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Words have Meaning: Replacing “Administration” with “Management”

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

By Howard Risher
March 16, 2018

Recently I asked a prominent government expert to suggest a journal that might be interested in publishing an article on a practical government management topic. I was hoping for one similar to the Harvard Business Review with articles relevant to both academics and government executives. His two suggestions each had a title that included the word “administration.”

That is a word that today is rarely used in business. Businesses are “managed;” government agencies are “administered.” The business school I know best has a Management Department. In business schools, each department is focused on improving the management of a business function.

The point of course is the contrast with schools of public administration. I have not found a school of government management. At Harvard’s Kennedy School less than 12 courses (of over 200) include “management” in the title and with two exceptions the focus is financial management. The school offers no course on human resource management but several on human rights. Across the academic community surprisingly few academicians concentrate on agency management.

I fully appreciate that this reflects a history stretching back decades. However, in today’s environment with declining support for government the difference between “administration” and “management” is more relevant than ever. A dictionary defines “manage” as “to bring about, succeed in accomplishing”, followed by “to take charge of,” “to dominate or influence” and “to succeed in accomplishing a task.”

It is no doubt obvious but the definition of “administer” is quite different. Perhaps that explains why it took so many years to introduce practices that reinforce the importance of results or why the focus of metrics is usually limited to increased efficiency.

This issue surfaced recently in the federal plans to reorganize agencies and reduce the workforce. The Office of Management and Budget posted a new job – Performance Manager. The posted job description reads, “. . . leading interagency efforts to improve program performance, management and efficiency.” The description makes it clear the focus will be on the linkage of people management and the improvement of performance. After decades of relying on technology to strengthen agency management, this will be a first for the federal government.

The only significant changes in the federal civil service system in the past half century are the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act in 1978, which replaced the Civil Service Commission with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) (yes, they use the ‘M’ word), and in 1990 introduced locality pay.

The materials on OPM’s website make it all too clear that the agency’s primary responsibility is compliance and administration. Reading the material related to the management of employee performance suggests a century-old “organization as machine” philosophy that emphasizes the importance of employees meeting performance expectations. Star performers are effectively ignored; all the emphasis is on identifying and removing the poor performers. Promotions and of course pay increases depend on job tenure, not performance. The phrase “living and breathing” is sometimes used as the reason for step increases. Aside from the use of computers, the federal HR function is in a time warp.

Of the several HR functions, salary management (the private sector phrase) is in most jurisdictions the most bureaucratic and antiquated. The work to reclassify a job stands out. Again, at the federal level, if agencies follow the rules, reclassifying a job can take months. Updating a classification standard can take a year or more. Now with tight labor markets and new, high demand occupations that did not exist even a few years ago, the “internal equity” policy (along with tight budgets) often makes it impossible to compete for well qualified specialists. The unions also argue against the flexibility needed to compete for scarce talent.

There are two important differences between managing and administering programs. One is the importance of goals. When organizations and individuals focus on achieving goals, it increases the importance of performance planning. Then as the year unfolds leaders conduct periodic, often monthly, discussions of progress. When circumstances change, the goals are modified. There is solid research evidence people perform better when they commit to achieving goals. At year end, when performance is reviewed and “rated,” there should be no surprises and at least in business those who are successful in meeting or exceeding goals are rewarded. That management process contributes to a performance culture. That is consistent with the definition of managing.

Significantly, in a high-performance environment, employees at every level are empowered to initiate job-related changes in response to unexpected developments. In today’s business world many employees only see their ‘boss’ occasionally. Everyone is “managing” his or her work.

The second difference is that “administration” suggests the work process and jobs are essentially static or inflexible, and the administrator is expected to make the operation “run” as efficiently as possible. That has been true of civil service systems for a century—limiting a supervisor’s discretion was an original purpose. The reliance on the same regulations and administrative practices year after year makes the acceptance of change very difficult. The time needed to secure approval at higher levels before responding to problems defines bureaucracy.

In 2016, Gallup released a report summarizing their research on employee engagement in state and local government. The state-by-state results show a pattern – engagement scores were generally lower in states that still rely on traditional civil service systems. Engagement was lowest in New York, Illinois and Missouri. Now that many jurisdictions report metrics, it would be instructive to compare performance across state lines, considering employee engagement and the practices that differentiate “management” from “administration.”

Fortunately, my problem finding an appropriate journal was solved when I learned that Public Administration Review added a new section, Viewpoint, at the beginning of the year. It’s intended to “engage both scholars and practitioners in a timely dialogue on cutting edge topics, service innovation, and problems and constraints facing their stakeholder.” I plan to submit a paper.


Author: Howard Risher has 40 plus years of experience as a consultant to clients in every sector. He has a BA in psychology from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. from Wharton. He is the co-author with Bill Wilder of the new book, It’s Time for High Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize and the Public Sector Workforce. You can reach him at [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.

One Response to Words have Meaning: Replacing “Administration” with “Management”

  1. James I. Gow Reply

    March 17, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    What about Hugh Heclo’s comment:
    We hear a great deal today about training public managers and very little about training civil servants. The way we use words does matter, I think, and the two labels conjure up rather different images. A public manager is a task-oriented achiever of goals, a civil servant is an official in service to the state and the public. A public manager thinks about an organization as a kind of ahistorical vehicle for meeting certain goals; a civil servant lives in a world of historically derived identities and distinctive capacities. A public manager does a job; the duties are defined by the managerial task at hand. A civil servant occupies an office; his duties extend beyond any given task and are derived from a concept of office. To a public manager, understanding context is simply a means to make better calculations for accomplishing a goal. To a civil servant, context is an end defining the larger responsibilities of office.

    From « A Comment on the Future of the United States Civil Service » in B. Smith (ed.) the Higher Civil Service in Europe and Canada : Lessons for the United States, Washington, the Brookings Institution, 1984, pp. 106-107

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