han empire there were around 60 million people under its control and 120 thousand government officials serving them. The emperor was the head of the Han empire and was aided by the bureaucracy to manage the country. The emperor was the source of authority. The government administration was headed by a chancellor to whom thirteen bureaus reported with titles including: memorials, communication, military transportation, gold, criminal executions and granaries. A well-developed system of recruiting, promoting and annual auditing of government officials was in place.

Public Administration in Ancient Rome:

The Ancient Roman civilization is marked from 753 BC to 476 AD. In Ancient Rome, there was a well-functioning centralized administration system and, similar to Ancient Egypt, education was perceived as vital for the preparation of civil servants. There was a clear hierarchical structure for government, headed by the emperor, and under him various heads of states overseeing different organizations responsible for the various state functions, including: taxation, military, internal and foreign affairs.

The above was a just a quick peek into the historical origins of public administration during the three great civilizations in Egypt, China and Rome. It is a reminder to all of us, public policy and public administration scholars and practitioners alike, that we need to delve more into history, every now and then, to understand how it all started. In all three civilizations, there were many elements of what we associate with the modern traditional features of public administration, namely: organizational structure, hierarchy, division of labor, work specialization, capacity building for civil servants and even a reward system. We are all aware of the famous saying: “History Repeats Itself,” and more or less agree with it, but we rarely take the time to derive lessons from this repetition that can guide us during the current times.

Author: Laila El Baradei, Ph.D. is a Professor of Public Administration at The American University in Cairo, Egypt. She is currently the director of the MPA Program and is a regular contributor to PA Times Online. Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

One Response to Public Administration: How it All Started in Egypt, China and Rome

  1. David Calkins Reply

    November 7, 2021 at 9:13 am

    Thank you for sharing this. I agree that the history of public administration and its practice in other countries are important to understanding and improving our current situation. It’s so interesting to me that the same themes are often present throughout history and in different parts of the world. Great job!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *