Time for a new approach to PA

This is the draft preface for Statecrafting: A New Approach to Public Administration, under contract with Cornell University Press.

The academic discipline known as Public Administration is about one hundred years old in the United States. People sometimes say that it is older, pointing to an essay on the study of administration published by Woodrow Wilson in 1887, but that is not quite right. The first self-styled school of Public Administration was established in 1922 and the first textbook in Public Administration, written by Leonard White of the University of Chicago, was published in 1926. Wilson’s essay did not get much attention until the 1930s, when professors invented a history for their new field that conveniently included a contribution from a well-regarded two-term president.

The first generation of scholars and practitioners in Public Administration was closely tied to a movement in American politics known as Progressivism, which coalesced in the 1890s and gained strength over the next two decades. American society was convulsed in many ways during these years: by the emergence of big industries and cities, rising inequality and labor unrest, changes in the volume and pattern of immigration, extraordinary technological advances, and shifts in the international balance of power. American politics was colored by hope and fear: by the belief that great social progress was possible, but also the worry that events would spiral out of control. Government institutions that were designed for a simpler time did not seem equal to the new realities. Progress, it was argued, depended upon a complete reconstruction of the old order.

The Progressive movement faltered in the 1920s, as the United States enjoyed a short period of peace and prosperity. But the Progressive philosophy gained new strength in the 1930s and 1940s, as the global economy crashed, the European peace of 1919 collapsed, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union began. American democracy was tested severely in competition with fascist and communist rivals. Again, survival seemed to hinge on an overhaul of the “antique machinery” of American government.

The field of Public Administration was invented to help with this overhaul. Scholars viewed themselves as architects of a renewed American state. They defined their responsibilities broadly. Researchers looked at the overall structure of the executive branch, as well as the management of individual offices within it; at military as well as civilian agencies; and all three branches of government — legislative and judicial as well as executive. Their work was imbued with a sense of history. They believed that they had joined in a long-running project: “a process of continual creation, an unceasing invention of forms to meet constantly changing needs.” And they were acutely aware of what could happen if they stumbled: social chaos, military defeat, and the end of the American experiment in self-rule. “The stakes are beyond price,” Leonard White warned in the 1939 edition of his influential textbook on Public Administration. If democratic government failed, “an autocratic alternative may await the opportunity to seize power.”

That was eighty years ago. Three generations of scholars have worked in the field of Public Administration since then. The boundaries and priorities of the field have changed significantly — because of changing societal conditions, fashions within the scholarly community, and the seizure of terrain by other disciplines. For the last forty years, the tendency within the field of Public Administration has been to focus more narrowly on problems of management within public agencies. For example, researchers examine the challenges of defining agency goals, implementing policies efficiently, motivating staff, coordinating among agencies, and measuring results. This is sometimes called the “Public Management approach.” It is so popular that some people think it has supplanted Public Administration entirely. Today, many scholars identify themselves as experts in Public Management instead.

The rise of the Public Management approach makes sense as a response to societal conditions in the United States and other advanced democracies in the last three decades of the twentieth century. This was the era of the “welfare state” and the “regulatory state.” (Definitions of these two concepts are provided in the appendix.) Governments provided more benefits to citizens and intruded more extensively in social and economic affairs. The cost of government increased substantially. But the experts who designed these programs were too optimistic about their effectiveness. Many programs failed to produce the expected results. Meanwhile, citizens balked at higher taxes. Liberals who did not want to abandon these new initiatives had to find ways of making them “work better and cost less.”[iv] This was the problem that the Public Management approach was intended to solve.

The Public Management approach has blind spots. There are subjects once examined by researchers in Public Administration that are largely overlooked by researchers in Public Management. For example, Public Management scholars do not pay much attention to parts of government that are engaged in international diplomacy, defense and intelligence, and law enforcement. They are less interested in top-level planning, organization, and control — what used to be known as “overall executive management.” Government-wide systems for managing people, money and other resources tend to be neglected. So, too, are problems in the running of elections, the management of legislatures, and the administration of courts.

To put it another way, Public Management scholars take certain fundamental features of government for granted. They assume the existence of an infrastructure that maintains public order and protects government officials from assault; generates laws that are regarded by the public as legitimate; collects taxes and distributes the proceeds to agencies; prevents corruption and nepotism in the bureaucracy; and enforces the commands that are made by agencies. Because this infrastructure exists, and disposes of all the basic problems of agency life, Public Management scholars can focus on more advanced problems, such as performance measurement and employee motivation.

There are other ways in which the Public Management approach differs from the approach that dominated Public Administration in its early years. Public Management scholars tend not to take a long or broad view of the field. Research is construed as a search for definitive solutions to technical problems of agency management, rather than an exploration of the long-running and never-completed task of renovating institutions to suit new societal conditions. At the same time, the feeling of peril and fragility has dissipated. The stakes are not perceived to be “beyond price,” as Leonard White said in 1939. The worst consequences that are imagined in the Public Management approach are the death of agencies, not societal disorder and collapse.

Certainly, there are advantages to the Public Management approach. Smaller problems are easier to study. And at the time — that is, the in the waning years of the twentieth century — there was a clear demand for advice on how to make public agencies work better and cost less. But the approach also has weaknesses. For example, the tendency to neglect the security sector of government (defense, intelligence, counterintelligence, and public order) is odd, especially at the highest level of American government, where security-related agencies employ two-thirds of the workforce. Security concerns have dominated the debate over the role of government in the United States since the terror attacks of 2001.

A larger difficulty is the inability of scholars to explain why governmental responsibilities are changing, and how they are likely to change in the future. This can be done well only by studying larger societal trends and understanding how they influence the role and design of government. Without this sort of knowledge, history unfolds as a series of surprises — a sequence of unexpected crises that compel an ad hoc response by government leaders and bureaucrats. By stepping back, by taking the long and broad view, scholars, can see patterns in history. They are less likely to be caught entirely off-guard by events like the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the financial crisis of 2008, or the droughts of 2012–2015. They can draw on experience from previous crises to inform their response to current events. And they make predictions about the kinds of shocks that are likely to be experienced in the future.

A third difficulty is in inability of scholars in Public Administration to make useful contributions to public debate at those moments when the conventional wisdom about the role of government is being reconsidered. These moments of “paradigm shift” seem to arrive about every thirty or forty years. In fact, the discipline of Public Administration could be construed as the product of one of these moments, the Progressive era. There was another shift toward the “neoliberal state” in the 1970s. (See appendix for a definition.) And there is another paradigm shift underway today. The central question in these transformational moments is what the role of government ought to be. But there are important adjunct questions: what can government do competently, and how should it be organized to perform new tasks? These big questions about the role and structure of government once fell squarely in the domain of Public Administration. They were shunted to the side in the era of Public Management.

Yet another difficulty relates to the neglect of the infrastructure of government — those bedrock institutions and systems that are largely taken for granted in the United States and other wealthy democracies. There are many other countries in which this administrative infrastructure is not taken for granted. These are sometimes referred to as “fragile states.” (See appendix for a definition.) There are several indices of state fragility, which show that most of the world’s states are fragile. Stable systems like the United States are the exception, not the rule. This implies that the Public Management approach also has little to say about main governance problems of most countries. It relevance is bounded because of the things it takes for granted. This was not true of the field of Public Administration in the United States in its first two decades. At that time, scholars viewed the United States itself as a fragile state. The problems that concerned American experts in the 1930s were essentially the same as confronting war-torn and post-colonial countries in the late 1940s and 1950s.

There is reason to question whether it is wise to take this infrastructure for granted in the United States and other wealthy democracies. In the United States, there are many signs that the infrastructure decaying. Experts complain about the decline in respect for public institutions, gridlock in the legislative process, the breakdown of anti-corruption laws, and even about the breakdown of public order. In 2017 the Fund for Peace, which publishes the influential Fragile States Index, observed a worrying decline in social and political cohesion in the United States and a few other advanced democracies. Can public institutions be overhauled to counter this trend? This was precisely the question that Public Administration scholars sought to answer in the 1930s and 1940s. But is not a question that is either posed or answered in the Public Management approach.

Time moves on and circumstances change. The approach to research that dominated the field of Public Administration in the late twentieth century does not fit well with societal conditions of the early twenty-first century. We need a new approach, a new way of thinking about the domain of Public Administration. The new approach ought to be useful in identifying the larger trends that drive the evolution of government, so that scholars can avoid surprises and see recurrent patterns in the development of public institutions. This new approach ought to useful in analyzing fundamental questions about the role and design of government — those questions that once seemed settled, but which are moving to the foreground once again. Ideally, the approach should also be expansive enough to accommodate the realities of poor as well as rich countries. It should be useful in thinking about state fragility — the common condition of most countries in the world — and how it can be reduced.

The purpose of this short book is to outline a new approach to Public Administration which achieves these objectives. In some ways, it revives concepts that were familiar to the first generation of Public Administration scholars. It also borrows concepts from other disciplines — political science, law, history, and sociology — in which scholars address similar questions, sometimes adapting those concepts to meet the needs of researchers in Public Administration. At a few points, some new ideas are proposed to mortar together concepts that have been revived, borrowed and adapted. The aim is not to provide an exhaustive review of all the scholarly literature that might be connected to the proposed new approach. This would be an impossible task, and the final product would be unreadable. The aim, instead, is to provide a useful sketch of a new framework, and to show how it shines light on previously neglected questions.

This new approach is not intended as a substitute for the Public Management approach. Rather, it is a complement to existing frameworks and methods. In the discipline of Economics, there is a generally accepted distinction between research on systemic questions (macroeconomics) and research on smaller questions about the activity of firms and households (microeconomics). In Political Science, scholars make a similar distinction between research on regimes and research on political behavior; in History, between research on the long-term development of social structures and the short-term unfolding of events. We could go on. Many fields recognize the need for tools that allow them to address big questions as well as small questions about human activity. At the moment, Public Administration lacks a comparable facility. It is good at addressing small questions but not big ones. This book is a first step toward fixing that defect.