Comparing Public Bureaucracies: Problems of Theory and Method

Comparing Public Bureaucracies: Problems of Theory and Method

by B. Guy Peters


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The comparative study of public policy once promised to make major contributions to our understanding of government. Much of that promise now appears unfulfilled. What accounts for this decline in intellectual fortunes and change in intellectual fashion? Comparing Public Bureaucracies seeks to understand why. One of the principal answers is that there is no readily accepted and dependent variable that would allow comparative public administration to conform to the usual canons of social research. In contrast, comparative public policy has a ready-made dependent variable in public expenditure.

Peters discusses four possible dependent variables for comparative public administration. The first is personnel—the number and type of people who work for government. Second, the number and type of organizations that form government can suggest a great deal about the structure of government. Third, the behavior of members is obviously important for understanding what actually happens in government—such as the extents to which bureaucracies approximate the budget-maximizing behavior posited by economists. Ginally, the relative power of civil servants in the policymaking process is a major factor in institutional politics in contemporary industrial societies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817303686
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 09/30/1988
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)
Lexile: 1450L (what's this?)

About the Author

B. Guy Peters is Maurice Falk Professor of American Government, Department of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh.

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Comparing Public Bureaucracies

Problems of Theory and Method

By B. Guy Peters

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1988 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8394-7


The Need for Comparison in Public Bureaucracy and the Difficulties Involved

We all have a tendency to conceptualize politics or economics or culture in terms of our own national or even personal experiences. This statement may be especially true of the social sciences in the United States. Contemporary social science theory has had a disproportionate share of its development in the United States, and American values and experiences have been projected on the rest of the world. If we are to develop meaningful theoretical perspectives in the social sciences, however, we must examine each national experience in light of that of other nations. In so doing we will be able to investigate the ways in which differences in structures, cultures, and values affect each other and the performance of the particular aspect of the social system that is being investigated.

The tendency to extrapolate and develop theory on the basis of a single national experience is perhaps especially evident in the administrative experience and public bureaucracy of the United States. Much of our discussion of public administration (not only for the United States but for much of the rest of the world) has been very much bound to a particular time and place. The result has been rather unfortunate for theory development concerning public administration as a component of the social sciences inasmuch as we have almost nothing approaching a paradigm for the study of public administration, especially if we demand a paradigm useful outside Washington, D.C., the United States, or more generally the industrialized world (Lundquist, 1985). While a single paradigm may not be necessary or even desirable, the absence of any successful and broadly shared attempts to develop comprehensive approaches represents a major weakness in the theoretical development of this field of inquiry. The several attempts made (Frederickson, 1980; see also Wollmann, 1980) seem driven more by normative concerns than by the need to understand public administration in a broader comparative and theoretical perspective.

This short book is certainly not intended to articulate an overarching paradigm for public administration, although I hope that it takes a step in the right direction. In these pages I intend rather to examine several major aspects of public administration in the United States in a more comparative and theoretically motivated manner than writers have usually done in the past. Several of the essays contained in this volume represent efforts to articulate partial theories, at least, relating to a particular aspect of administration. I hope that together they will at a minimum push back some of the barriers which have inhibited development of a more comprehensive understanding of public administration. In other words these chapters are attempts at middle-range or institutional theories which may be able to mediate between any evolving paradigm in the field and newly discovered empirical generalizations and experiences.

The Purposes of Comparative Public Administration

In some ways the need to justify and defend the practice of comparative public administration attests to the incomplete conquest of political science, and especially public administration, by those concerned with the development of meaningful social theory. It is almost certainly trite to argue that theory in the social sciences proceeds largely by comparison or by the development of abstract concepts (such as Weber's ideal types), against which elements of the real world should be compared. To regard comparative public administration as somehow distinct from public administration, or indeed to consider comparative politics distinct from the study of politics more generally, is to be trapped in the "stamps, flags, and coins" school of comparative politics and comparative administration. That is, comparative public administration has been viewed as a series of excursions into the exotica of world political systems with the intention of describing different administrative systems and, with any luck, of developing a repertoire of amusing anecdotes based on field work. Such a concept of comparative administration could, however, be justified by much of the literature in the field, which has been descriptive and based on a single country without seeking to provide broader conceptual and theoretical perspectives (Ridley, 1979; Rowat, 1984; Tummala, 1982; but see Page, 1985; Peters, 1984). As Riggs once wrote, "inevitably a new framework for 'comparative' administration will evolve—not as a 'subfield' but as the master field within which American public administrations' will be a subfield" (1976:652).

While Riggs was perhaps excessively optimistic, the direction to which he pointed would certainly be the one offering the opportunity for the greatest theoretical development. Significant work in the philosophy of social science and the methodology of empirical research shows that a strategy of triangulation—using two or more approaches within two or more contexts—is practically the only way to separate the theoretical and cultural bias of the observer from actual observations in the field (Campbell, 1975). Observers impose any number of biases when they observe, and the observation of any complex social phenomenon such as public administration is especially prone to such biases. It is therefore crucial for theoretical development to foster more and better comparative studies. How, then, should we proceed with the task of comparison? It will be important to define at least four dimensions.

Cross-national Comparisons

As indicated by my statements above, I view comparative administration as more than simply the accumulation of descriptive material about various different countries. In particular, I do not have in mind the presentation of such material on a country-by-country basis. Such description is sometimes useful as a means of beginning a more theoretical inquiry. It is certainly pedagogically important for students who may not know a Beamte from an ENArque. Countries as nominal categories for describing systems of public administration, however, may not offer the most efficient means of understanding why those systems function as they do. The extremely fragmented form taken by the policymaking of the public bureaucracy in the United States, for example, has little or nothing to do with national character per se (except as it reflects the fear of strong central government at the time when the Republic was founded). The fragmentation has a great deal more to do with the structure of the governing institutions—both bureaucratic and political—which have been developed within the constitutional framework. At times there may of course be patterns which are more readily explained by cultural variables, for example possibly the legalism of public administration in West Germany. Until we begin to move away from the country-centric approach to comparative administration, however, it will be difficult to ascertain which patterns of behavior are peculiarly national (see also Halász, 1985).

It may be especially important to attempt to understand public administration—and indeed government more broadly—in the United States in a comparative context. Much of the thinking about public administration which by now has become pervasive worldwide—that of Gulick and Urwick, Simon, March, Lindblom, Waldo, Wildavsky, Mosher, and so on—is American in origin, and to some extent the professional study of public administration is therefore extremely culture bound, even when it is conducted outside the United States. For example, a major British book on public administration theory (Self, 1972) concentrates very heavily on American rather than British sources. Such approaches to administration are ethnocentric not just because of their origins (the genetic fallacy) but because the constructs, hypotheses, and theories are not necessarily representative of reality (valid) in other political and cultural contexts. There is thus a pressing need to regard the United States as one of many industrialized capitalist democracies and to recognize the uniqueness of the system but at the same time to acknowledge that it shows many points of similarity to other political systems (Bodiguel, 1984). Before we can do so, however, we must develop a set of research questions and a set of categories which can be used for comparison. In the following chapters I intend to take a first step toward the development of a broader comparative perspective on public bureaucracy in the United States as well as to make a statement about the conduct of the enterprise of comparative public administration. At a very minimum, I will present a selection of dependent variables which will be useful in the process of comparison across nations.

Cross-time Comparisons

In addition to the obvious comparisons to be made across political systems, useful comparisons of administrative systems can be done across time within single countries (Benjamin, 1982; Gladden, 1972). Some very important insights into the nature of public bureaucracy have been gained by studying bureaucracies and political systems which vanished centuries ago (Eisenstadt, 1963; Wittfogel, 1957) or by studying bureaucracies at earlier stages of development within currently existing political systems (Armstrong, 1973; Chapman, 1984; Lipset, 1963; Parris, 1969). Again, however, such analysis needs to be conducted within the context of an analytic framework which provides the compilation of the historical data with some meaning. It could be argued that the public bureaucracy is especially well suited to such informed historical analysis, as it has been an identifiable institution longer than other institutions associated with contemporary government (especially contemporary political democracies). In addition, the public bureaucracy continues to perform most of the functions which it has performed historically while adding new functions and perhaps increasing its importance in policymaking (Molitor, 1983). As a result we have a set of structures that have been identifiable for a long period of time and can be examined in terms of roles and behaviors within the process of governing. There is also some possibility of determining to what extent variance (if such "hard" statistical language is not inappropriate for research which would necessarily be more qualitative) can be explained by national attributes and to what extent by levels of development, by the tasks being performed, or by the climate of ideas popular at the particular time. This exercise in turn might provide some insight into the problems encountered in studying contemporary bureaucracies created by diffusion and "Galton's Problem" (Klingman, 1980). Although such careful historical research is certainly desirable, like all comparative research into public bureaucracies, it must overcome a number of serious conceptual and methodological roadblocks which I will discuss here and in the chapters that follow.

Cross-level Comparisons

Another way of attempting to isolate the sources of variance in the role and behavior of public bureaucracies is to perform comparisons across levels of government within single countries. When we speak of "the bureaucracy" in the United States, we tend to think of the federal government and to forget the almost 83,000 other governments which exist in the country, most of which have employees and therefore have something which we can loosely call a bureaucracy. Comparisons within a single country can be especially important for exercises in theory building because one of the variables assumed to influence behavior—political culture, national character, or whatever one wishes to call it—is held constant (unless of course there are significant regional differences within the single country). A number of other factors which may influence behavior, however, do tend to vary significantly. In the United States, for example, a large number of the 83,000 governments are special districts performing functions which are at least in principle marketable and for which there may be available substitute goods in the private sector. Does the twin accountability to the marketplace and to political officials (Lane, 1985; Rose 1985b) affect the manner in which these public employees perform their tasks? Do variations in governmental structures, or even simply the size of governments, affect the behavior of public employees? A number of excellent opportunities for research in public administration comparing levels of government have yet to be fully explored. Furthermore, these lower levels of government could be involved in more complex research designs (diagonal or matrix comparisons) which could be used to help isolate the source of "variance" in observations. Again, in view of the relatively low level of theoretical development in comparative administration, even thinking about such opportunities may be premature, but they are nevertheless intriguing.

Cross-policy Comparisons

Finally, it is important to compare administration across a number of different policy areas. Some of the functions which government performs (delivering the mails or delivering babies) are very similar to the functions performed in the private sector. Others (delivering bombs) are more strictly governmental. Some government functions require direct interaction between a public employee; others can be performed simply with laws, regulations, or even information (Hood, 1986). Some government functions require the services of highly qualified professionals, such as physicians and lawyers, while others may be performed by employees with only a minimal education. These characteristics of different programs and policies may substantially affect the manner in which they are organized and the behavior of individuals within the organizations.

It is important to compare administration across functions, but just as in the case of comparisons across countries, it is important to use something other than nominal categories when classifying the functions. There may be as much variance within a category such as "health" as there is between some aspects of health and, for example, some parts of education. An important aspect of theoretical development in the study of public administration, therefore, is the development of theoretically meaningful classification schemes. To some extent such schemes have already begun to be developed through various contingency approaches to administration (Greenwood, Hinings, and Ranson, 1975a; 1975b; Pitt and Smith, 1981). Such development apparently has a very long way to go, however, especially if we want to be able to use the schemes when we design new government institutions and not just when we describe the characteristics of existing institutions.

The Low Level of Development of Comparative Administration

Having recognized the importance of comparison for the development of our thinking about public administration, we now come to the awful truth that the comparative study of public administration is perhaps the least well developed aspect of the study of comparative politics and government despite the long and honorable history of the field. Comparative administration was a central component in the traditional approaches to comparative government. Many of the classic textbooks in the field of comparative government included extensive sections on administration and the execution of law through the public bureaucracy. The comparative study of public bureaucracy also occupied a central place in development studies in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s as scholars attempted to understand the role of the bureaucracy in implementing development programs as well as differences in administrative behavior related to levels of development (LaPalombara, 1963; Riggs, 1964; Siffin, 1971; Heady, 1979, provides a thorough overview of the development administration literature). As Savage (1976) observed, however, comparative administration "started with no paradigm of its own and developed none" (p. 417). This statement is to some extent true for public administration as a whole, but its validity is especially evident in comparative administration because of the close connections with comparative politics.


Excerpted from Comparing Public Bureaucracies by B. Guy Peters. Copyright © 1988 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


1. The Need for Comparison in Public Bureaucracy and the Difficulties Involved,
2. Public Employment and Public Service Industries,
3. Organizations as the Building Blocks of Government (with Brian W. Hogwood),
4. The Behavior of Public Officials,
5. The Pursuit of Power,
6. Conclusion,

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