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PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, POLITICS (oxfordre.com/politics). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 25 May 2020

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

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