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Strategies for Improving the Public Administration “Brand” in an Anti-Government Culture

EDITOR’S NOTE: We continue our publication of the ASPA Founders’ Forum Fellow (FFF) papers with this piece, number 9 of 12. As stated previously, the papers will appear in alphabetical order, with two papers posted each week until all 12 are online.


Alexandru Roman

Historical Burden
Public administration suffers from what I like to call a “schizophrenic re-identification tendency”–a habitual predisposition of answering its hardest questions by falling into a theory or practice frenzy of repackaging old concepts into new shiny boxes. Every two decades or so, the field vehemently rejects everything that has been previously done and assertively marches into the future guided by the promise of a new theoretical, methodological or managerial fad…only to dismiss the new approach to a renegade status a few years later. The script seldom changes and even the play of the actors appears painfully similar throughout each cycle.

The re-identification dynamics were probably jump started, at least in their modern form, by the works of Herbert Simon (1946, 1947) and Dwight Waldo (1948). Both academics built their careers on pointing out what is wrong with public administration. At the same time, despite their most genuine efforts (especially in the case of Simon’s later work) both intellectuals failed to develop anything remotely similar to a fundamental framework. The area lost the prestige that it enjoyed before the 1950s. One would easily argue that the standing that public administration enjoyed, prior to Simon/Waldo’s critiques, was legitimized by illusionary dichotomies such as politics-administration or private-public–thus making their critiques necessary. Yes. This is clearly the case. However, such shattering theoretical attacks on the field’s fundamentals, pushed public administration into an unremitting swirling search of identification and legitimization.

Within the broader contexts of: the failure of the Great Society experiment, the inability of Keynesian economics to deal with supply side shocks and the infatuation of social science theories and economic narratives with the potency of the self-interested/rational individual to attain efficiency–public administration was not able to generate a credible academic defensive stand against becoming the favorite target of a freshly coined anti-governmental culture. This had at least three dramatic consequences: it led to a growing gap between theory and practice, with the former rarely contributing to the latter, it generated a perpetuating and self-enforcing chaotic development of theory within the field, which caused fragmentation and an inability to develop a solid framework or credibility, and incapacity to construct a convincing campaign in support of government and governance.

If administrators do not acknowledge the benefits and advocate public administration–who will?

Public Administration Brand Building Strategies
The current condition will not surprise anyone. Fortunately, I believe that the field has what it takes to rediscover its once prestigious footing. Surprisingly, the current global political and economic contexts offer the most opportune environment for improving the public administration brand and reshaping the anti-government discourse. As Milton Friedman argued, when times get tough we are all Keynesians.

In part none of the following suggestions will be sufficient, but in sum they will be able to reconstruct the framework of beliefs and expectations necessary for a strong public administration brand.

  • Academic consolidation under the umbrella of “what is right with public administration”–Humans have a routine inclination to focus and address the “bad”, before the “good” is acknowledged. The public administration literature is no stranger to this bias, which is quite detrimental for the PA brand, and unnecessarily feeds the anti-administration frenzy. After all, there are so many things that public administration does right, that it is regrettable that it rarely is pointed out. Even within the much maligned administrative response to hurricane Katrina, “…More went well than most accounts acknowledge,” according to Martha Derthick in her 2007 Public Administration Review (PAR) article “Where Federalism Didn’t Fail.” I am not arguing for s positively biased pro-PA veil of ignorance, I am simply suggesting that there is as much to learn from success as there is from failure. The former is probably more difficult, but it is also perhaps more impactful in the long run. Building a genuinely strong public administration brand starts with a focus on the successes.
  • Bridging the gap between practice and theory–I am often amazed by the reservoir or knowledge that lies within the experience of public servants at all levels. I am also distressed by the limited number of efforts on the part of academics of exploring this crucial source of information. Public administration as a field needs to learn to trust practitioners when generating meanings and understandings of the administrative dynamics. This will not only bridge the gap between practice and theory (enforcing each other’s relevance), but will also make for more fundamentally sound theory as well (Hummel, PAR, 1991, Hardy and Williams, PAR, 2011). As it has been evident from the historical development of the field, the public administration brand is heavily dependent on the interconnectedness of theory and practice, and attempts to clearly discern the two are futile mathematical exercises devoid of practical meaning.
  •  Attracting the best talent–It should not shock anyone that public administration departments have a difficult time competing with some “sexier” areas such business, economics and even political science. This need not be the case. A career in public administration can offer benefits that are comparable to those of other fields. Granted, a higher weight will have to be placed on the enjoyment of fulfilling altruistic instincts; however, this should not be disregarded as an important advantage in attracting the brightest minds. The latter is especially true given the relative satiation of the other disciplines and the immense room for growth within public administration. The higher the number of exceptional and talented individuals entering the field…the higher the probability of improving the public administration brand.

Education, education and some more education…
As it is often the case, education is at the core of any transformative action. The acceptance and growth of the PA brand will be possible only in the context that practitioners, academics and citizens become involved in an administrative learning process (communicating/participating/learning). Education represents the only realistic way of reshaping the values that lie at the base of the anti-government culture. The value transformation will not be easy, but in the long the adequate standing of the field and the democratic administration of this country depends on the success of building a strong and credible public administration brand.

 Alexandru Roman is a student at Florida Atlantic University. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.


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