Public Administrations vs. Political Science

Public Administrations vs. Political Science


Topics to be covered include:

· Public Administration Paradigms

· Public Administration Theories

· Importance of Paradigms and Theories

· Public Administrations vs. Political Science

· Political Science Objectives

As a field, public administration has struggled to find a scientific identity that has relevance and validity, unifying the study and practice of public administration. Over the years, public administration has been defined by various paradigms. In addition, it has been influenced by a variety of theories. This lesson will discuss the paradigms and the more prominent theories. In addition, public administration is closely tied to political science, and this has made it more difficult for the field to establish its identity. This lesson also will discuss public administration’s relationship with political science.

Public Administration Paradigms

Lesson 1 provided an overview of the history of public administration. Although Lesson 1 did not state this, that history covers the paradigms of public administration. A paradigm represents a model or example for how something should be approached and/or accomplished. Briefly, the paradigms pertaining to public administration include the following (Henry, 1975):

Politics-administration dichotomy-As explained in Lesson 1, the politics-administration dichotomy is a theoretical approach to government that argued it has two distinctly separate functions—politics and administration. This was the first paradigm for the field of public administration, covering the period from 1900 to 1926.

Principles of public administration-Between 1927 and 1937, public administration scholars emphasized the field’s administrative aspects and made efforts to find a science of administration that could guide how public administrators completed their work. This included attempts to adopt the principles of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management for use in public administration. These principles, which were originally used to guide management practices in private sector businesses, included the following (Taylor, 1987).

· Managers should standardize work processes.

· Managers should select qualified workers using scientific selection processes.

· Workers should do the work according to the scientific processes identified as the optimal way to complete the tasks.

· Managers and employees should divide the work equally and cooperate to achieve the organization’s objectives.

· Scientific management began as an innovative approach to business and was soon applied to government operations. It helped governments at all levels develop civil service systems for managing employees, including the establishment of position descriptions, the use of civil service exams for hiring staff, and the implementation of formal evaluations to review employees’ work.

Public administration as art- In 1938, scholars began questioning the logic of separating administration from politics. For example, as noted in Lesson 1, Simon (1947), argued that public administration had not achieved its goal of functioning in a scientific manner, and he suggested that given public administration’s relationship to politics, this was not possible. Others, such as Waldo (1948), described the work of public administration as both art and science.

Public administration as political science and management-Beginning in 1950, as advocates for acknowledging the political aspects of public administration gained prominence, one paradigm guiding the work of public administration posited to treat public administration as political science. At the same time, other scholars emphasized the administrative aspects of public administration and promoted another paradigm that recognized public administration as management. Until 1970, these two paradigms competed as the prevailing approach to guide how public administration should be practiced.

Public administration as public administration-In the 1960s, scholars advocated for public administration to stop seeking guidance from the private sector, political science, or any other field for the appropriate approach to study and practice public administration. Instead, scholars argued that public administrators should simply be public administrators. This approach began in 1970 and remains influential in the current study and practice of public administration. This includes the development of the New Public Management and the New Public Service, which will be discussed in Lessons 7 and 8.

Public Administration Theories

In addition to paradigms, the study and practice of public administration also are influenced by a variety of theories. Some of the more prominent public administration theories include the following (Frederickson & Smith, 2003):

Agency theory- Agency theory argues that public administrators have expertise and information, as well as an understanding of government processes, which politicians and other officials in government do not have. This gives public administrators an advantage, and they use this to manipulate politicians and other government officials for political gain. Agency theory also has applicability in the private sector to explain the relationship between the principals and agents in business dealings.

Client responsiveness theory- Client responsiveness theory is a theory of bureaucratic capture that applies primarily to local governments. Lipsky (1980) developed the theory, which includes the following concepts:

· Government resources are unceasingly insufficient. At the same time, the demand by citizens for government services will always be high, meeting the available supply of services, regardless of the supply level.

· Street-level bureaucrats , which refers to public administrators who work directly with citizens and government clients, have at least some degree of discretion in the way they provide government services.

· Under the condition of insufficient resources combined with high demand for limited services, public administrators are likely to ration services.

· As part of the rationing process, public administrators are likely to conserve personal resources that they put into their work, such as time and energy.

· To control clients who demand attention and the use of scarce resources, public administrators use their expertise and government symbols to create distance from their clients and maintain autonomy.

· Generally, street-level bureaucrats are middle class, and they provide government services, which may include rationing, based on middle-class values, such as respect for work and frugality.

· The goals and objectives for government agencies are often ambiguous, vague, or conflicting.

· Since the goals and objectives are not explicit, measurement of performance towards accomplishing them is difficult.

· Generally, government’s clients are non-voluntary. This limits their ability to be a reference group , which refers to a group that can be used as a standard for behavior and characteristics that can be evaluated for scientific purposes. This limits government’s ability to generate data that can be used to determine ways to improve government services.

· Capture theories argue that public administrators are under the control of the key players in the public policymaking process including interest groups, legislative bodies, and government regulators. The Iron Triangle , which was introduced in Lesson 4, is another example of a capture theory.

Postmodern public administration theory- Postmodern public administration theory refers to the postmodernist approach to public administration. The core ideas of postmodern public administration theorists include the following:

· Given the nature of their jobs, public administrators cannot be neutral or objective.

· Technology can dehumanize participants in government transactions.

· Government organizations and agencies tend to focus on goals displacement and survival.

· The best way to achieve effectiveness in government is through cooperation, consensus, and democratic administration.

· In the modern age, approaches to public administration should focus on making public administration more democratic as well as more responsive and adaptable to changes in society, the political environment, and the economy.

Rational choice theory- The rational choice theory applies neoclassical economic theory to government and politics. Argues that the actions of politicians, public administrators, and citizens are analogous to the actions of producers and consumers in the private marketplace. Assumes that each person is self-interested and seeks to maximize his or her benefits while minimizing losses in any situation. This includes considering all options in a situation, rationally calculating the pros and cons of each option, and rationally selecting the option that will yield the most benefit with the least harm.

Representative bureaucracy theory- Representative bureaucracy theory argues that if government organizations and agencies are staffed by a diverse group of public administrators who reflect the public they serve, they are more likely to enact public policies and provide government goods and services that appropriately serve the public interest. To achieve this, the group of public administrators working in a particular government agency should have the same general demographic makeup as the citizens they serve. Supporters of this theory argue that when a government agency is representative of the citizens it serves, this promotes democracy.

Theory X and Theory Y-Theory X and Theory Y is a human relations approach to management offered by Douglas McGregor in the late 1950s and 1960s. This approach was very influential in public sector management.

· According to McGregor, managers who follow Theory X believe the typical person dislikes work and tries to avoid it. As such, to motivate employees to work, a manager must coerce, control, and even threaten them. Under this theory, managers believe the typical employee shuns responsibility and has little ambition. Such people seek security in their jobs and must receive constant direction and motivation to keep them working.

· Theory Y managers have a different approach. According to McGregor, managers who follow Theory Y believe that most employees enjoy work, and they expend the effort needed to work with the same zeal that they expend effort to play and do other activities in their lives. Theory Y managers think that their employees are committed to the organization’s goals and will exercise self-direction and self-control to help achieve those goals. They do not have to be coerced or punished to motivate them to do their jobs. When employees are successful at work, their self-esteem and self-actualization needs are met, which is rewarding to them. Such employees will seek out more responsibility, and may even be creative and innovative in helping the organization solve problems and realize goals.

This information is not intended to be comprehensive. Rather, it serves to introduce you to some of the more prominent theories that have been posited to provide guidance for the study and practice of public administration. This information is also intended to ensure that as students, you understand that the field of public administration has been subjected to a variety of such theories, including some that conflict in their premises.

Importance of Paradigms and Theories

Studying paradigms and theories can help public administrators better understand government and the work they are expected to accomplish to achieve government’s goals and objectives.

Paradigms offer guidance for how to do things, providing a model to follow as government programs establish their goals and objectives and outline the work that should be done to achieve those goals and objectives. Paradigms provide the framework for which government programs and activities are based.

Theories help public administrators accomplish their work by providing understanding about the goals and objectives they seek to achieve. A theory refers to a set of ideas that is posited to bring order to facts, enabling the description and explanation of an event or a set of data. Theories also provide a mechanism for predicting the results or outcomes of certain occurrences.

According to Frederickson and Smith (2003), a useful theory has the following characteristics:

· It correctly describes or portrays an actual event or fact.

· Since descriptions and portrayals can be limited, it explains the event or fact.

· It enables the prediction of the results that will occur in response to an event or fact.

In public administration, the usefulness of a theory is important because public administrators need the ability to understand how government programs and activities will affect the citizens they serve and influence the public interest. When a theory is useful, it enables public administrators to organize facts and events and identify the data that is most important to their work. This helps them ensure that the programs and activities they implement are the most appropriate options to resolve issues and serve the public.

Public Administration vs. Political Science

As this course has noted several times, public administration and political science are closely related. To review, as explained in Lesson 1, public administration is both a profession as well as a field of study (Waldo, 1948). As a profession, public administration refers to the daily business of government, focused on using organization and management to implement and execute the laws, rules, and regulations passed by legislative bodies and other authoritative agents. As a field of study, public administration researches and reviews the processes through which the profession of public administration is involved in the creation and interpretation of laws, rules, and regulations.

Political science can be defined as the study of the theories and practices of government systems at all levels, including the evaluation of activities and behavior in the political arena, which includes activities such as political campaigns and elections. Generally, political science as a discipline has been divided into the following four subfields (Riemer, Simon, & Romance, 2011):


American government and politics study the United States’ system of governance.


International relations studies how different countries and key components of the international system interact.


Comparative politics studies the political and governance processes in different countries through the world.


Political theory and political philosophy study fundamental questions and philosophical issues regarding governance.

The discipline of political science has the following three major components (Riemer, Simon, & Romance, 2011):


The ethical component focuses on political values to determine how government systems and politics should be handled. This component is based on philosophy.


The empirical component focuses on political phenomena to determine what is happening, what has happened in the past, and, based on this information, what is expected to happen in the future. This component is based on science.


The prudential component focuses on political judgments to determine what is possible and can be in government and politics. This component is based on public policy.

Political Science Objectives

As a discipline, political science has the following four major tasks, or objectives (Riemer, Simon, & Romance, 2011):


Political scientists offer suggestions for how everyone involved in politics, including politicians and citizens, should behave in the political arena.


Political scientists provide information to help explain how those in the political arena accomplish their work. This includes explaining why they take certain actions.


Political scientists provide guidance for how activities in the political arena should be carried out.


Political scientists understand and explain how the three components of political science—ethical, empirical, and prudential—interrelate to provide a framework for political science.


With integration, each component answers the following questions (Riemer, Simon, & Romance 2011, p.71):


· Political values – “Which political values should exist?”

· Political phenomena – “How should political actors behave?”

· Political judgment – “Which public policies should prevail?”


· Political values – “Which values actually exist in the political community?”

· Political phenomena – “How do political actors actually behave?”

· Political judgment – “Which public policies actually exist?”


· Political values – “Which values can wisely exist in the political community?”

· Political phenomena – “How can political actors wisely behave?”

· Political judgment – “Which public policies can be formulated and sensibly implemented?”

This information is not intended to be a comprehensive discussion of political science. Its purpose is to provide you with an introduction to political science and help you understand how it differs from public administration. The primary difference between the two fields regards their purposes and methodologies. Political science focuses on the development of public policy and strategies in the political arena. Public administration focuses on the implementation of public policy and ensuring that this is accomplished in the most efficient and effective manner that appropriately serves the public interest. Political science and public administration complement each other, but they are two distinct fields of study and practice.


Throughout its history, public administration has been defined by various paradigms, which were discussed in this lesson. This lesson also introduced some of the theories that have influenced public administration. These theories represent only a small portion of the many theories used to help describe, explain, and predict public administration activities.

As stated in the introduction to this lesson, public administration has struggled to find a scientific identity that has relevance and validity, unifying the study and practice of public administration. This is important because such an identity can help public administrators understand how they should accomplish their work and also understand how government programs and activities will affect the citizens they serve and influence the public interest. Lesson 7 will introduce the New Public Management which, in recent years, has helped to address some of these concerns.

Public administration is closely tied to political science, which has made it more difficult for the field to establish its identity. Since the work of public administration complements the work of political science, the two fields will always have a relationship. But students, as well as practitioners, must understand that the two fields are distinct, with unique purposes, goals, and objectives.


Frederickson, H. G. (1997). The Spirit of Public Administration. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Frederickson, H. G., & Smith, K.B. (2003). The Public Administration Theory Primer. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Riemer, N., Simon, D.W., & Romance, J. (2011). The Challenge of Politics: An Introduction to Political Science, Third Edition. Washington D.C.: CQ Press.

Simon, H.A. (1947). Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-making Processes in Administrative Organization, Second Edition. New York: Macmillan.

Taylor, F. W. (1987). “Scientific Management,” in Classics of Public Administration, Second Edition. 29-33. Pacific Grove, California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Waldo, D. (1948). The Administrative State: A Study of the Political Theory of American Public Administration. New York: Ronald Press.

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