Perspectives on Public Management and Governance

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Advance Access publication September 27, 2017
The Aims of Public Administration: Reviving the
Classical View
Alasdair Roberts
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Address correspondence to the author at [email protected].
The scholarly field of public administration (PA) was launched at a dangerous moment in American
and world history. This fact influenced early understandings about the aims of the field. PA was
understood to be concerned with big problems of governance relating to the very survival of liberal democratic states. This expansive view of PA no longer prevails, for two reasons. One is the
cession of territory once included within the domain of PA to fields such as International Relations,
Statebuilding, and American Political Development. Another is the rise of Public Management
(PM), a more constricted way of thinking about the territory remaining within the domain of PA.
Criticisms recently made against PM suggest that a new approach to PA is needed. This new
approach should reclaim abandoned territory and revive understandings about the aims of the
field that were prevalent at the time of its founding.
Needed: A Broader View of Public
The purpose of this article is to argue for the recrafting
of understandings about the aims of research in the
scholarly field of public administration (PA), particularly in the United States. PA scholars ought to raise
their sights and acknowledge the state as a basic unit
of analysis in the field. They should take a longer and
broader view of the forces that guide the evolution of
states and seek to understand the processes by which
states respond to those forces. They should define their
role as one of providing advice on the design, consolidation, management, and adaptation of states so that
they are effective in advancing human rights.
This proposed approach is not entirely new to
American PA. It revives a way of thinking about the
field that was familiar to the scholars who launched it
in the 1930s and 1940s. This classical conception of PA
went into decline after the early 1950s. Parts of the territory that were examined by classical PA were abandoned and occupied by other scholarly fields. Scholars
in International Relations (IR) specialized in the design
of institutions that were necessary for diplomacy and
war. Scholars in the field of Statebuilding specialized
in the design and consolidation of institutions within
less developed countries. And scholars in American
Political Development (APD) claimed responsibility
for studying the historical development of public institutions in the United States.
Within the territory that was left to PA, an approach
known as Public Management (PM) became dominant.
PM should be regarded as a response to the distinctive problems of the United States and other advanced
welfare states in the last decades of the 20th century.
However, the limitations of the PM approach have
become increasingly obvious. To some critics, the PM
approach is pinched and shortsighted. These critics are
looking for a more expansive approach to the study of
PA. In fact, what they are looking for is an approach
that reclaims the territory ceded to other fields over
the past decades and reconstructs an understanding
about the field of PA that would have been familiar to
the scholars who founded it in the middle of the 20th
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74 Perspectives on Public Management and Governance, 2018, Vol. 1, No. 1
The Classical View of PA
The field of PA emerged in the United States in the
late 1910s and was consolidated by the late 1940s
(Roberts 1994). This was a time of extraordinary disruption in domestic and world affairs. The American
economy suffered a short economic depression in the
early 1920s and a much longer one in the 1930s. The
American Midwest was devastated by climatic change
in the mid-1930s. Millions of people were struck by
epidemics of influenza and polio. Millions migrated
across the United Statesfrom farms to cities, and
from the segregated South to the industrialized North.
Social and political affairs were upended by a revolution in transportation and communication technologies. The United States was also drawn into two world
wars, and then a cold war with the Soviet Union. It
struggled to reconstruct countries that were wrecked
and demoralized by war, in which the prospects for
democratic government were dim (Gallagher 1948,
251). Even in the United States, the survival of democracy was not taken for granted. Many Americans were
overwhelmed by the rush of events and wondered
dictatorship was necessary for peace and order to be
restored (Roberts 2017, chap. 3).
The men and women who launched the new field of
PA in these decades were acutely aware that they lived
in dangerous times. Their views about the aims and
scope of the field were shaped by this awareness. They
understood that there were certain basic functions that
a state must perform, such as the maintenance of peace
and order, protection against external threats, and the
promotion of stable economic growth (Merriam 1944,
21 and 22; White 1948, 5). They also understood
that the American state was failing to perform these
functions: that it was, in Charles Merriams words, a
sick state (Merriam 1945, 32). This sickness arose
because the institutions of American government had
not been updated to suit modern conditions. As Luther
Gulick said, public institutions were three generations
behind our necessities and our social and economic
world (Gulick 1933, 63). Consequently, scholars in
the new field examined how those institutions should
be renovated so that the health of the state could be
restored, in the United States and abroad. The stakes
are beyond price, Leonard White warned in the 1939
edition of his textbook on PA. If democratic government failed, an autocratic alternative may await the
opportunity to seize power (White 1939, 34).
The view of PA that was shared by these early scholars had six features:
1. It operated at a high level of analysis. Its view of the
field was founded on the concept of the state and a
concern for the relationship of the state to broader
social and economic conditions (Roberts 2013,
921). The idea of the state, Woodrow Wilson
said in an essay that was widely admired by early
PA scholars, is the conscience of administration
(Wilson 1887, 201).
2. It was concerned with the external as well as domestic affairs. It recognized that the United States and
other states confronted similar challenges in building effective institutions, that national security was
an essential aspect of governance, and that a welldesigned international order was necessary to avoid
relapses into chaos and misery (Wallace 1943,
34; Walter 1945, 183).
3. This conception of public administration was
dynamic. The conditions confronting states were
understood to be turbulent, requiring the constant
renovation of institutions so that they were adapted
to the compulsions of the environment (Gulick
1948, 1).
4. It was understood that a long-run view of institutional development was necessary. Good scholarship required a historically conditioned sensitivity
to the relationship between administrative practices and environmental factors (Caldwell 1955,
5. Early scholars were realists. They believed, as
Alexander Hamilton did, that the circumstances
that endanger the safety of nations are infinite,
and that the durability of public institutions could
not be taken for granted (Hamilton, Madison et al.
1888, 136). The breakdown of government was a
real possibility (Baxter 1938). [F]ailure to respond
to the necessities of change could lead to the collapse of social order (Merriam 1945, 37).
6. Finally, these scholars had clear normative commitments. They were determined to improve state
capacity while also protecting a broad range of
individual rights. Indeed, the very aim of statebuilding was to improve the capacity of peoples for the
attainment of the good life (White 1939, 7; White
1948, 148). It followed from this that the study of
public administration had to include the examination of such matters of justice, liberty, obedience,
and the role of the state in human affairs (White
1948, 10).
We can call this the classical view of PA. It faded away
in the 1950s and the 1960s. Today, dominant understandings about the aims and scope of PA are quite
different. PA scholars generally do not talk about
the state and its relationship to social and economic
conditions. Some key state functions, such as defense,
diplomacy, and policing, are given little attention in
the PA literature. Scholarship in PA is not permeated by a sense of the fragility of state authority. Nor
is it affected by historical consciousness. Instead,
most research looks at short time frames, and the
immediate past.
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What explains this change in attitude within the
field of public administration? One cause is the fragmentation of the territory once encompassed within
the classical approach. For example, a considerable
amount of work relating to defense and diplomacy is
now done within the field of IR. Similarly, a great deal
of research on problems of state fragility is now done
within the field known as Statebuilding, while research
on the long-run evolution of state capabilities in the
United States is undertaken within the field of APD.
The surrender of all this territory left the field of PA
with a more limited set of problems. This encouraged
the emergence of narrower views about the aims and
scope of research in the field.
One of these narrower views is known as PM. PM
is an approach to the study of governmental action
that emerged in the 1970s in the United States and a
few other advanced democracies. Today, the Public
Management paradigm is well established in the
United States and western Europe. Indeed, some scholars suggest that it has effectively supplanted the
domain previously known as PA (Hughes 2003, 45).
The PM approach is an understandable response to the
difficulties encountered by mature welfare states in the
late 20th century. Nevertheless, challenges to the PM
approach have intensified in recent years. Critics have
lamented its lack of historical consciousness, its inattention to the social and economic forces that shape
governments, and its blindness to the distinctive problems of fragile states. In other words, the broad complaint against the PM paradigm is that it lacks many of
the features that were typical of the classical approach
to PA.
There is a way to respond constructively to these
complaints. We should develop a new approach to the
domain of PA, which in many ways revives the classical approach to PA. Some features of classical PA are
still evident in other domains that have occupied territory once claimed by PA. An useful first step in this
project of intellectual recovery is to canvas these four
scholarly fieldsIR, Statebuilding, APD, and PMto
understand and contrast their approach to the study
of governmental action.1 Then we can outline how
the project of intellectual recovery might proceed and
anticipate three objections that are likely to be made
against this project.
Looking Outward: IR
IR is a scholarly field that is mainly concerned with
the study of relations between states, and the strategies
used by states to advance their interests within the
international state system. In the last 20 years, many
scholars have argued for a more expansive view of IR
domain, with greater emphasis on the global interaction of non-state actors (Baylis and Smith 2014, 23;
Jones 2014, 37). But the more common conception of
the field is one that focuses on the interaction of states
and the evolution of the state system.
The field of IR is only a few years older than PA
itself. It emerged in the aftermath of World War I, with
the creation of chairs and research centers in leading
universities in the United Kingdom and the United
States. The first American textbook in the field was
published in 1925 (Buell 1925), while the first graduate degree was offered in 1928. Today the field is well
established. More than 4,000 scholars at US colleges
and universities specialize in IR (Maliniak et al. 2011).
The leading scholarly association in the field, the
International Studies Association, is almost 60 years
old and has 7,000 members internationally. More than
80 IR journals are recognized by the Social Science
Citation Index.2
At first, there was a close connection between the
fields of IR and PA in the United States. Between the
world wars, the University of Chicago was home to
the nations leading IR program as well as the Public
Administration Clearing House, the main body for
national coordination of scholarly and professional
activity in PA. Charles Merriam, chair of the universitys political science department between 1923 and
1940, played a key role in shaping both scholarly projects. As a result, there were close connections between
them. A graduate of the department recalled that
anyone getting a PhD in international relations at
the university was expected to know a lot about PA
(Thompson 1996). Meanwhile Public Administration
Reviewalso based at the University of Chicago
published many articles on problems of defense, diplomacy, and international organization. Leonard White,
a professor in the department of political science at
Chicago and the first editor of Public Administration
Review, wrote a book on defense and war administration (White 1942). The two scholarly communities were also bound by a shared normative vision,
expressed in the United Nations Charter of 1945: of a
world of peace-loving states committed to respect
for human rights and . . . fundamental freedoms for
all (United Nations Charter, Art. 1.3 and 4.1).
Soon, though, a division of labor emerged between
PA and IR. By the late 1950s, PA scholars had largely
retreated to the domain of domestic policy and civil
1 These scholarly enterprises are referred to interchangeably as
disciplines, subdisciplines, fields, and subfields. For convenience,
I refer to them all as fields.
2 The most influential are International Organization, International
Security, World Politics, and International Studies Quarterly (Colgan
2016, 490).
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76 Perspectives on Public Management and Governance, 2018, Vol. 1, No. 1
administration (Ni et al. 2017, 6). Meanwhile, scholars
in IR continued their work in a manner that would
have been familiar to early scholars in PA, although
largely limited to the realm of military and foreign policy. The IR field today operates at a high level of analysis, typically treating either states or the state system
as the basic object of study. The design and behavior
of states is understood to be explicable as a response
to a range of powerful trends and forces(Goldstein
and Pevehouse 2017, 15). The most important of these
external factors is the fact of competition with other
states (Bull 2002); others include the structure of the
global economy, changes in technology, mass migrations, and climatic changes. The challenge for national
leaders is to design and adapt grand strategies for
advancing vital state interests in a world that is typified
by constant flux (Kennedy 1991, 17).
The IR approach assumes that policymakers execute these grand strategies by building institutions. For
example, leaders build up their diplomatic corps so that
they can communicate with other states and military
capabilities to defend against attacks from other states.
They develop systems of taxation to pay for diplomacy
and defense, and systems for promoting economic
growth so that tax revenues will increase (Cappella
Zielinski 2016). Countries may even develop institutions for protecting human rights if this is necessary
to maintain support for the state in times of international conflict. States also collaborate to build international institutions that protect their vital interests. This
includes a corpus of international law that regulates
interstate relations, bodies like the International Court
of Justice that apply the law to interstate disputes, and
a host of other international organizations such as the
United Nations, the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.
The IR approach recognizes that circumstances
may change, and that opinions about the design of
grand strategies may change accordingly. When this
happens, institutions must also be modified. Indeed,
IR scholars emphasize the extent to which domestic
and international institutions have been renovated
over time to meet new realities. An obvious example
is the dramatic expansion and contraction of military
capabilities in response to changing perceptions about
the threats faced by states. The international order has
been subject to similar great transformations (Buzan
and Little 2000; Cox et al. 2001). This view about the
plasticity of domestic and international institutions is
encouraged by the fact that IR scholars take a longterm view of their subject (Opello and Rosow 2004).
Analyses of the changing international order may span
centuries, often beginning with the Peace of Westphalia
in the mid-17th century. Similarly, studies about grand
strategies pursued by individual states often span
decades. This historical sensibility makes it easier to
recognize the broad dynamics (economic, geopolitical, and cultural) that influence contemporary events
(Brands and Suri 2015).
A final distinctive feature of the IR approach, also
shared with the classical approach to PA, is its awareness of the perils confronting states. Many IR scholars regard the world as a volatile and often dangerous
place (Kennedy 1991, 6). It follows that care in the
design of grand strategies is important, because misjudgments can have disastrous consequences (Ross
2008, 23). A state that ignores systemic pressures,
Charles Jones observes, will not survive any more
than a firm that persistently ignores market signals
(Jones 2014, 41). But the task of crafting strategies is
complicated by conflicting objectives and an inability
to accurately predict the consequences of any specific
course of action. Leaders are forced to make choices
in a chaotic and uncertain environment, where crucial information is often unknown or unknowable,
where conditions can change rapidly and unexpectedly, [and] where foes and spoilers lurk at every turn
(Brands 2014, 11).
The Developing World: Statebuilding
Another way in which the field of PA has fragmented
is by the sharp division of scholarly work relating
to affluent and stable countries from that relating to
poorer and more fragile states. In the early years of
PA, this division of labor was not well established.
Many American PA scholars were engaged in programs launched by the Truman administration to
support reconstruction in Europe and governmental
reform in poor countries elsewhere (Lehman 1945;
Miles 1953; Simon 1953). Post-war volumes of Public
Administration Review were sprinkled with accounts
of foreign administration . . . in an unfamiliar setting (Waldo 1963, 182183). The Chicago group
of PA scholars launched a project on comparative
administration (also known as development administration) which gained momentum in the early 1960s
(Riggs 1965, 7274). But enthusiasm for research on
comparative administration dissipated in the 1970s
(Heady 1998, 3337). A proponent of comparative
administration lamented in 1976 that American public administration has become increasingly parochial
as it ignores what is happening in the rest of the world
(Riggs 1976, 652).
Today, problems of governance in poorer and
weaker states have become the concern of a scholarly field known as Statebuilding. This community of
scholars coalesced in response to the failure of international peacekeeping efforts in war-torn countries
in the 1990s. The United Nations and major powers
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were frustrated as these countries relapsed into violence when peacekeeping forces were withdrawn.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, policymakers in developed states also worried about the threat
posed by terrorist networks that were based within
poorly governed states (Executive Office of the
President 2002, v). For both reasons, it seemed essential to put more emphasis on the development of institutions in weak states that could maintain order while
respecting human rights (Chesterman 2005, 49; Lotz
2010, 222).
The Statebuilding field is now well established. There
are graduate degrees and research centers dedicated to
the subject, and a vast amount of scholarly material
(Scott 2007, 3). There is a specialized periodical, the
Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, established
in 2007.3 This scholarly community works in concert
with a network of national development agencies,
international organizations, and nongovernmental
organizations that support projects to improve public
institutions in struggling countries (Brinkerhoff 2007,
1). The military forces of major powers such as the
United States also invested heavily in this work after
the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (Brooks 2016,
chap. 4). Several indices of state fragility have been
developed (Sisk 2013, 175176). These indices show
that the Statebuilding field has broad relevance. The
Fragile States Index suggests that most of the worlds
states, and 9 of the 10 most populous states, are fragile
(Fund for Peace 2016). There are more people living in
fragile states than there are in developed countries like
the United States (World Bank 2011, 2).
Statebuilding scholars, like classical PA and IR
scholars, operate at a high level of analysis. Their goals
is to build institutions that enable fragile states to perform essential functions (Ghani and Lockhart 2008,
chap. 7; Rotberg 2004, chap. 1; Sisk 2013, 167168). It
is understood that judgments about the relative importance of functions, and the appropriate design of institutions, must be guided by environmental factors;
that is, by the social, economic, and political conditions
that prevail within a states territory (Brinkerhoff 2007,
1516; Dodge 2013, 1210; Goetze and Guzina 2008,
326327 and 338341). The broader realities of international affairs must be considered as well. A range of
foreign entitiessuch as occupying or peacekeeping
forces, international organizations, development agencies, and philanthropiesseek to influence the design
of domestic institutions (Chandler and Sisk 2013, xxii
and 4344; Ghani and Lockhart 2008, 7, 9799; Lake
2016, 1, 46, 197; Lotz 2010, 228).
Statebuilders are also realists, like classical PA and
IR scholars. They recognize that the capacity of public institutions to perform basic functions such as the
maintenance of peace and order cannot be taken for
granted. On the contrary, the assumption is that many
states have weak or disintegrated capacity to respond
to citizens needs and desires, provide basic public services, assure citizens welfare, or support normal economic activity (Brinkerhoff 2007, 2). Consequently,
statebuilders focus on fundamental problems, such as
reducing conflict, building core administrative capabilities, and persuading powerful factions to recognize
the legitimacy of central authority (OECD 2011, chap.
3). It is recognized that it is not easy to execute any of
these tasks, but that the human costs of failure can be
massive. Statebuilding scholars also have clear normative commitments, like classical PA scholars. The single
overarching aim of Statebuilding is the advancement
of human rights.4 Indeed, the main work of the field
is often described as liberal peacebuilding and statebuilding (Campbell et al. 2011, 4).
The match between the Statebuilding approach and
the classical PA approach is not exact. For example,
the Statebuilding approach largely neglects national
defense. Attention to this function seems unnecessary
because the rulers of fragile states feel immune from
external attack or conquest (Kraxberger 2012, 5253).
This feeling of immunity is encouraged by international
norms against wars of aggression that have been consolidated since 1945 (Shaw 2008, chap. 20). Moreover,
the great powers and international organizations that
support statebuilding projects have a strong interest in
protecting client states from attack, and little interest
in improving their capacity to start wars.
Another critical distinction between the Statebuilding
and classical PA approaches is that Statebuilders are
concerned primarily with the construction and consolidation of new institutions. The emphasis is on finding
ways of demonstrating credible commitment by rulers to new institutions, and persuading powerful social
groups to become vested in them (Lake 2016, chap.
1). By contrast, classical PA scholars were primarily
interested in the problem of adapting well-established
3 This journal is not yet included in the Social Sciences Citation Index.
Research on statebuilding also tends to be published in journals
specializing in development policy or international relations. According
to Google Scholar, the SSCI journals most likely to publish articles
referring to statebuilding include Third World Quarterly, Journal of
International Development, International Peacekeeping, World Politics,
and Global Governance.
4 The aims of statebuilding have been described as the improvement
of physical security, the reduction of poverty, development, and the
promotion of human rights (OECD 2008; Chandler and Sisk 2013, xiii and
5). These four objectives could be reduced to one. The UN Declaration
of Human Rights regards personal safety, economic security, and full
development of the human personality as basic human rights, along
with more familiar interests, such as protection against arbitrary or
discriminatory state action, and the right to participate in the selection
of governments.
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78 Perspectives on Public Management and Governance, 2018, Vol. 1, No. 1
institutions to new circumstances. One important
aspect of this work consists of deconsolidation: that
is, unwinding credible commitments to existing
institutions and overcoming the vested interests
who defend them (Gaus 1942). Of course, classical PA
scholars recognized that redesigned institutions have
to be consolidated all over again. But in their view of
the world, commitment and investment could be problems as well as virtues.
Looking Backward: APD
Classical PA scholars took a long-run view of institutional development. They believed that institutions
acquired their present form through a long chain of
events. As Luther Gulick said in 1951, institutions
emerge historically piece by piece (Gulick 1951, 62).
It followed that the study of PA had to incorporate
some form of historical inquiry: it was impossible to
understand present-day administrative developments
unless they were related to their own organic past
(Gulick 1948, 1).
This aspect of classical PA scholarship became
known as administrative history.5 By the early
1940s, it was a critical part of the overall PA research
program (Nichols 1944, 240241). Its most prominent advocate was Leonard White, who produced
four award-winning books on administrative history
between 1948 and 1958 (Roberts 2009, 764). Several
other scholars pursued similar research in the 1940s
and 1950s (Roberts 2013, 1520). In 1955, Lynton
Caldwell insisted that the study of administration was
necessarily historical, because history provided the only
means of discovering how factors in the environment
condition organizational behavior and what types of
organizational adaptation have proved successful
(Caldwell 1955, 453461). But interest in administrative history declined sharply after the 1960s. By the
1990s, PA research was routinely criticized for its
lack of historical consciousness (Luton 1999; Durant
2014, 1415; Durant and Rosenbloom 2016, 910;
Adams 1992; Schachter 1998, 16). The study of public administration pays little attention to history, Jos
Raadschelders concluded in 2010. [S]ystematic training in research and methods of administrative history
is sorely missing in public administration higher education (Raadschelders 2010, 236).
As PA abandoned the territory of administrative
history, another scholarly enterprise known as APD
began exploring it. APD began as an insurgency in
the early 1980s and by the early 2000s was one of the
fastest-growing subfields within American political
science (Kersh 2005, 335). Its main journal, Studies
in American Political Development, was launched in
1986. A shared core of canonic works in APD is
now taught in graduate programs across the United
States (Kersh 2005, 344; Orren and Skowronek 2004,
3 and 35). The subfield is supported by the Politics
and History section of the American Political Science
Association, which had more than 600 members by
2010 (Brintnall 2010, 180). This made it considerably
larger than APSAs PA section.
Some scholars have seen a link between APD and
the research on administrative history that was completed in the 1940s and 1950s (Gerring 2003, 84).
Leonard White has been described as the great-grandfather of APD (Katznelson 2013). But APD is better
understood as a product of tensions within the discipline of political science itself. It emerged in reaction to
a tendency in American political science, in the decades
following World War II, to discount the relevance of
governmental institutions in explaining the substance
of policy decisions.6 These decisions were typically
explained as the simple product of pulling and hauling
by interest groups. APD aimed to bring the state back
in to its proper central place in explanations of social
change and politics (Skocpol 1985, 28).
As a first step, this required that APD scholars
acknowledge the existence of an American state (Mettler
and Valelly 2016, 7). The next step was to show how
institutions within the state play an important role in
shaping government policies. It then became necessary
to explain why these institutions take one form rather
than another. Scholars within the APD enterprise argue
that processes of state formation in the United States
can only be understood by taking a long view. The
theoretical precept undergirding APD is that a polity
is constructed historically and that the nature and
prospects of any single part will be best understood
within the long course of political formation (Orren
and Skowronek 2004, 1). The shorthand version of
this precept is that history matters (Steinmo 2008,
127). The method of inquiry that is associated with the
APD enterprise is known as historical institutionalism
(Steinmo et al. 1992).
On the surface, there are strong similarities between
APD and classical PA, as well as the IR and Statebuilding
fields. For example, all operate at the same level of analysis, taking the state as the basic theoretical construct.
But closer examination reveals some key differences.
5 Administrative history . . . is the study of the development, organization,
of those agencies which have composed the national government.
Special attention is given to procedures by which agencies come into
existence, existence, undergo changes as to organizational form or
functions, and are absorbed or liquidated (Trever 1941, 160).
6 Laurence Lynn Jr., explaining the rise of Public Management in the
early 1980s, wrote that it did not look to political science because that
discipline had largely abandoned the study of organizations (Lynn
1994, 233). APD scholars had only begun addressing that gap at exactly
that time.
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Perspectives on Public Management and Governance, 2018, Vol. 1, No. 1 79
For example, APD scholars are reticent about specifying the essential functions or desirable qualities of a
state.7 Usually, the predilections of APD scholars must
be inferred. For example, APD scholarship betrays an
ongoing concern about the weakness of the American
state, and particularly about the difficulties associated
with building administrative capacity and legitimacy
within central government (Novak 2008).
Another peculiarity of APD scholarship is its exclusive focus on the American state. IR and Statebuilding
scholars examine larger classes of states, and the classical PA approach, while focusing mainly on the United
States, did not assume that its work was limited to that
country.8 But it is an axiom of research in APD that
the United States is an exceptional case. Ira Katznelson
says that the idea of US exceptionality has been at
the substantive core of the APD field from the start
(Katznelson and Shefter 2002). Similarly, John Gerring
observes that work in the APD genre has remained,
to some considerable extent, an inquiry into American
exceptionalism (Gerring 2003, 84). One justification
for this claim of exceptionality is that the United States
lacks the highly centralized institutions that European
states developed because of centuries of interstate war
(Balogh 2009, 74). For this reason, the United States is
held out as the great anomaly among Western states
(Skowronek 1982, 6).
The claim of exceptionality ought to be viewed skeptically. Even if the United States is different from the
major western European states, that does not necessarily make it exceptional in the whole society of states.
Indeed, the case that is made for American exceptionalism is like the argument that is made about todays
fragile states. Derek Brinkerhoff observes that in many
fragile states, national government is incapable of
exerting authority throughout the national territory,
and subnational entities are sufficiently powerful to
resist and operate autonomously (Brinkerhoff 2007,
17). This is an apt description of the American state
until the early 20th century. Despite this commonality
in experience, there is a high wall between the APD
and Statebuilding fields. Students of statebuilding in
the United States never refer to scholarship on statebuilding in fragile states, and students of statebuilding in fragile states never refer to the experience of the
United States (see Table 1).
A final peculiarity of the APD approach relates to
its predispositions regarding institutional adaptation.
The three other fields examined hereclassical PA,
IR, and Statebuildinggenerally take the view that
the state is pliable and can be remolded to accommodate new circumstances. APD scholars are more skeptical about the adaptive capacity of public institutions
(Krasner 1984, 234). They regard the deconsolidation
and reconfiguration of institutions as an extraordinary
challenge. Indeed, some APD scholars compare institutions to dried cement (Rhodes et al. 2006, xv). This
emphasis on the rigidity of institutions is closely linked
to the claim that institutions have an independent role
in shaping public policy (Cortell and Peterson 1999,
187). If it were to be conceded that institutions respond
rapidly to environmental pressures, then the argument
could be made that environmental pressures, rather
than institutions themselves, should be treated as the
truly important determinants of policy outputs (Thelen
and Steinmo 1992, 15).9 Skepticism about the pliability
of institutions, combined with an awareness of the frequency with which reforms generate unintended consequences (Pierson 2004, 16), also makes APD scholars
cautious about providing prescriptions for institutional
reform. Ambivalence about giving prescriptions on
institutional reform is another way in which the APD
approach differs from the others canvassed here.10
The Residual: PM
Over the last half-century, the field of PA has experienced two major changes. The first, just described,
has been the loss of territory to other fields: of
defense and diplomacy to IR, governance in poorer
and weaker states to Statebuilding, and administrative history to APD. The second has been a transfiguration of understandings about scholarship in
the territory that remained within the domain of
American PA. The last 40 years have seen the expansion of a distinctive approach, PM, which emerged
in the late 1970s in the United States, and grew so
rapidly that it threatened to displace the traditional
public administration paradigm entirely (Boyne
1996; Bryson et al. 2014, 445; Lane 1994, 139; Lynn
An extensive infrastructure has been developed
to support PM scholarship over the last 40 years.
7 Stephen Skowronek offered a list of qualities in 1982, but these were
criteria for describing rather than judging states (Skowronek 1982,
1920). More recently, Suzanne Mettler and Richard Valelly have made
reference to crucial tasks of governance, without specifying what
they are (Mettler and Valelly 2016, 1).
8 J.E. Hodgetts, a student of Leonard White, applied the methods of
administrative history to the Canadian case (Hodgetts 1955; Hodgetts
1964; Hodgetts et al. 1972; Hodgetts 1973).
9 Some scholars have challenged the prevailing view. Suzanne Mettler
and Richard Valelly argue that adaptive or reconstitutive change is
a central dynamic in American politics (Mettler and Valelly 2016, 5).
For a more complete discussion of this question, see Roberts (2017,
chap. 6).
10 This might simply be a manifestation of a broader diffidence within the
discipline of political science about direct engagement with the world
of public affairs (Drezner 2017, chap. 4).
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80 Perspectives on Public Management and Governance, 2018, Vol. 1, No. 1
Several scholarly organizations are partly or
wholly dedicated to the promotion of PM research,
such as the Association for Public Policy Analysis
and Management (founded in 1979), the Public
Management Research Association (founded in 2003,
following a series of biennial conferences begun
in 1991), the International Public Management
Network (1996), and the International Research
Society for Public Management (1997). In addition,
several journals specialize in the publication of Public
Management research. The most highly ranked is
the Journal of Public Administration Research and
Theory, established in 1990, which is now the official journal of the Public Management Research
Association.11 There are schools, faculty chairs, and
graduate degrees dedicated to PM.
PM scholarship does not regard the state as a basic
concept for research. It operates at a lower level of analysis. Its main concern is the ability of public agencies,
or networks of public and private agencies, to achieve
objectives that are set by political overseers.12 A popular textbook describes PM as the formal and informal
processes of guiding human interaction toward public
organizational objectives. The units of analysis are processes of interaction between managers and workers
and the effects of management behavior on workers
and work outcomes (Frederickson et al. 2012, 100).
Similarly, Carolyn Hill and Laurence Lynn Jr. define
PM as the process of ensuring that the allocation and
use of resources available to government are directed
toward the achievement of lawful public policy goals
(Hill and Lynn 2016). Emphasis is put on the efficient
use of scarce resources; that is, on improving the
value for money achieved by public services (Bovaird
and Loeffler 2016, 5). PM research has tended to focus
heavily on agencies that are concerned with the delivery of education, health care, welfare and other social
services, as well as environmental protection and other
forms of health and safety regulation. By contrast,
relatively little PM research has been conducted in the
domains of national security, diplomacy, or policing,
or on problems of management within the judicial and
legislative branches of government.
PM scholarship is best understood as the response to
a distinctive set of problems that confronted policymakers in the United States and other advanced democracies
in the last three decades of the 20th century. The field
was launched as an attempt to address the problem of
implementation failure that became evident after
the expansion of welfare states in the 1960s and early
1970s (Elmore 1986, 6973; Kettl 1990, 412; Kettl and
Milward 1996, 45; Williams 1975, 531, 553, 566; Wolf
1982, 546547; Yates 1977, 370). It gained momentum
as economic growth rates declined in the 1970s. Fewer tax
dollars were available to support government programs,
and citizens were hostile to tax increases. For the next
quarter century, policymakers in the advanced democracies struggled to reconcile expansive policy commitments
with the reality of scarce resources. PM research promised to show how public agencies could work better and
cost less (National Performance Review 1995).
This link between austerity and the rise of the PM
field has been noted by many authors. Geert Bouckaert
and Christopher Pollitt have attributed enthusiasm for
PM reform to the global economic disturbances of
the 1970s, and the spreading belief that governments
had become overloaded and that Western states had
become unaffordable [and] ineffective (Pollitt and
Bouckaert 2011, 6). Christopher Hood has described
the PM movement as a response to a set of special
social conditions that were distinguished by a desire
11 Other journals include Public Management Review (begun in 1999,
and associated with the International Research Society for Public
Management) and the International Public Management Journal (begun
in 1997, and associated with the International Public Management
Network). Two other journals, Public Administration Review and Public
Administration, also publish a substantial amount of PM research.
12 Early statements about the aims of the enterprise are provided by Lynn
(1987, 179182); Bozeman (1993, 362); Lynn (1994, 231233); Behn (1995);
Kettl and Milward (1996, 5253); Brudney et al. (2000, 16); Agranoff and
McGuire (2001). A summary of topics explored within the PM literature
is provided by Osborne (2017, 110).
Table 1. Citation Among Four Key Journals in 2014 and 2015
Total citations in journal 4,981 12,595 2,702 6,875
Citations from IO 7.4% 0.4% 0.2% 0.1%
Citations from TWQ 0.0% 2.3% 0.0% 0.0%
Citations from SAPD 0.0% 0.0% 1.3% 0.0%
Citations from JPART 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 9.7%
Note: This table examines inter-citation rates for leading journals in four scholarly fieldsInternational Relations, Statebuilding, American
Political Development, and Public Managementover two years, 20142015. IO = International Organization, a leading journal in
International Relations. TWQ = Third World Quarterly, the most common outlet for Statebuilding articles that is included in the Social
Sciences Citation Index. SAPD = Studies in American Political Development, the leading journal of American Political Development. JPART =
Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, the top-ranked journal in the field of Public Management. Bold entries are self-citation
rates. Citation data drawn from Journal Citation Reports and full-text searches of the journals.
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Perspectives on Public Management and Governance, 2018, Vol. 1, No. 1 81
to slow down or reverse government growth in terms
of overt spending and staffing (Hood 1991, 3 and 7).
Owen Hughes has argued that main reason for the
advent of public management was that governments were faced with declining real revenue, [and]
political demands to maintain services at the same
levels. In these circumstances, the only avenue was to
improve productivity (Hughes 2003, 51).
In the last 15 years, however, there has been increasing unease about the character of research undertaken
in the PM field. The first of three major concerns is the
perception that PM scholarship lacks historical selfawareness. That is, PM scholars do not typically understand the field as a project that was tailored to suit the
special social conditions prevailing in certain countries at a particular moment in history. As Christopher
Pollitt observed in 2008, research in PM has been
decontextualized (Pollitt 2008, chap. 1). Some other
fields develop an adjunct intellectual history that provides a check against decontextualization, by explaining how ideas within a field have evolved in response
to changing circumstances. But the PM field has never
been adequately buttressed by this sort of intellectual
history (Moynihan 2009, 814; Moynihan 2014, 5657;
Roberts 1995, 304; Roberts 2010, 1012).
A second concern relates to understandings about the
geographic span of PM scholarship. In the late 1990s and
early 2000s, enthusiasts of the PM approach promoted it
as a project that was equally relevant to all countries. The
claim was that PM constituted a global paradigm or a
global movement (Kettl 2005; Osborne and Gaebler
1992, 328; Theodoulou and Roy 2016, chap. 5; Walker
2011). This implied that policymakers and scholars in all
countries had a common concern with making government work better and cost less. However, several leading
writers have expressed skepticism about the globality
of PM (Hood 1998, chap. 9; Lynn 2006, chap. 2; Pollitt
and Bouckaert 2011, 1115).13 And there is good reason
for such skepticism. In fact, PMboth as a scholarly field
and a reform movementhas been most firmly rooted in
a very small number of advanced welfare states, as we
noted earlier.14
This is not to deny that scholars from other countries
have made significant contributions to PM research,
particularly over the last decade. Nevertheless, the
enterprise is still dominated by western (especially
American) scholars, institutions, and publishers and
heavily shaped by western preoccupations (Haque
and Turner 2013, 244). Shamsul Haque has described
the PM model as contextually incongruent in Asian
countries (Haque 2013, 263). He observes that there
is a mismatch between the PM model and political
conditions in those countries, which are distinguished
by institutional fragility and political instability
(Haque 2013, 269). This problem is not limited to
Asian countries. Western scholars take for granted
many basic thingssuch as peace and order, functioning legal systems and legislatures, the capacity to tax
and spend, the availability of a professionalized and
largely noncorrupt workforcethat cannot be taken
for granted in most countries. As the Statebuilding literature shows, the governance agenda in fragile states
is dominated by basic problems of authority and legitimacy that seemed to have been decisively resolved in
the advanced democraciesalthough recent events
might raise doubts about this.
A third concern about the PM field relates to its
neglect of big questions. Brint Milward, a scholar
who played an important role in launching the field
30 years ago, has recently criticized it for overlooking basic questions about the capacity and purpose
of the state (Milward et al. 2016, 312). Similarly,
Donald Kettl has suggested that PM scholars should
spend more time studying the big trends shaping the
world of governance (Milward et al. 2016, 330).
Christopher Pollitt argues that researchers have lost
sight of the big picture: the surrounding architecture
of politics, economics, technology, demography, and
the natural environment which, however indirectly or
slowly, pushes and shapes the actions of public authorities (Pollitt 2016). Meanwhile, Robert Durant and
David Rosenbloom reproach contemporary scholars
for neglecting the political economy of administrative reform and its evolution over time (Durant and
Rosenbloom 2016, 9). All these criticisms are driven
by the perception that the PM field lacks a broad view
of governance, and thus the capacity to anticipate and
respond to new challenges that confront policymakers.
The field was built to address a particular set of problemsrelating to the sustainability of the welfare state
in the last third of the 20th centurybut has struggled to adapt as policymakers respond to new problems, such as terrorism, migration, climate change, or
political polarization. Every change in the governance
agenda has struck the PM field by surprise.
These three concerns about the PM field have something in common. In every instance, criticisms are being
made against PM that could not have been made so
easily against classical PA. These criticisms have weight
because the field of PA abandoned important parts of
13 For a recent effort to accommodate a range of contextual factors into
public management research, see Meier et al. (2017).
14 All of scholarly associations and journals that are now focused on Public
Management originated in the United States or the United Kingdom.
American and British scholars dominate the editorial boards of these
journals and write the most-frequently cited articles published within
them (Hou et al. 2011, i47i48; Walker 2011, i56; Juliani and de Oliveira
2016, 1036). One study found that almost 90 % of articles on management
and performance published in the Journal of Public Administration
Research and Theory between 1990 and 2013 were based on data from
the United States and United Kingdom (Meier et al. 2017, 3).
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82 Perspectives on Public Management and Governance, 2018, Vol. 1, No. 1
its territory to other fields. If contemporary PA were
well-connected to the APD field, for example, it would
be less susceptible to criticism for lack of historical
consciousness. If it were connected to the Statebuilding
field, it would be less susceptible to criticism for overlooking the fundamental problems of poorer and
weaker states. And if it were connected to the IR field,
it would be less susceptible to criticism for neglect of
the larger trends and forces that shape the behavior
and overall architecture of states. Unfortunately, there
is hardly any connection between these four scholarly
fields (Table 1). A remedy for the weaknesses of the PM
approach might consist in reclaiming some of the territory that has been abandoned over the last 60 years.
In other words, there is a case to be made for reconstructing the field of PA so that it recovers many of the
features of the classical PA approach.
Reintegration and Revival
The project of reviving PA does not consist simply in
mimicking research in fields such as IR, Statebuilding,
and APD. Each of these fields has its own preoccupations and idiosyncrasies. Scholars in PA must be deliberate in defining their own goals and methods. Broadly
speaking, the aim is to produce prescriptions about the
design, consolidation, management, and adaptation of
states that are effective in performing critical functions,
with the ultimate end of advancing human rights. To
achieve this goal, PA scholars must move to a higher
level of analysis, take a broader view of the forces that
impinge on states, and operate with a historical consciousness, as well heightened awareness of the fragility of state authority and legitimacy. Having said this,
there are many ways in which ideas can be adapted
from other fields for use in the construction of a new
approach to PA. To a large degree, PA scholars should
engage in a form of scholarly bricolage (Levi-Strauss
1966, 1622; Weick 1993, 351353), combining ideas
that have been freshly invented, recovered from classical PA, and borrowed from cognate enterprises.
The proposal to launch such a project is likely to
encounter three objections from scholars currently
working in the field of PA. The first is that it underestimates the importance of work done under the flag
of PM. It is important to emphasize, however, that
expanding the boundaries of PA does not imply the
abandonment of research in PM. It is not necessary
to choose between one or the other. Other disciplines
sustain research programs that run concurrently but
operate at different levels of analysis. The study of
microeconomics is complemented and not threatened
by the study of macroeconomics. Similarly, behavioral studies in political science are not displaced by the
examination of regime level questions. The difficulty
with contemporary PA is that operates at only one
level: it has micro but no macro.15
A second objection is that it is impossible to
address big questions about states with adequate
rigor. There is a widely held perception that raising the
level of analysis implies a return to woolly, essayistic analysis and abandonment of the methodological
advances associated with PM research (Kelman 2007,
4). Once again, though, the tradeoff between level of
analysis and rigor is illusory. Other fieldsincluding
IR, Statebuilding, and APDhave demonstrated the
feasibility of conducting research at a higher level of
analysis while maintaining a high level of discipline
in argumentation and use of evidence. Indeed, some
studies that examine the design and evolution of
states use the same econometric techniques that are
privileged in PM research. In any case, scholars are
not permitted to sidestep important questions simply
because they cannot be answered with familiar methods. The only defensible approach for scholars in PA
is to face the critical questions and answer them as
best they can.
A third objection is more practical: even if there is
a compelling argument for developing a new approach
to PA, there are no incentives for scholars to undertake
the work, especially at the early stages of their career.
Robert Durant has recently enumerated the professional disincentives . . . against studying big questions,
warning that unless these disincentives are corrected,
research priorities are unlikely to change (Milward
et al. 2016, 330332). Philip Joyce has also noted the
pressure to explore narrow questions with a limited
toolkit of methods (Joyce 2016). The existence of these
pressures cannot be denied, but we should avoid a
sense of fatalism. We have evidence that research priorities can be changed over time. Approaches that are
popular today, such as PM and APD, were once mere
insurgencies themselves.
Finally, we should not forget the advantages of
undertaking the project of reorienting the field of PA.
By developing a new approach, scholars will improve
their ability to understand the broad forces that shape
the architecture and behavior of governments. They
will improve their ability to contribute intelligently
to public debates about the challenges facing states
today. And they will hone their capacity to anticipate
challenges that may confront policymakers in the
future. A new approach will also provide the foundation for a truly global dialogue among PA scholars,
because its core concepts will be capacious enough
to accommodate the full range of problems that are
encountered by governments in developing as well as
developed states.
15 I am grateful to Muinul Islam for this analogy.
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