Politics Of Public Administration Research Paper

Academic Writing Service

Sample Politics Of Public Administration Research Paper. Browse other research paper examples and check the list of political science  research paper topics for more inspiration. If you need a research paper written according to all the academic standards, you can always turn to our experienced writers for help. This is how your paper can get an A! Also, chech our custom research proposal writing service for professional assistance. We offer high-quality assignments for reasonable rates.

From its self-conscious beginnings in the late nineteenth century until the years around World War II, the practice of public administration in America, conceived then, as now, as the organization of government and the management of its activities, was regarded as a rational, technical enterprise properly pursued entirely apart from the give and take of politics. Working against the backdrop of civil service reform, those who sought initially to define the field in both a descriptive and prescriptive sense were certain that public administration could only be accomplished by strict adherence to principles of neutral competence and efficiency rather than partisanship, compromise, and preference. In this view, representative political institutions, whose function is to weigh competing interests and make choices for the society, set the tasks of the bureaucracy. In his seminal essay of 1887, The Study of Administration, Woodrow Wilson wrote of the possibility of a ‘science of administration,’ maintaining that ‘administrative questions are not political questions’ (Wilson 1941). In the crucible of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the war that followed, however, challenges to the politics–administration dichotomy began to take form, and by 1950 John Gaus (1950) could declare that ‘a theory of public administration means in our time a theory of politics also.’ Today, there is no controversy: no one would deny that public administration is a decidedly political process.

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

1. How Public Administration Is Political

There are two general ways in which public administration may be regarded as a political process. One is that by their actions public administrators make value choices that allocate benefits and costs authoritatively; these choices are likely therefore to be contested. The other is that public administrators, far from being passive agents of representative political institutions, act strategically, seeking to maximize the influence of their agencies by competing with other actors for resources and by building alliances.

1.1 Administration As The Pursuit Of Values

The organization of government and the implementation and evaluation of public policy are carried out in the context of certain normative standards or values that guide both management strategies as well as day-to-day actions. The origin of these standards lies normally with the legislative or judicial branches of government or the elected executive. They include, among others, injunctions to pursue the business of government with economy, efficiency, equity, responsiveness, transparency, and accountability.

Many of these standards are in conflict with one another, however: economy and equity may not be attainable simultaneously, for example, if the former stresses cost-savings at the expense of broad distribution of benefits. Nor is efficiency, which may require swift and confidential action, always compatible with transparency, which may entail open decision-making and citizen participation. Furthermore, each of these standards is susceptible to interpretation as it relates to any given concrete situation. Since representative political institutions may not provide specific guidance about priorities or offer ways to resolve ambiguities as these standards are applied in the field, public administrators must necessarily make choices and render interpretations that inevitably create advantages for some interests and deny them to others. Thus, as Carl Friedrich (quoted in Lynn 1996) once observed, ‘Public policy is being formed as it is being executed … In so far as particular individuals or groups are gaining or losing power or control in a given area, there is politics.’ To the extent that politics is the process of deciding who gets what, then public administration is a political activity.

1.2 Public Administrators As Strategic Actors

Through the aggrandizement of resources and the solidification of alliances, managers of bureaucratic agencies strengthen their ability to exercise influence in the shaping and implementation of public policy. Selznick’s study of the Tennessee Valley Authority (1949) was among the first to suggest the importance of establishing external allies (such as client groups, interest groups, the news media, or members of Congress) as a key to the survival and prosperity of a bureaucratic agency. Subsequent observers have seen the efforts of bureaucratic agencies to build a resource base and foster external support as creating new competitors for power with legislative bodies in government (Rourke 1987). Another perspective, however, has emphasized the mutually reinforcing relationships that bureaucratic agencies at the national level tend to forge with interest groups and the legislative committees critical to their funding and authority. These relationships are variously referred to as ‘iron triangles’ or, to suggest the greater fluidity with which these alliances evolve, ‘issue networks’ (Heclo 1979).

2. The Public Management Perspective

The political nature of public administration has taken on sharper focus with the emergence in the last quarter of the twentieth century of the subdiscipline of public management. Whereas traditional public administration was concerned primarily with the organization, design, and operation of bureaucratic institutions, public management is more interested in how managers actually manage public policy (Lynn 1996). Kettl (1996) attributes the rise of public management as a field of study and practice in part to research on policy implementation that began in the 1970s. These investigations suggested that policy success and failure lay not so much with the laws that established programs, or even with the design of the organizations responsible for implementation, as with the skills and capacities of the managers. Some were more politically capable than others. Lynn (1996), for example, writes of ‘the politics of management,’ by which he means the ability of managers of public agencies to set a course, maintain credibility with overseers, marshal authority and resources, and position the organization advantageously in the political environment. Thus, the public management perspective focuses explicitly on strategy and interorganizational relations rather than the administration of processes internal to bureaucratic agencies.

3. The Politics Of Public Administration In Action

The politics of public administration are revealed in the routine processes of government organization and operations, such as reform, personnel administration, and policy implementation.

3.1 Reform

Reformers have made repeated attempts during the twentieth century to transform American government to make it more effective and more responsive to public desires. These efforts have often focused on reorganization schemes whose effect was to redistribute power within government. For example, the creation of an executive budget at the national level in the United States in the 1920s and the establishment of an Executive Office of the President in the postwar period both served to strengthen the presidency in relation to Congress. In more recent times, the movement to ‘reinvent’ government has sought to shift power both from Congress to the bureaucracy and from the higher reaches of the bureaucracy to mid-level managers and line functionaries (Kettl 1998). Not only has the reinvention movement aimed at ‘empowering’ government functionaries at the lower rungs of the bureaucracy, but it has also attempted to recast citizens as customers rather than supplicants. Since customers may exercise their right not to buy, to ‘exit,’ the successful market actor must be attentive to their desires. The reinvention movement at the end of the twentieth century is, thus, partly an effort to transform the culture of public administration by conferring on citizens seeking service from government rights and powers—respect, attentiveness, quality—similar to those enjoyed by customers in the private market (Osborne and Gaebler 1992).

3.2 Personnel Administration

Hiring public employees, defining job requirements, motivating workers to perform, and appraising their achievements are standard tasks of the public administrator. As Levine et al. (1990) have pointed out, public executives seek to achieve a diverse set of values in personnel administration, including instrumental achievement, social equity, merit, and employee rights. Often these may be in conflict with one another. This is nowhere more apparent than in the debate over affirmative action and descriptive representation in the public workforce.

Holden (1996) has observed that no theory of public administration can fail to take account of competition among ethnic groups in a plural society. Public employment has long been a prize over which ethnic and racial groups have contended, for work in government has provided not only a measure of economic security but also advancement. The need to respond to the political demands of groups underrepresented in public jobs may be seen as clashing at times with the exercise of strict merit standards. Public administrators face the dilemma of resolving this value conflict as they seek to manage their agencies, posing clear political choices. Elected officials also struggle with this issue, and those who resolve it by committing to affirmative action illustrate how political considerations may merge with and shape the public administration of personnel management.

3.3 Policy Implementation

One of the most important factors accounting for the political nature of the administrative process is the degree to which government functionaries necessarily exercise discretion in implementing laws and administrative directives. When state highway department planners choose to establish a right-of-way for a new road through a poor neighborhood rather than a middle-class area, or decide to locate an interchange near one suburban commercial development rather than another, it is clear that the implementation of highway policy is not simply a matter of the application of engineering and administrative considerations; management choices have distributive consequences. They create winners and losers.

Discretion may be more or less circumscribed. Schneider and Ingram (1997) point out that the allocation of discretion in any given policy area varies from the situation in which the laws and rules establish unambiguous goals, means, and target populations to a situation in which the law is so general as to leave all of these in great measure to the judgment of government employees in the field. At the lower levels of the organization so-called ‘street-level bureaucrats’ (Lipsky 1980), such as police officers, welfare case workers, health and safety inspectors, and other government employees who deal on a face-to-face basis with the public, often labor under conditions that conform more to the latter end of the spectrum than the former. The choices of these bureaucrats are fraught with political meaning: police officers who stop automobiles driven by young black men more often than those driven by whites simply in the belief that blacks are more likely to be criminals, or caseworkers whose sympathies lead them to facilitate applications by elderly clients for food stamps but not for single mothers, serve as key actors in the allocation of policy benefits and costs.

Discretion may even lead to the sabotage of laws with which bureaucratic officials do not agree. For example, in the mid-1970s the secretary of the US Department of Agriculture resisted implementing the Women, Infants and Children supplemental food program, claiming that such assistance was both duplicative of other programs and ineffective. Delays in the implementation of the program led to congressional claims that the department was breaking the law.

4. The Administration–Politics Synthesis

To reformers in the early twentieth century, for whom the business corporation provided the preferred template for the administrative state, politics was understood as the competitive struggle for partisan advantage. This struggle served its purpose in the selection of leaders and the adoption of policy, but in an ideal society, administration, the carrying out of political decisions as well as the housekeeping functions of government, such as street paving, would be separated from partisan conflict and placed in the hands of disinterested professionals, beholden neither to party nor politician, but to rational principles of management. Yet in the century since these ideas took form, students of the administrative process came to see that the operational details of organization and management were themselves deeply political.

Public administration has come to be understood as the continuation of the political process—the authoritative allocation of values—by government actors in government settings other than the elected institutions. To the extent that public administrators make choices in organizing their bureaus, in choosing their personnel, in establishing operational priorities, and most important, in applying the laws, they distribute costs and benefits across groups and interests in the society. In that sense, public administration is a political activity.


  1. Gaus J 1950 Trends in the theory of public administration. Public Administration Review 10: 161–68
  2. Heclo H 1979 Issue networks and the executive establishment. In: King A (ed.) The New American Political System. American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC
  3. Holden M 1996 Continuity & Disruption. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA
  4. Kettl D 1996 Introduction. In: Kettl D, Milward H B (eds.) The State of Public Management. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  5. Kettl D 1998 Reinventing Government: A Fifth Year Report Card. Brookings Institution, Washington, DC
  6. Levine C, Peters B G, Thompson F 1990 Public Administration: Challenges, Choices, Consequences. Scott, Foresman, Glenview, IL
  7. Lipsky M 1980 Street Le el Bureaucracy. Russell Sage, New York
  8. Lynn L 1996 Public Management as Art, Science and Profession. Chatham House, Chatham, NJ
  9. Osborne D, Gaebler N 1992 Reinventing Government. Addison Wesley, Reading, MA
  10. Rourke F 1987 Bureaucracy in the American constitutional order. Political Science Quarterly 102: 217–32
  11. Schneider A, Ingram H 1997 Policy Design for Democracy. University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, KS
  12. Selznick P 1949 TVA and the Grassroots. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  13. Wilson W 1941 The study of administration. Political Science Quarterly 56: 481–506
Public Bureaucracies Research Paper
Organizational Aspects of Public Administration Research Paper


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get 10% off with the 24START discount code!