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The Purpose and Scope of Public Administration for Democracies

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

By Earle Klay
May 16, 2022

In a democracy, the existential purpose of public administration is to perform in ways that encourage citizens to trust democratic institutions. Our scope is as broad as those institutions. Public administration is service to others that is accomplished through the management of people, money and information in the development, implementation and evaluation of policy in government organizations, public-serving charitable organizations and businesses that contract to provide public services. To strengthen democracies, the theory and practice of public administration must be grounded in democratic theory, the body of knowledge about how and why democracies succeed in some instances and fail in others.

Trust, an essential requisite of legitimacy, is a key concept in democratic theory. Without trust, the prospects become dim for governments that are founded on such values as individual liberties, deliberation, inclusion and the rule of law. The practice of public administration—the actions of public servants—can enhance or destroy trust. Those actions affect the public’s trust, perhaps ultimately more than the words spoken by office seekers who seek media attention.

The actions of senior public executives are of vital importance. It is likely that the histories of public administration in all successful democracies contain stories of exemplars who sought to show other public servants how to serve the public in ways that enhance public trust. That was certainly the case for a fledgling United States.

America’s founding public administrator, George Washington, was a man of many faults and virtues. Foremost among his virtues was a keen sense that the “public administration” (his term) of the new nation must be accomplished in ways that fostered public trust. If not, the new nation was likely to fail. He also was aware that his precedents were likely to become established practices—to become “institutionalized” as contemporary academics would say. Consequently, he agonized about setting the kinds of precedents that, when repeated, would enhance public trust. His precedents included such things as strictly adhering to the rule of law, accountability, merit selection, sound stewardship of taxpayers’ money, enhancing public service motivation, performing objective policy analysis and promoting the education of young people for public service. More details about these precedents are available in an article titled “George Washington’s Precedents” in Administration and Society (2015) by Scott A. Cook and me.

Thinking about the scope and practice of public administration in the context of democratic theory helps clarify our thinking about what we need to teach to future public administrators. They need to learn how to administer the key resources of management—human, financial and information resources—to achieve efficiency and effectiveness in service to the public. But also, they need to learn that efficiency, and even effectiveness, are not ends in themselves. They are necessary means to a higher end: the trust and support of the public for our democratic institutions.

Students also need to learn the ins and outs of public policy. Managing key resources in the development, implementation and evaluation of public policy is what public administrators do. When students learn that the highest goal of public policy is to earn the public’s trust, certain things become more obvious. Failure to address the needs of people is a sure way to lose their trust, so competent needs assessment and performance measurement are essential. One of Washington’s precedents was to encourage competent objective analysis in order to better serve the public.

The essential institutions of successful democracies extend far beyond the walls of government buildings. The organizations of civil society help solve problems in communities and, in doing so, foster the norms and values of civic participation. Seen from this perspective, it is fortunate that academics in public administration have embraced the teaching of students for careers in civil society. Strengthening civil society helps to perpetuate democratic institutions.

Performing public administration in a democracy also extends to businesses when they contract to do the public’s business. Misbehavior by those organizations can easily damage the public’s trust. Consequently, we need to teach and practice the things that can make governments “smart buyers” of goods and services. In particular, we can make it possible for businesses that establish a record of quality service to the public to be effective bidders for public contracts.

Remembering that the ultimate purpose of public administration is to earn the public’s trust can help focus our research agendas. We have many important things to study about both management and policy; foremost among these is to learn how public administrators can better serve the public in ways that enhance our fellow citizens’ trust in our democratic institutions.


Author: W. Earle Klay is professor emeritus and former director of the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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