Historical Development of American Public Administration
Summary and Keywords
The historical development of American public administration has evolved through four eras: clerks, civil service, administrative management, and under siege. During its early years government staffing was very sparse. A gradual thickening of the government workforce occurred during the 1800s, which was the era of clerks. Some were one-person agencies consisting of an elected official with administrative duties; others were patronage appointments by the candidate winning the presidency (or governor or mayor) rewarding supporters with jobs. After the Civil War, Union veterans increasingly populated nonpatronage positions.
The assassination of President Garfield in 1881 by a disappointed office seeker crystalized public dissatisfaction with patronage, whether in Washington or by corrupt urban political machines. In 1883, the U.S. Congress passed a bill to create a merit-based civil service system. This began a second era of American public administration, that of civil servants. The original law only covered about 10% of all federal employees, but it set the precedent for gradual expansion of an apolitical civil service. Presidents came and went, but expert civil servants were unaffected. The rise of civil service also necessitated having employees to oversee them. These apolitical and expert managers led to the new profession of public administration, a development that required not only qualified practitioners but also credentialed faculty to train them.
The 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt as president triggered a third era, that of administrative management. This was a term used by FDR’s reorganization planning committee partly because it connoted a high-level focus on the president’s managerial needs. The concept encompassed both line and staff roles. Line officials ran bureaus and were accountable to the president. Staff functions, such as budgeting, HR, and planning facilitated effective management.
In the post-FDR decades, especially after the 1960s, there was a gradually growing backlash against his kind of public administration. This became the fourth era, of government employees under siege. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 epitomized it. Government was not the solution, he liked to say, government was the problem. Politicians now ran for office against government. Increasingly, the bureaucracy at all levels of government was viewed with hostility, an enemy needing to be controlled and reduced. Bureaucrats became the bad guys in America’s ongoing political narrative. After the election of President Donald Trump, a more ominous term came into use: the deep state. Supposedly, the bureaucracy now had a life of its own and could even destroy a president if it wanted to.
Presumably, a fifth era of American public administration will eventually succeed this age of hostility toward all things governmental. If American history tells us anything, the outlines and themes of the fifth era will likely be surprising and unexpected. Nonetheless, government in a democracy will always need some form of public administration. No matter its precise outline, future public administration will likely retain the core values that government cannot be run like a business, that government’s purpose is to promote the public interest, and that public administration cannot be perfect. Mistakes will always happen, but these can be learning experiences for improvement rather than excuses for increasingly dysfunctional bureaucratic behavior.
Keywords: administrative management, Brownlow Committee, bureaucracy, civil service, clerks, deep state, Executive Office of the President, patronage, Franklin D. Roosevelt, professionalization, recalls, public administration and culture, public administration and policy
We tend to think of history as a fixed matter. The Roman Empire rose and then fell. What else is there to know? In particular, after all this time, what else new is there to know? The answer is that, surprisingly, history is dynamic and “is far more fluid and amorphous than it first appears” (Gibson, 2014, p. 83). One reason is that history focuses on what those in the present find interesting and relevant. This changes. After the American Civil War, when the focus was on restoring national unity, historians of the time (unbelievably) made the subject of slavery a minor cause of the war, even claiming that the war was unnecessary and was triggered by a blundering generation. Similarly, the racist view of post–Civil War Reconstruction was accepted without argument, including a benign view of the KKK and the incompetence of ex-slave elected officials and carpetbaggers (aka outside agitators). One of the tectonic impacts of the 1960s civil rights era was a readiness to revisit the subject. Foner’s (2014) reinterpretation of Reconstruction, first published in 1988, prompted a wholly new view of that era.
Conventional wisdom practically begs for a revisionist take. This is often reflected in the changing historical reputations of presidents. For example, for the first quarter century after he stepped down, President Eisenhower’s reputation was relatively low, viewed as a passive executive. Then, with the 1982 publication of Greenstein’s The Hidden Hand Presidency, Eisenhower’s record was rehabilitated and his historical reputation began rising. The same has happened for President Truman’s image. Foner (2002) emphasized that even though history will always be rewritten, all versions must present “a reasonable approximation of the past” (p. xvii). They must pass the routine scholarly standards of professional historians, even if some might disagree with a new narrative’s interpretation. The key is the accuracy and overall comprehensiveness of the sources cited, as opposed to cherry-picking facts and quotes.
The historical literature of American public administration has greatly benefited from new research in the 21st century (Durant, 2014; Durant & Rosenbloom, 2017; Lee & Raadschelders, 2005; Newbold, 2010; Raadschelders, 2010; Roberts, 2019a, Stivers, 2000). This article is an opportunity to re-examine the overall subject. In particular, it permits adding texture and new detail to the given version by including some smaller-scale subjects and events that have largely been unexplored or even unknown in the historical literature. These less well-known stories are useful as a synecdoche for the larger trends and developments of the historical narrative of American public administration.
1789–1797: George Washington’s Public Administration
Why do Americans refer to a president’s administration? “The Obama administration reported,” “the Trump administration announced,” and so on. The oddity of this American usage (also common in Western Europe) is that it arose before the executive branch had much to administer. Until the first decades of the 1800s, there were only a handful of cabinet departments and a few hundred clerks in the capital (Balogh, 2009; Nelson, 1982). For example, at the end of the last day of President John Adams’s term, he made some last-minute appointments. What to do with these official commissions? There was no one at the State Department to leave them with and who would still be employed the next morning. Therefore, the documents were simply left on a table to be discovered the next day by one of Jefferson’s incoming team. Given this sparseness of the early staffing of the federal government and the absence of administrators, English offers many terms that might have been more fitting to convey the concept of the president and his very small group of direct appointees. Why the President’s administration?
This common phrase seems to have evolved as an abbreviated usage of the term public administration. Its earliest uses had everything to do with presidents beginning with George Washington and practically nothing to do with the modern meaning that conveys the work of the day-to-day managerial class in the large bureaucracies of the federal executive branch. President Washington used the term commonly and familiarly. In his first message to Congress, in January 1790, he said that due to the benefits of education and knowledge by the citizenry “those who are entrusted with the public administration” should seek “the enlightened confidence of the people” (Twohig, 1987, p. 545). The next year, in his third State of the Union message, he emphasized the importance for government “to consult the wishes of every part of the community, and to lay the foundations of the public Administration in the affection of the people” (Mastromarino, 1987, p. 113). In his Farewell Address, Washington condemned factions (what later were called parties and special interest groups) because they try “to make the public administration the Mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests” (Fitzpatrick, 1931, p. 225).
Washington’s usage was neither novel nor unusual. Rather, “public administration” was a commonly used term. For example, Madison used it in one of his essays in the 1787 newspaper series The Federalist. In making the case for ratification of the proposed Constitution, he condemned the “effects of the unsteadiness and injustice, with which a factious sprit has tainted our public administration” (Pole, 2005, p. 48). A few days after Washington’s presidential inauguration, he asked Alexander Hamilton (not yet appointed as Treasury Secretary) for advice on presidential etiquette. Hamilton suggested, among other things, “that the members of the Senate should also have a right of individual access [to a President] on matters relative to the public administration” (Syrett, 1962, p. 337; emphasis in original). After appointing Hamilton as Treasury Secretary, Washington again asked him for advice. Writing about the role of gratitude and respect in the political system as well as international relations, Hamilton suggested, “it is incumbent upon those who have any concern in the public administration, to appreciate its true import and application” (Syrett, 1963, p. 43). Similarly, when the Connecticut Legislature congratulated Washington on becoming president, it wrote him “to assure you of our zeal to support our public administration” (Twohig, 1987, p. 203).
As with so much in American history, Washington’s precedents became institutionalized. When President Tyler submitted a message to Congress in 1842, he reported that “the condition of the public administration will serve to convince you that every proper attention has been paid to the interests of the country” (U.S. House, 1842, p. 11). It looks like a short hop to abbreviate the usage from referring to the federal government relatively generally to a particular president’s administration.
Given this earlier political meaning of the term “public administration,” applying the contemporary meaning to American history is a neologism. Nonetheless, even if it wasn’t called that, it was at least sketchily there. One can identify and examine the actual practice of what later was called public administration as occurring simultaneously with the emergence of the Constitution-based national republic.
Benjamin Franklin can be seen as one of the earliest Americans to engage in what would be considered professional public administration. In 1737, the British colonial government appointed him as Deputy Postmaster for the Colonies, with responsibility for the mail in the northern half of the country. (His counterpart in the South was William Hunter of Virginia.) Typical of Franklin’s involvement in so many projects, he promptly sought to reorganize the mail by making it more efficient and systematic. He surveyed postal roads, created a home delivery system as well as a dead-letter office, and inspected his far-flung empire. Quickly, the enterprise began making a profit, which he was entitled to pocket. In 1774, the British government fired him for his rebellious political stance (Isaacson, 2003, p. 157). However, a year later, he was restored to his role by the Continental Congress and thus was the first Postmaster General of the nascent independent country. (The first Postmaster General under the new Constitution was Samuel Osgood, appointed by Washington in 1789). For early Americans, the “postal system was the central government” (John, 1995, p. 4; emphasis in original). It served as a model of what a well-organized and large federal agency could do.
After the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the first Congress (1789–1791) quickly embarked on creating an “embryonic national bureaucracy” (Bordewich, 2016, p. 159). It passed laws leading to the appointment of customs collectors, surveyors, and clerks (oddly called naval officers) who registered coastal vessels. Similarly, the earliest presidents appointed agents to deal with Native American tribes and these officials were the nascent federal Indian bureaucracy (Rockwell, 2010). As the first Treasury Secretary (1789–1795), Hamilton can be seen as an early example of someone who thought deeply and in abstract terms about the importance of management and administration in government. For example, he strongly recommended that government agencies be headed by single administrators, rather than by a multiperson board or committee. Hamilton was also an effective practitioner. “He imposed a new discipline on the financial staff he had inherited from the Confederation period . . . He caused a quantum leap in the efficiency of these officials” (McGraw, 2012, p. 132).
1800s: A Few Clerks of All Kinds—Elected, Patronage, and Veterans
The constitutional federated system of government gradually became organized and stumbled toward an institutionalized bureaucracy. However, this was not inevitable and Americans tried other alternatives, too. That professional public administration won out in the 20th century was not foreordained. For example, electing a person to an administrative job was a kind of one-person government department and was the most common template for providing public services. There were thousands of elected offices at the state, county, and municipal levels of government. This was a democratic solution in lieu of civil servants and public managers. For example, electing a county sheriff solved the problem of administering law enforcement. As sometimes romanticized in cowboy movies, the sheriff was often it. No deputies, assistants, secretaries, or other staff. If the sheriff needed more help, he could round up a posse, temporarily deputizing local civilians for that specific task. But otherwise he worked by himself and was responsible for law enforcement in a county covering hundreds of square miles. It was the same for a slew of other de facto public administration duties in states, counties, and cities. These included clerk of courts, county register of deeds, county clerk, municipal treasurer, city attorney, state treasurer, and state attorney general. They all were one-person elected government agencies.
The election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800 can be seen as one historical pivot point, of a president preaching small government and trying to practice it, particularly in the capital and the military. However, he also was willing to make major exceptions to his principles when it came to maintenance of slavery and its expansion to new regions, dealing with Indian tribes, and the Louisiana Purchase. In his eyes, the governmental ideal was the American model of rural township government, particularly of the annual town meeting when the citizens would decide all major issues. No muss, no fuss and, certainly, no bureaucracy. Just direct democracy—by white men who owned property.
Alexis de Tocqueville described the American public sector in the 1830s and noted the relative paucity of official records as compared with France: “Public administration there is in a way oral and traditional. It is not written, or what is written flies off at the least wind . . . and disappears” (Mansfield & Winthrop, 2000, p. 198). He was also surprised by the thinness of governmental presence and, sometimes, the complete absence of government, in so many places he visited: “what is great is above all not what public administration executes but what is executed without it and outside it” (p. 234).
President Andrew Jackson (elected in 1828) followed up on Jefferson’s disregard for government administration by insisting that federal jobs should be filled by his political supporters. He did not accept the premise that only a highly trained and specialized expert could execute the duties of any particular position. Any common citizen could do it.
Traditional public administration histories tend to hint that all this came to an end with the rise of the U.S. Civil Service Commission late in the 19th century and FDR’s expansion of the scope of the service in 1937. However, the appointment of political supporters by the winner of an election continued in parts of American government long after Jackson and his political heirs. For example, through the 1960s, presidents appointed local postmasters, numbering in the thousands. These were highly coveted positions and rewards for those activists on the local level who worked hard for the winning candidate and party. That was why a president’s postmaster general, head of the Cabinet-level Post Office Department, was traditionally also in charge of handling all of the administration’s patronage. Reflecting how much politics rather than merit controlled these decisions, there was a vacancy in the postmastership of Boston in 1942. A Democratic congressman from Boston who was a supporter of FDR lobbied the president to appoint someone who was thinking of running against him. If the person was appointed to that job, then the congressman would not face a challenger. When told about it, FDR quickly dashed off a handwritten note to his Postmaster General to freeze any action on the position until the president could consider the politics of the request (Lee, 2018a, pp. 171, 195). On another occasion, one of FDR’s White House staffers asked that the final list of eligible candidates for appointment as postmaster of Muncie, Indiana, be reopened so that a politically preferred candidate could be added to it (Lee, 2018a, p. 317n90).
When Nixon became president in 1969, he announced that he was terminating the tradition of political appointment of local postmasters. Thousands of Republican grass roots activists were angered that they would not be rewarded, as had traditionally been the case. A year later, after an illegal strike by postal workers, Nixon convinced Congress to reorganize the Post Office Department into an independent government corporation called the U.S. Postal Service. The new law codified his decision to remove patronage politics from the appointment of local postmasters. Yet the Jacksonian patronage system continued even after that. For example, in the 1980s, the State of Indiana’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles was still a large patronage operation. The governor’s political party ran the agency’s local offices as moneymaking businesses, often operated on the cheap by county party chairs who worked hard to maximize profits for their political parties. Rank-and-file employees of the bureau were obligated to contribute a fixed percentage of their monthly salary to the party in power.
Before the American Civil War, the maintenance of slavery required a significant governmental infrastructure, south and north. Whether national leaders were small government Jeffersonians or patronage Jacksonians, the federal government was deeply involved in protecting slavery (Ericson, 2011). The war itself had a major impact on development of federal military administration and oversight of the uniformed services by the civilian managers of the War and Navy Departments. Then, the aftermath of the war also led to major new national administrative roles. There was “a vast expansion of the federal budget and bureaucracy and a reconceptualization of the government’s role. National cemeteries, pensions, and records that preserved names and identities involved a dramatically new understanding of the relationship between the citizen and state” (Faust, 2008, p. 268). Other new federal activities included the Freedman’s bureau and the quasipublic Sanitary Commission.
Another repercussion of the Civil War was the federal government’s preferential hiring of veterans who fought for the North to work in the executive branch. Decades later, this employment policy led to the problem of aged veterans refusing to retire because there was no adequate pension program for civil servants (as opposed to pensions for Northern veterans injured in the war). Often called superannuated employees because of their advanced age, the imperative to replace them with younger and more vigorous managers and employees prompted the beginnings of a federal pension system for its civil servants (Lee, 2006b, pp. 38, 120).
Other seedlings of the nascent federal bureaucracy sprouted in the second half of the 19th century, including the General Land Office, the Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Geological Survey. One of the trends during this period to hold down the costs of administrative agencies was “fee-based government,” of funding the costs of government by collection of “fees, bounties, subsidies, and contracts with private individuals or corporations to enforce laws and implement public policy” (White, 2017, p. 357). The problem, of course, was the self-interest of the office holder to maximize income by serving those seeking favors. As a sheriff, famous gunman Wyatt Earp could keep 10% of all fees and taxes he collected. Similarly, the bounty-hunter system depicted in the 2012 movie Django Unchained, of private citizens exercising governmental power to catch outlaws and fugitives, conveyed this model of government on the cheap. No need for an expensive bureaucracy dedicated to catching outlaws and fugitives, as the federal Marshals Service is in the 21st century. Another manifestation was how post-Reconstruction racist southern governments sought to enforce state laws mandating racial segregation on railroads. They delegated the state’s police powers to train conductors‑private citizens employed by private for-profit corporations. This included an on-the-spot legal duty to decide what race a passenger was (Luxenberg, 2019).
A major trigger for the rise of professional public administration can probably (if roughly) be identified as American city government in the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. Corrupt political machines, such as New York’s Tammany Hall, were able to capture control of city halls by serving the social welfare needs of immigrants and residents of poor neighborhoods in return for their votes. Once in control, these corrupt organizations not only gave patronage jobs to their members, but also created no-show jobs and padded payrolls to siphon money to party coffers. They solicited all manner of bribes and payoffs for municipal business, such as for public works, utility franchises, equipment, insurance, supplies, and the like. These political regimes were like perpetual motion machines, with corrupt revenues funding campaigns to win the next election and stay in power.
1883–1932: The Era of Civil Servants and Professional Government Managers
Somewhat simplifying history, two events and two individuals contributed greatly to the rise of professional government management in the last years of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. First was the gradual emergence of nonpartisan and merit-based civil service systems at all levels of American government. In reaction to the governance problems of the 19th century (including the assassination of President Garfield in 1881 by a disappointed office seeker), a mass movement for good government and civil service reform coalesced into a significant political force during the American Progressive era (1890–1920). They demanded a more respectable, honest, and efficient public sector. The first major event was the enactment of the Pendleton Act in 1883 to begin carving out about 10% of federal executive branch positions to be within a civil service system. Without regard to politics, an independent and bipartisan federal civil service commission recruited, examined, appointed, promoted, and fired governmental employees based on merit. Following the federal model, New York was the first state to enact a civil service system for its employees, advocated by two good government reformers, Democratic Governor Grover Cleveland and Republican Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt, both future presidents. As would be expected, the spread of civil service in governmental employment also triggered pushback from those who benefited from the status quo, especially politicians and patronage jobholders.
The second major trend was the emergence of a new form of city government: the city manager. Begun in Staunton, Virginia, in 1906, the municipality created a nonpolitical position of a city manager. He would be a nonpartisan professional solely concerned with running the municipal government as efficiently as possible by applying to the public sector the kinds of skills and techniques that the new class of trained business managers brought to the corporate world. The city manager was the CEO of the municipality, unconcerned with elections or partisanship, accountable to the city council in the way that a business CEO was accountable to the board of directors. From this modest beginning, a new profession arose, and with it a national membership organization, the International City/County Management Association (ICMA; Stillman, 1974).
Two individuals also played seminal roles in the evolution of public administration during this period. Fittingly for this new field, one was an academic and the other a practitioner. Woodrow Wilson was a political science professor at Princeton University. In an 1887 article, he suggested refocusing the emerging interest in public administration away from a focus on legal aspects of governmental regulation that was propounded by Columbia Professor Frank Goodnow. Instead, Wilson (1887) argued that the focus should be on the running of all government agencies, not just regulatory commissions, because “public administration is detailed and systematic execution of public law” (p. 212; emphasis added). In other words, stop obsessing about the law, court decisions, and the work of regulatory commissions, such as for utilities and railroads. Public administration should be a field of study about the actual doing of all of government’s executive branch responsibilities. (Disappointingly, as president, Wilson exhibited little interest in domestic public administration.)
In industry and mass manufacturing, Frederick Taylor was the founder of the industrial efficiency movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He sought to increase production efficiency through such techniques as time and motion studies. For Taylor, there was always a one-best-way to run manufacturing plants and other industrial and mass production processes. When done comprehensively, it amounted to “scientific management.” Engineer Morris L. Cooke led the effort to transfer Taylor’s approach to government. As Philadelphia’s Director of Public Works from 1911 to 1915, he sought to apply Taylorism and scientific management to the public sector (Cooke, 1915). Cooke’s writings and record were more textured than later caricatures of Taylorism and he should be credited with the injection of apolitical efficiency as a central tenet of public administration (Schachter, 1989). He also was sensitive to the democratic context of public administration, so different from business administration. He called for improved reporting by government agencies to the citizenry as a way of increasing accountability and civic understanding of governmental performance (Lee, 2006a, pp. 459–460).
By the 1910s and 1920s the emergence of the field started taking on a momentum of its own. One manifestation of that was the new profession of colonial administration, which managed America’s new overseas empire. That also meant the need for training programs (Roberts, 2019b). Other events included the creation of the nonprofit Bureau of Municipal Research in New York City (later the National Institute of Public Administration), the spawning of counterpart organizations in most major American cities to advocate good government, executive-centric government budgeting (and apolitical professionals to do it), increasingly complicated methodologies for civil service systems, and university-level training programs for public administrators. Congress even created a U.S. Bureau of Efficiency to install efficient management systems throughout the executive branch (Lee, 2006b). Optimism abounded that a science of public administration was coming into existence.
Another logical development was the self-perceived professional imperative for standardization. In 1928, several public administration and good government organizations (who were often competitors) jointly created the National Committee on Municipal Standards. The next year, the International Association of Chiefs of Police promulgated standards of uniform crime records and for annual reports of these statistics. Also in 1929, Clarence Ridley, longtime head of ICMA, drafted proposed uniform measurements for public works, such as street cleaning and refuse removal. In 1931, another coalition of public administration and good government organizations jointly created the National Committee on Municipal Reporting. It published standard templates for governmental reports to the citizenry, including annual and departmental reports. Later in the 1930s came a National Committee on Municipal Accounting and a Joint Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. These efforts, by necessity, tended to be highly specialized, whether by the vertical siloes of public administration, such as public works and law enforcement, by its horizontal layers, such as municipal or federal levels of government, or by auxiliary staff services, such as accounting or personnel. In retrospect, these largely reflected the inherent centrifugal tugs pulling against the conception of public administration as a unitary profession and practice.
Other initiatives were centripetal and were intended to mold a secular and broad definition of generic public administration. Beginning in 1930, Louis Brownlow, a former city manager, gradually created the Public Administration Clearing House (PACH) with a vague affiliation to the University of Chicago and seemingly unlimited funding from Rockefeller foundations. His ambition was for it to be a kind of capital and national headquarters for all of public administration, a physical location for the various professional associations to work together, as well as an intellectual center for research, consulting, and conceptual development.
One result reflecting the culmination of these developments occurred in December 1931. Several academicians and national organizations affiliated with PACH launched a pioneering national publication called Public Administrators’ News Letter. The letterhead of this monthly bulletin stated its mission as “advancement of public administration as a science and as a profession.” On a very spare budget, it was typed and mimeographed, and each issue was about seven pages long. An early issue, in May 1932, addressed the novelty of the effort and the vision it encompassed:
The development of a profession of Public Administration as an honorable calling, which will attract to public service the finest men that our country can produce, we believe to be of fundamental importance to the advancement of government. We hope that the group of men trained in the science of public administration to which this news letter is circulated may form the nucleus of this rapidly evolving profession.
The purpose of this news letter is to foster this professional development and to serve as a medium for the expression of the very considerable group consciousness and esprit de corps which already exists among those who have seriously prepared themselves for careers in public service.
The contents of the newsletter involved categories of information that were routine in bulletins for various American professionals, including doctors, lawyers, electrical engineers, or accountants. It published short articles by leaders within the profession, notices of job openings, welcoming newly graduated trainees just entering the profession, updates on activities of members, new books, and other developments of interest to the readership. The seminal nature of this bulletin has unfortunately been ignored or lost in the historiography of American public administration. One reason may be its literal disappearance. Apparently, only one partial set survives at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library.
However, the News Letter was different from bulletins of other professions in one important respect: Whereas most such publications were produced by the national membership association of a given profession, there was no national organization to sponsor the public administration bulletin. The News Letter folded at the end of 1934. By then it had largely helped to inaugurate this comprehensive perspective on the field and PACH was fully functioning and could take up the mantle.
More quietly, early indications of some negative reactions to the rise of public administration became faintly visible. The bureaucratic imperative for autonomy was increasingly obvious during the early 20th century. The principle that public administrators and government employees were nonpartisan and professionally trained experts was hardening, in particular with authentic accomplishments benefiting the public along with accompanying favorable publicity. Agencies were not to be questioned, especially by politicians whose motives were likely unsavory and who wanted to meddle in pure science. Government experts were to be deferred to. The emergence of nearly autonomous and self-directed federal bureaucracies included a chemistry bureau and soil research in the Department of Agriculture as well as the U.S. Forest Service (Blum, 2018; Carpenter, 2001).
While initially successful, autonomous bureaucracies would gradually and inevitably attract critics and pushback, especially given the political environment in which they operated. For example, Senator Kenneth McKellar (D-TN) was appointed to the Appropriations Committee in 1923. In that capacity, he was not afraid to confront bureaucrats appearing before the committee. He was not impressed by their expertise and stature and he frequently asked hostile and probing questions. He also was patronage oriented, seeking to hold back the expansion of the federal civil service and expand the number of administrators requiring Senate confirmation. For example, unlike most of his awed fellow appropriators and lawmakers, he was unintimidated by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. McKellar was depicted in brief scenes in the 2009 movie Public Enemies and 2011’s J. Edgar. These scenes vividly conveyed his skeptical, even adversarial, view of apolitical public administrators. He is seen vigorously challenging Hoover’s testimony and claims regarding the agency’s effectiveness, budget, and administration. The ultimate exchange between them was not a cinematic invention. At an appropriations hearing during FDR’s first term, McKellar sought to undermine Hoover’s image and qualifications by asking him point blank, “Did you ever make an arrest?” Hoover squirmed, refusing to verbally confirm it, but could not deny it either (U.S. Senate, 1936, p. 199). McKellar was making the point that Hoover’s claims of his expertise and experience were limited to being a mere government manager with no actual field experience.
Another negative reaction to the rise of public administration was an unexpected evolution of the recall movement. Some good government reformers argued in the initial decades of the 1900s that in a true democracy voters should have the power to remove elected officials from office before their term expired. Arguments over the principle of recall were a kind of proxy debate over what was the most important element of modern governance. Traditionalists said that the central tenet of republican government was that elected officials were delegates, chosen to exercise their independent judgment. On the other side were those supporting direct democracy. They said politicians should be subject to popular control and public opinion at all times, not just through regularly scheduled elections. They sought the option of recall. Then, the recall movement took an odd turn in 1911 in Los Angeles when a charter amendment extended the principle of recall to appointed administrative officials. That year Mississippi enacted a new state law regulating local governments headed by elected commissions. The law extended the scope of recall to unelected civil servants working for those local governments (Gilbertson, 1912, pp. 223–224). The option of recalling nonelected officials gradually expanded across the country. By the 1920s, the city charter of Dayton, Ohio, included its city manager as subject to a recall (Fassett, 1922, p. 82).
This, of course, horrified the professionalizers of public administration. Government managers did not do politics and they were not elected. How could it be that they would be accountable to the mass public rather than to whoever appointed them? In fact, one of the goals of the nascent profession was to isolate public administration from democracy, particularly supposedly ignorant and easily manipulated voters such as foreign-language-speaking immigrants in the big cities or African Americans in the South (Lee, 2011). The proponents of recalling administrators emphasized that these were public servants who had significant power over people’s lives. Therefore, citizens might need to remove unelected public officials just as much as elected politicians. As of 1933, one city manager in California had been recalled (Allen, 1933, p. 179). Between 1966 and 1995, six police chiefs were recalled in Louisiana (Zimmerman, 1997, p. 114). However, little is known about this phenomenon. The scant literature begs for more in-depth and contemporary scholarly research. How many professional public administrators were ever subject to a recall petition? What were the arguments from proponents to justify each recall? If the recall process culminated in an election, what were the results? Public administration history still has many gaps.
In summary, public administration was already coalescing as a recognizable practitioner profession and an academic discipline before FDR’s presidency.
1933–1960s: Franklin Roosevelt’s Administrative Management
New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the Democratic Party’s 1932 nominee to oppose Republican President Herbert Hoover, who was running for reelection. Roosevelt’s campaign focused on the impact of the Great Depression and Hoover’s failure to overcome it. In retrospect, FDR’s campaign message was a simple, “I’m not Hoover.” In that context, the revolution that FDR would bring to the federal executive branch and to government management was largely unexpected. He was not particularly ideological nor doctrinal. Rather, he was a pragmatist willing to consider just about any idea that might stimulate the economy and hopefully help him stay popular and eventually be reelected.
FDR’s ad hoc policies and presidential style sometimes tacked right with government regulation of prices (the National Recovery Administration) and protecting farm prices with limits on production (Agricultural Adjustment Administration). He persuaded a conservative congressman to resign from office in order to be named director of the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) with the mandate to accomplish a balanced budget (Zelizer, 2012). At other times‑or simultaneously‑he tilted left, with federal emergency funding for unemployment and welfare assistance (such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Public Works Administration [PWA, not to be confused with the later WPA]). In particular, given his deep knowledge of the workings of the federal executive branch from his World War I experience as assistant Navy secretary, FDR wanted action fast. The legacy cabinet departments were fine when it came to their traditional and established activities, but he felt they had already become relatively lumbering and change-resistant bureaucracies. For the New Deal to be successful with multiple initiatives expanding the role of the federal government, FDR knew he needed to graft a kind of exoskeleton onto the executive branch that was more fleet-footed and adaptable. The plethora of new federal agencies gradually came to be called the alphabet agencies because there were so many of them and some had similar or quickly changing names. Regardless of the left-right bent of any particular new initiative, FDR needed a new organization to administer each program. Each new agency needed a headquarters office in Washington DC staffed by senior managers and policymakers, as well as public administration’s usual staff functions, such as budgeteers, accountants, auditors, personnel managers, public law specialists, regulation writers, and public relations officers. Beyond the central staffing in the capital, most of these new agencies also needed regional and field staff to administer the agency’s programs throughout the country. (The father of future President Ronald Reagan was the local manager in Dixon, Illinois, for several of these alphabet agencies.)
In other words, what FDR needed was instant public administration. Somewhat blithe about the eye-glazing details of government management (as was his most trusted confidant and administrator, Harry Hopkins), it was FDR’s good luck or just plain coincidence that the profession of public administration had gelled just as he came into the White House. There was a now a corps of men (and a smattering of women) with knowledge and expertise perfectly poised to step into the breach. There was also a steady supply of newly minted public managers from university training programs (and professors with PhDs to teach them) and a general theoretical framework for apolitical government management. The U.S. Civil Service Commission created a new career track for junior managers, called the Junior Professional Assistant program, later renamed the Junior Management Assistant program. Additional help came from the Rockefellers, who funded a novel internship program organized by the National Institute of Public Affairs that gave recent college graduates exposure to administrative career tracks (Lee, 2019). Oversight was provided by a growing professional infrastructure and loose network of outside wise men and advisers to help bring alive FDR’s vision. It included Louis Brownlow and his burgeoning PACH, Luther Gulick and his Institute of Public Administration, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and a Rockefeller-funded organization of expert consultants, called Public Administration Service (PAS; Lee, 2017). (No “the” at the beginning of its name.)
Ever the wily politician, FDR also saw that public administration and civil service reform could be something of a cover for his desire to gain more comprehensive control over the unwieldly executive branch. Knowing he would be busy for most of 1936 running for reelection, he had convened a committee to spend the year on a plan to reorganize the federal leviathan and that would, among other results, strengthen his ability to ride herd over federal agencies and direct them as he wished. This group, called the President’s Committee on Administrative Management consisted of Brownlow (the chair), Gulick, and University of Chicago political scientist Charles E. Merriam. The term “administrative management” was not new (Fesler, 1987), but it was carefully chosen. In part, it seemed to be a shorthand reference to public administration or even a synonym for it. However, the intent behind the heretofore little-used phrase was to focus mostly on top-level management, particularly presidential management. This true focus was even conveyed early in the eventual report with a phrase that was seemingly critical of FDR (to the delight of his opponents): “The President needs help.” The intent was about centralizing and increasing the chief executive’s power. The report quickly dispatched discussion of public administration’s long-standing commitment to civil service reform by stating that the federal civil service system should be extended upward, outward, and downward to include nearly all federal employees with the exception of those in policymaking roles.
Where exactly was the line differentiating these civil service drones and public administrators or, using the new term, administrative managers? Generally, the latter were senior men serving in either line or staff capacities. Line managers ran agencies and bureaus while staff units supported line managers and the president with their expertise in the generic subject areas that a public administrator needed, such as budgeting and personnel. These powerful officials were not subject to confirmation by the Senate because they were “merely” managers. However, from the perspective of administrative management, they were senior administrators who made up the president’s unofficial family.
The report recommended creating an Executive Office of the President. Within that office would be the three key staff agencies to exercise the management powers of a president: budgeting, planning, and personnel. These managerial oversight functions would be operationalized by moving the Bureau of the Budget from the Treasury Department, establishing the National Resources Planning Board (to succeed a planning committee FDR had created in his first term through an executive order), and a civil service administrator who would be accountable to the president. The latter would replace the bipartisan and independent U.S. Civil Service Commission. With these three powers brought into the White House, a president could counteract the centrifugal and autonomy-seeking desires of bureaucracies.
After a titanic political battle with Congress’s conservative coalition, in 1939 FDR got part of what he wanted. When Hitler and Stalin invaded and conquered Poland in September 1939, Roosevelt activated the new Executive Office of the President with the three central management agencies, although the personnel one was somewhat camouflaged (Lee, 2016). He also included in the executive office a standby agency called the Office for Emergency Management. This foreshadowing of the American participation in World War II was the birth of a new component of public administration, emergency management. It eventually spread to become common in the contemporary American governmental template (Lee, 2018a). Like the New Deal, World War II necessitated another expansion of the role of the federal government and, concomitantly, executive branch agencies to operate them. (In 1942, future President Richard Nixon worked in Washington for the Office of Price Administration, one of the major agencies within the Office for Emergency Management.)
In general, FDR deserves credit for elevating public administration given his recognition of the importance of the management and effectiveness of the federal executive branch. For example, he consistently argued that the purpose of reorganization was to improve the effectiveness of government, rather than its efficiency, the latter a political synonym for cutting spending. In early 1944, BOB Director Harold D. Smith sought Roosevelt’s approval to appoint Paul Appleby, the Under-Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to be BOB’s Assistant Director. According to Smith’s summary of the meeting, “the President commented that he thought Appleby was a good choice, and pointed out that Appleby had done a good job as a public administrator; that he knew the Federal Government; that he talked the language of those interested in public administration and in the programs of the Government” (Lee, 2018a, p. 255).
The report of the Brownlow Committee quickly became the bible for the academic side of public administration (U.S. PCAM, 1937). While the term “administrative management” faded rather quickly, the report’s underlying principle of the need for a strong, central, and management-focused chief executive became the conventional wisdom of the academic discipline and its literature. The committee’s themes sank deeply into the field, including the importance of reorganization to rationalize the structure of the executive branch, the separation of classified civil servants from policymaking positions in order to reflect a politics-administration dichotomy, and the centrality of budgeting and personnel management. Some of the major interests of public administration at the time included headquarters-field relationships (Fesler, 2008), rule-making (Relyea, 2011), public law (Rosenbloom, 2013), experimentation through randomized selection (Olsen, 2018), public relations (Lee, 2014b), and reports to the citizenry (Lee, 2018b). These subjects largely faded from the literature in the following decades.
On a track paralleling the professionalization of the practice, in 1939 public administration finally got for itself a national membership association, the American Society for Public Administration and an association journal, Public Administration Review (Lee, 2014a). This completed the traditional cycle and template of American professionalization. However, unusual for its time, the association was intended to be the organizational home for practitioners and academicians alike, instead of the more common pattern of separating them, such as an organization for working journalists and a professional association for faculty at schools of journalism and mass communications.
Roosevelt’s presidency was the high-water mark for a hegemonic and monolithic public administration, whether in its practitioner or academic siloes. It was a confident field with a certainty that it had the answers, that there was no better way to do government, and that its wisdom and special knowledge were beyond doubt or questioning. For example, in 1941, a mass circulation magazine referred to BOB Director Smith as a “scientist” (Hagedorn, 1941). Smith’s day-to-day working lingo similarly implied that something solid underlay his decision-making. His office files repeatedly referred to “sound policies,” “sound administration,” “sound organization,” and “sound handling” (Smith Papers, respectively: September 14, 1939; February 7 and July 15, 1940; August 27, 1945). What made them sound? Apparently rationality and logic, but little more. No science, no experimental investigations, no timeless proven rules.
Around the same time, the career of Robert Moses in New York’s city and state governments symbolized how powerful unelected public administrators could be. He embodied just about everything that public administration trumpeted: an apolitical civil servant, unbeholden to the whims of elected officials and politics, an expert in government, and an independent decision-maker who could focus on adopting and administering merit-based policies and programs. Moses began in the 1910s and 1920s as a good guy, a civil service reformer (Lee, 2006b, pp. 77, 196n27). However, he eventually morphed into an out-of-control construction (and destruction) czar, using the governmental powers vested in the independent public authorities he headed to do just about anything he wanted (Caro, 2019). He was, theoretically, exactly what public administration had long advocated. But, at the same time, he was also a nightmare version of what public administration had intended.
Also, a long-forgotten or perhaps deliberately ignored paper from 1939 exposed how much public administration tried to finesse the inherent complexities and textures of the enterprise, whether focusing on its practitioner or academic sides. Public personnel expert H. V. Bingham sought to identify more specifically what administrative ability actually was. He dismissed efforts to define it based on years of schooling in public administration training programs or based on a match with the detailed qualifications specified in a position description used for recruiting and hiring. Furthermore, experience or inexperience did not necessarily accurately predict how a person hired for that job actually fared. Bingham also noted that some decision-making and policymaking was done appropriately, rationally, and sequentially. However, intuitive decision-making was sometimes the best model. In other words, a good administrator should be able to do both and know which to use given the circumstances. Trying to be as tangible as possible, Bingham concluded that a good administrator needed to have powers of analysis, the ability to see clearly what would later become known as strategic goals, and the ability to judge whether specific action conformed to that bigger picture. In all, these administrative skills were difficult to measure. And where did they come from? At best, they came from learned experience and acquired skills of “knowledge, judgment, common sense and habits of thinking and of action” (Bingham, 1939, p. 17).
In modern lingo, he was talking about competence versus credentials and résumés. Public administration had institutionalized itself as the latter. Bingham’s perceptive analysis, perhaps unintentionally, exposed the weaknesses and softness of everything that public administration had built up, presenting itself as a rigorous discipline and profession. No wonder his essay was largely ignored.
The certainties that public administration was not only a good thing but that it knew what it was doing had some momentum after FDR. His legacy of big government continued largely unchallenged by his immediate successors. When Eisenhower became president in 1953, Republican conservatives who had fought heated rearguard battles against the New Deal (and its bureaucracies) now assumed the new Republican president was of their ilk and would undo all of it. He wasn’t and he wouldn’t. Eisenhower let the relatively new status quo remain as it was. President Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society were largely intended to cap FDR’s agenda. They entailed new bureaucracies, such as the Office of Economic Opportunity and Medicare, as well as many new federal programs and funding. Johnson’s presidency can be seen as the last vestige of FDR’s legacy to public administration.
However, the earlier embryonic backlash against public administration was gradually gaining momentum. In fact, one can trace the beginnings of the failures of public administration to the FDR era. It is easy to forget that FDR was hostage to the racist Southerners in Congress. Due to their seniority, they controlled most of the important committee chairmanships and leadership positions. Further, with the U.S. Senate’s odd customs that defied majority rule (such as the filibuster), Southerners could stop anything. They may have been Democrats, but were largely conservative. When siding with minority Republicans, they were a legislative majority. Therefore, to pass just about anything, FDR had to yield to Southern racism. The most noteworthy example was the GI Bill of Rights. It ostensibly guaranteed every returning veteran from World War II important assistance, including college tuition, mortgages, and loans. The price the Southerners had for passing the bill was that it would not be administered by front-line federal civil servants. Rather, state governments would administer these GI benefits (Katznelson, 2005). That meant African American GIs in the south could be prevented from obtaining the benefits in the same illegal ways they were prevented from registering to vote.
Beyond the awful consequences of this one political compromise, the law created a new template for all future federal administration. Instead of directly administering ongoing and new programs, the GI Bill model was irresistible to state and local governments throughout the country. Free money! This shifted the federal role from doing programs to merely funding them. Quickly, everyone wanted to get in on the action. Hospitals, nonprofits, colleges and universities, and charities of all types clamored to be the deliverers of whatever the federal government wanted. From a high-altitude perspective, this may have been a wash for generic public administration. However, it shifted the bulking up of the field from a relatively unitary federal one to highly decentralized and small units of state and local governments as well as nonprofit bureaucracies that used federal dollars to deliver federal benefits.
Another post-FDR signal of the rising opposition to public administration was the Administrative Procedures Act of 1949. It imposed legal restrictions and processes for the enactment of federal policies and regulations (Rosenbloom, 2000). FDR had fought it strenuously and successfully, but Truman could not hold back the tide. (In a twist of history, during the Trump presidency, the act became the ally of public administration, with federal judges overruling policies and regulations that were adopted capriciously, without the required and underlying processes and facts.)
Finally, the effort by the Brownlow Committee to popularize the term “administrative management” as a specialized concept that was more high-level than public administration-at-large also failed. The most consistent effort came from FDR’s Bureau of the Budget. When FDR named Smith to head BOB in 1939, Smith promptly created a Division of Administrative Management directed by Donald Stone. The division conducted reorganization studies and promoted better management in executive branch agencies. It also sought to expand the use of the concept by encouraging each federal department and agency to create an internal administrative management office (U.S. BOB, 1942). At the end of Truman’s presidency, the division was downgraded and renamed the office of management studies. With that, the term administrative management quickly fell out of usage.
The anti–New Deal conservative coalition’s attack on big government had now been secularized to a nonideological animus to all things federal—except money. Even the number of federal civil servants became an ongoing cheap-shot media hit, leading presidents to watch the number closely. There was an employee in BOB (later the Office of Management and Budget [OMB]) who monitored that number and kept it down. One trick to holding the number down was that employees working for organizations (for-profit and nonprofit) with federal contracts didn’t count. They weren’t federal employees. Gradually the tilt to contracting out extended to core elements of public administration, direct services such as program delivery and staff services such as security investigations. Further destabilizing to public administration’s central and unquestioned power was Johnson’s War on Poverty’s focus on maximum feasible participation of the poor in the management of federal programs intended to help them (Moynihan, 1970).
1970s to the Present: Bureaucracy as Bad Guy
When Alabama Governor George Wallace ran a third-party campaign for president in 1968, he revealed to a surprised meritocracy how much had changed in the hinterlands. They were no longer the good guys. One of Wallace’s most famous and successful attack lines was against “pointy-headed bureaucrats.” The applause came not just from southerners opposing integration, but also from northern blue-collar ethnics who did not want the federal government imposing social experiments on them. These included busing of African American children to their schools or forcing all-white professions to accept African Americans, such as police, firefighters, construction trades, and other closed guilds. By the time U.S. Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) started his monthly Golden Fleece Awards in the 1970s for supposedly stupid things done by the federal bureaucracy, the shared assumption was that this was always the case for federal civil servants. They were incompetent idiots. Period. These were the beginnings of the fourth era of American public administration history, the era of government under siege, with political antipathy toward the public sector.
Republican President Reagan’s favorite quip was “the most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” In his first inaugural address in 1981, he made the same point: “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Indicating how much the bipartisan zeitgeist had changed, in 1996, in his State of the Union Address to Congress, Democratic President Clinton declared, “the era of big government is over.” The fall of public administration was symbolically conveyed by the election of George W. Bush in 2000. He was the first U.S. president with an MBA degree. With his business administration training, Bush’s presidency included a strong emphasis on contracting out and performance measurement. Upon his reelection, he tried to replace FDR’s Social Security with privatized 401(k)-type savings accounts. (He failed.) Another low point came during the 2009 debate over President Obama’s health insurance proposal. Opponents claimed that the plan included “death panels.” Bureaucrats would be given the power to decide if a person was worthy of receiving medical treatment. The viral spread of this wholly invented claim occurred in part because the public was so accustomed to assuming the worst about civil servants (Gusmano, 2012, p. 203). In 2016, Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker and the Republican State Legislature essentially abolished the state’s civil service system. The new law repealed the merit-based protections built into the front and back ends of state employment. It killed the extensive recruitment and examination process for deeming eligible and qualified applicants for a vacant position. It also it ended the equally extensive protections for employees when fired or disciplined. Both of those essential components of a merit based civil service system simply took too long, supporters of the new law said.
Obama’s successor, President Trump, held a bachelor’s degree from America’s first business school, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. His antipathy to the importance of public administration was displayed during his transition (Lewis, 2018) and lack of concern about the partial shutdown of the federal government in 2019. The shutdown lasted 35 days. At first, few citizens seemed to care or notice. This was about faceless Washington bureaucrats, wasn’t it? Who cared about them! They’re useless. Then, very slowly and gradually, Americans came to realize that the federal government was responsible for some things that they cared about and that directly affected them or their families. I can’t get a passport? I can’t visit a national park or camp at a national forest? Why isn’t the IRS helpline answering? The eventual blue flu by flight controllers at La Guardia airport in New York City was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was a tangible example of how the federal government touched “real” people, from average families trying to fly home after the holidays to business pooh-bahs shuttling between New York and Washington. President Trump gave in later that day, but the incident did not stop his continuing attacks on the so-called Deep State, essentially a new ominous synonym for what public administration is supposed to be: an executive branch staffed by permanent civil servants and managers, dedicated to professionalism and legality, and protected from elections, public opinion, or political pressure. In all, it was “the death of expertise,” whether those in government or anywhere else (Nichols, 2017).
The demise of Brownlow’s Public Administration Clearing House (PACH) and its building can be seen as a synecdoche for the falling status of the profession of public administration. It began its zenith in 1938 when the Rockefellers paid for construction of a new building on the University of Chicago campus that was specifically designed for PACH’s needs. Located at 1313 East 60th Street, PACH and its 17 affiliated national associations truly represented public administration’s capital. However, the demise of Rockefeller funding, Brownlow’s retirement, and the increasing importance for national associations to be near the locus of public policymaking in Washington led to a slow motion emptying out of the building. PACH folded in 1956 and PAS took over the management of the 1313 building. Optimistically, in 1963, it took out mortgages to expand the building with more office space and to build a Center for Continuing Education next door (designed by prominent architect Edward Durrell Stone). Nothing could stem the tide. In 1977, PAS handed control of building to the university. Seeking to retain the building’s heritage, in 1979 the university renamed it the Charles E. Merriam Center for Public Administration and tried to revive its use. In 1982, only three national associations still had offices at 1313. PAS kept a token two-person office in the building, but closed it a year later (Lee, 2017). By 1988, the 50th anniversary of the building, it was practically empty. It was doomed. The university repurposed both buildings. The 1313 building was renamed Chapin Hall and
is occupied by the university’s urban education center. The continuing education building next door became the Keller Center and housed the Harris School of Public Policy.
The last vestige of the 1313’s centrality to public administration was its Joint Reference Library (later renamed the Merriam Center Library). Intended to serve all the professions with offices in the building, by the early 1960s its collection included 35,000 books, 1,000 magazines, and 100,000 pamphlets and brochures (Keck, 1961). It was probably the most extensive collection of public administration material in the country. The library published a twice-monthly Recent Publications on Governmental Problems. Indicating its value to an audience of paying subscribers, it lasted 60 years, ending its run in 1991. Down to two staffers by 1992, and with only a handful of associations to serve, the library closed. Its collections relating to planning were transferred to the new headquarters of the American Planning Association in downtown Chicago. However, the fate of its public administration holdings is unclear. Some of the more traditional items in its collections, such as an incomplete run of Public Administrators’ News Letter, were accepted by the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library and absorbed into its holdings. Many of those issues display the stamp “P.A.C.H. Jt. Library.” It is unknown what happened to the rest of the collection, particularly the more than 100,000 pamphlets and brochures, given that traditional libraries tend not to want such ephemera in their collections. It is possible these materials tossed or perhaps are sitting in uncatalogued boxes in an obscure archive. Finding these remnants of the premier public administration collection of the 1313 library would be a priceless discovery by a historical researcher.
To the Future and Beyond
What is one to make of this story? Will public administration ever rise again? What would a fifth era look like? In the 1950s, Kaufman (1956) speculated that the history of public administration indicated a pattern of changing emphases: representativeness, neutral competence, and executive leadership. Taking his conceptualization a step further, perhaps the history of American governance is more akin to a pendulum that swings between Kaufman’s three foci or possibly a few more to add to his list.
More tangibly, history seems to be telling us that there are some immutable principles regarding the role of public administration. First, most certainly, there will always be government. Even the resurgence of populism does not present a paradigm without some form of public administration (Peters & Pierre, forthcoming). No matter how much a conservative ideological movement claims it wants to starve the beast, is it really seeking to eliminate the whole government? Not likely. It still likes and wants some form of military defense, border patrol, law enforcement, and courts. Theirs is a selective denunciation of government. Pursuing their desire to cut as much of public administration as possible, they are accomplishing a self-fulfilling prophecy: a government that is poorly executed because it is inadequately funded, staffed, and supported (Light, 2008).
Kettl (2016) suggested focusing on competence for the efficient delivery of public goods and services that are within the political consensus. This approach might be a way to obtain support for improved public administration. A different analysis of the dysfunction of contemporary America proposed ten policies necessary for restoring national prosperity. One was a “reasonably capable and autonomous public administration” (Hacker & Pierson, 2016, p. 103). It is also doubtful that advances in technology and AI will wholly remove the need for at least some senior people to oversee and manage public entities. Public administration in some incarnation will always exist, though perhaps in forms that are unimaginable at present.
Second, government can never be run purely as a business. Some government-to-citizen programs can be contracted out and delivered, in some cases online, and some in-house support services can be provided from nongovernmental sources. However, public administration and business administration are not and never will be the same. Government is owned by the citizenry rather than stockholders, is controlled by elected officials and the laws they enact, must be (relatively) transparent, does not have a mission of making a profit, and cannot be selective about which demographic to market its services to. Sayre’s (1958) quip that “business and public administration are alike only in all unimportant respects” appears to be a permanent truth (p. 245).
Third, public administration needs to keep a focus on the public interest, not on what special interest groups are seeking to obtain from lobbying, campaign contributions, and all other channels of influence. There is such a thing as the public interest. Yes, it is sometimes amorphous and hazy, even apparently internally contradictory. Nonetheless, there is rarely a case when it is impossible to identify beneficiaries of government: narrow or broad, organized or unorganized, self-benefiting or altruistic. The NIMBY syndrome (not in my backyard) is not an indication of what is best for the public-at-large. Fehrenbacher (2001) tried to identify what factor had led to the long life of American slavery despite ongoing petitioning for abolition. He concluded that in American politics self-interest trumped sentiment (p. 28). This dynamic of political power continues. For example, when a corporation lobbies intently for a tariff barrier to reduce foreign competition, the tariff would benefit it enormously and disproportionately. This gives it a strong incentive to invest in a major lobbying effort. On the other side is the consumer who will have to pay slightly more for the company’s product. But this economic hit is diffuse. In political terms, it is a mile wide and an inch deep. In cases like this, there is no counter-lobbying to match a corporation’s rent seeking. Brill (2018) described this political pairing of power and impotence as “the usual imbalance of passion and resources between special interests and the public” (p. 205). It is public administration’s permanent mission to seek to prevent such imbalances from being entrenched into day-to-day government.
Fourth, public administration can never be perfect. For example, in an effort to reduce red tape (be more like a business!), in the 1980s governments began issuing credit cards to civil servants. Inevitably, there were some abuses. Publicity-seeking politicians and the media were delighted. It confirmed the antigovernment stereotypes they nurtured. But was it widespread? Was it a significant amount of money? Did the abuse last for a long time? No. An earlier version of this pattern had occurred during World War II, when FDR faced a drumbeat of political criticism for supposedly mismanaging the war effort. At that time, Hart (1943) tried to put some perspective on it. These critics were apparently “damning him for not being perfect” (p. 31). The observation still applies. There will always be some glitches, mistakes, and bad apples in public administration. The popular mantra that “failure is not an option” also means that neither is improvement. If the political holy trinity of Congress, auditors, and the media pounce on and exaggerate mistakes, innovation and experiments are discouraged. Some experiments are bound to fail, yet failures are important opportunities for organizational learning. Any manager who fears public criticism‑whether fact-based or not‑is on a path to timidity, passivity, and gradual ineffectiveness. Worse, risk-averse behavior that trembles in the face of political and media criticism inevitably spirals down into a self-fulfilling prophecy of the popular stereotype of bureaucracy: rigidity, rules that micromanage, obsession with forms and processes, and outdated standard operating procedures.
In conclusion, history is important not just for its own sake, but for a more perceptive understanding of the present. This article has cited some of the excellent historical research by late 20th and early 21st century generations of faculty, some of whom had their tenure homes in public administration, some elsewhere. There is still much more to learn. This includes subjects and topics that have not yet been fully explored, have been under-researched, need to be reexamined, or have been entirely overlooked and forgotten. This historian’s wish is for new historical knowledge to expand and improve the narrative through research, analysis, and insights about American public administration history.
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