Public Administration and the State: A Postmodern Perspective

Public Administration and the State: A Postmodern Perspective

by Michael W. Spicer


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In this critical examination of public administration's pervasive vision of a powerful state, Spicer thoughtfully reconsiders the relationship between activities of governance and concepts of the state.

Woodrow Wilson argued for a state led by a powerful government, guided by science and enlightened experts, for the accomplishment of a set of collective purposes—in other words, a purposive state. Michael Spicer contends that though Wilson and those who followed him have not typically explored questions of political and constitutional theory in their writing, a clear and strong vision of the state has emerged in their work nonetheless.

Building upon the work of Dwight Waldo and others who have sought to explore and reveal the political theory behind the seemingly neutral language of administration, Spicer explores the roots—both historical and philosophical—of the purposive state. He considers the administrative experience of 18th-century Prussia and its relationship to the vision of the purposive state, and examines the ways this idea has been expressed in the 20th century. He then looks at the practical problems such a vision creates for public policy in a fragmented postmodern political culture. Finally, Spicer explores an alternative view of public administration—one based on a civil association model appropriate to our constitutional traditions and contemporary culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817352394
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 07/03/2005
Edition description: 1
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Michael Spicer is Professor of Public Administration and Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University and the author of The Founders, The Constitution, and Public Administration: A Conflict of World Views.

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Public Administration and the State

A Postmodern Perspective

By Michael W. Spicer

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2001 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-9115-7


The Neglect of the State

This book is about American public administration and the idea of the state. That the idea of the state should have some relevance to public administration might seem obvious to any ordinary reader; indeed, such relevance is assumed in much of the European writings on public administration. With a few notable exceptions (Waldo 1984; Rohr 1986; Stillman 1991; Skowronek 1982), however, American writers on public administration have typically devoted little explicit attention to the idea of the state. As Richard Stillman has observed, "Not many American scholars until recently have attempted to study the state, or even dare mention state in a book title" (1997, 332). Fundamental ideas about the character of a state, such as "Why should we obey government laws?" "What is the relationship between citizens and government?" or "What ought to be the nature of the engagements, activities, and responsibilities of our government?" are rarely addressed explicitly in our literature. This neglect of the state is especially evident among our more contemporary writers. The question as to what constitutes a good public administration has frequently been seen as one that can be examined separately from any particular vision of a state. Of course, the practical politics of administration, including the interactions between public administrators and elected officials, interest groups, and citizens, has certainly been examined at some length. Nevertheless, political theory as such has generally been ignored. Many public administration writers seem to continue to hold to the view, expressed some sixty years ago by Lyndall Urwick, that human organizations can be examined without regard to "any constitutional, political or social theory underlying [their] creation" (1937, 49).

Why Do We Neglect the State?

Why is it that so many writers in American public administration have neglected the idea of the state? Such neglect may perhaps reflect a certain uneasiness, a certain lack of comfort on the part of public administration writers with the idea of the state. In this regard, it is probably true to say that Americans in general are rather wary of the idea of the state. They are more ambivalent than are Europeans about the kind of governmental power over the lives of citizens that such an entity would seem to entail. Stillman has observed here that Americans have always had a preference for what he calls "statelessness." He notes that Americans believe "that the nation ideally should get along without state machinery designed to make government function" (1990, 166). According to Stillman, they generally "feel it is best to let things work out 'naturally' without the constraints or demands of an artificially imposed state" (166). This has been reflected in the development of our administrative system, which, as Stillman observes, "grew piecemeal, attempting to cope with the shocks of change in an ad hoc manner and without any one grand design" (1991, 68). In light of this strong vein of antistatism in our culture, it is to be expected perhaps then that American public administration writers would not devote very much time or attention to the idea of the state.

A further reason for the neglect of the state by American public administration writers may be their strongly pragmatic bent. Public administration, as a field of enquiry, after all, has always had a practical or a problem-focused orientation toward its subject matter. Indeed, public administration writers have frequently involved themselves in the practice of public administration whether as practitioners, at some phase in their careers, or as consultants or as activists. It may be, therefore, that many public administration writers simply believe that the exploration of the seemingly esoteric political philosophy and theory, which surrounds the question of the nature of the state, is of little practical value to them as they think and go about making concrete recommendations about administrative practice. Indeed, Dwight Waldo has noted that pragmatism, interpreted not as a formal philosophy but rather "broadly as a mood, a temper, an approach, continues importantly as a part of public administration" (1984, xxxviii). Waldo suggests that public administration writers are inclined to share the pragmatic belief of their fellow Americans that practical considerations, such as "what will work best — or at least work?" are "likely to be more crucial than either abstract philosophy on the one hand or administrative principles or economic formulae on the other" (1984, xxxviii).

Moreover, whereas pragmatism may have caused some public administration writers to ignore the state, the desire among other writers to render public administration more scientific may also have contributed to its neglect. More than a few public administration writers, following the lead of such positivists as Herbert Simon, have sought to focus the attention of the field of public administration on relatively narrow and well-defined empirical questions, which seem readily amenable to scientific investigation, rather than on broad and enduring questions of political philosophy, which are difficult or even impossible to reduce to empirically testable hypotheses. Such writers have tended to accept Simon's edict that, if public administration is to be a science, it must be "concerned purely with factual statements" and that "there is no basis for ethical assertions in the body of a science" (1976, 253). To writers of such a positivist bent, the question of what should be the character of a state is one that is simply far too heavily laden with questions of ethics or values to enable meaningful enquiry. Such a question is, from a scientific perspective, therefore, irrelevant. Writers such as Simon argue that what is needed rather "is empirical research and experimentation to determine the relative desirability of alternative administrative arrangements" (1976, 42). Simon himself asserts the irrelevance of questions about the character of the state to administrative science when he argues that "the process of valuation [of ends] lies outside the scope of science" and that "efficiency, whether it be in the democratic state or the totalitarian, is the proper criterion to be applied to the factual element in the decision problem" (184).

Finally, public administration's neglect of the state almost certainly has intellectual roots in the enduring idea, advanced by early writers such as Woodrow Wilson (1887), that it is possible somehow to separate the administrative activities of governance from the activities of politics: the so-called politics-administration dichotomy. Although frequently buried by critics such as Waldo (1984), this idea, which was arguably central to the establishment of the field of public administration, continues to come back and haunt us. Waldo himself has referred here to the "perdurability of the politics-administration dichotomy" (1983, 219), and David Rosenbloom has argued that it "continues to define a good deal of administrative thought" (1993, 503). Self-styled reinventors of government, for example, call for a separation of "policy decisions (steering) from service delivery (rowing)" (Osborne and Gaebler 1993, 35), a distinction that clearly parallels the dichotomy.

Why has the politics-administration dichotomy fostered the neglect of the idea of the state by public administration? It is because it has encouraged the idea that the administrative activities of government can somehow be examined in isolation from questions of politics. Acceptance of the dichotomy appears to render political, as well as constitutional, questions unimportant to the study of public administration. It appears to free administrative scholars from the need to worry about the character of the state. In other words, the effect of the dichotomy is to deflect our attention away from politics and, thereby, away from questions about the character of the state.

Possible reasons for the neglect of the idea of the state by American public administration writers include, therefore, an uneasiness among writers with the idea of the state itself, the strongly pragmatic bent of many public administration writers, the aspirations of many writers to make the study of public administration more scientific, and the politics-administration dichotomy. Whatever the reasons for the neglect of the state, however, a certain paradox exists here. Although public administration writers have not typically troubled themselves very much with exploring and discussing questions of political and constitutional theory, as this book will argue, a very strong and politically value-laden vision of the state can be discerned in the language of much of their writings. In order to provide some preliminary indication of this vision, it may be useful to look more closely at the writings of the reinventing government movement.

The Vision of the State in the Reinventing Government Movement

During the past eight years or so, the reinventing government movement has emerged as almost a new orthodoxy within public administration both in the United States and across the developed world. The central doctrines of this new orthodoxy include eliminating what is seen as burdensome red tape, holding administrators accountable for measurable results, emphasizing customer satisfaction in agency dealings with the public, empowering employees on the front line to make their own decisions, contracting out with the private sector for public service delivery, and securing better value for our tax dollars. Much is made here of the idea that the problems of government are managerial rather than political and that the solution to these problems is administrative reform rather than new public policies or, for that matter, new political institutions. Reinventing government is, according to its advocates, politically and ideologically neutral. Its focus is primarily on "how government should work, not on what it should do" (Gore 1993, ii). Its principles are applicable "regardless of party, regardless of ideology" (6). Furthermore, these principles can be applied universally across all kinds of political systems with quite different political ideologies and traditions. According to reinventors, their strategies "work in small cities and large nations, in parliamentary systems and presidential systems, in strong mayor cities and council-manager cities" (Osborne and Plastrik 1997, 44). Different types of political systems and organizations may require different tactics, in their view, but "none of these differences changes the basic levers that create fundamental change" so that "reinvention applies to all types of organizations" (Osborne and Plastrik 1997, 47).

All this suggests, at first glance, that the reinventors are trying conscientiously to avoid advancing any particular theory or vision of the state at all. On closer examination of their writings, however, there emerges a rather definite vision of the type of state that they would like to see. Key to understanding this vision, in my view, is their central argument that the activities of government can and should be organized and directed around some coherent set of clearly defined substantive ends or missions. In other words, the activities of government are viewed in almost exclusively teleocratic terms. David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, for example, make explicit their teleocratic vision of governance when they assert that we need to move from "rule-driven government ... locked up by rules and line-items" to what they term "mission-driven government" with "mission-driven organizations ... that turn their employees free to pursue the organization's mission with the most effective methods they can find" (1993, 112–113). In their view this change requires, among other things, "hashing out the fundamental purpose of an organization, ... agreeing on one basic mission," and "organizing by mission rather than by turf" (130–132).

Echoing Osborne and Gaebler, former vice president Al Gore's National Performance Review report (NPR) argues that "effective, entrepreneurial governments cast aside red tape" and "streamline their budget, personnel, and procurement systems — liberating organizations to pursue their missions" (Gore 1993, 6). The reinventing of government requires that we "create a clear sense of mission" and that we "steer more, row less" (7). "Boats travel much faster," says the NPR, "when everyone is pulling their oar in the same direction" (Gore 1993, 75). The president is urged here to follow the example of the handling of the Allied Expeditionary Force in World War II, where General Eisenhower "was given a mission statement that clearly delineated goals"; also cited is the example of President Kennedy, who "gave NASA an even clearer mission: Put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade" (75).

Consistent with their vision of purpose-driven or teleocratic governance, reinventors believe that government should seek to emulate the practices of other teleocratic organizations, most especially those of business organizations. In this regard, the NPR, noting that "through the ages, public management has tended to follow the prevailing paradigm of private management," is clearly impressed by how "major American corporations have revolutionized the way they do business" (Gore 1993, 8). In order to reinvent government, says the NPR, "we must seek the guidance of those who have successfully transformed large organizations in both the private and public sectors" (121). Although conceding that differences exist between the public and private sector, these reinventors argue, nonetheless, that "we can transplant some aspects of the business world into the public arena. We can create an environment that commits federal managers to the same struggle to cut costs and improve customer service that compels private managers. We can imbue the federal government — from top to bottom — with a driving sense of accountability" (Gore 1993, 43).

One might think here that these reinventors just want to improve administrative practices. Their recommendations, however, suggest something significantly more ambitious. Congress, for example, is specifically scolded in the NPR report for giving agencies "multiple missions, some of which are contradictory" (Gore 1993, 13), and it is urged to "clarify the objectives of federal programs" (74). Congress is also urged to eliminate policies and programs "that serve special, not national interests" (94). Furthermore, in discussing reforms in the budgetary process, the NPR report asserts that the budget should reflect what it terms "the thoughtful planning of our public leaders" and should not simply be "the product of struggles among competing interests" (15). In other words, the reinventors want government as a whole, not just public administrators, to behave in a more rational and teleocratic fashion. Indeed, Richard Nathan not only recognizes but also clearly welcomes the teleocratic model of governance that appears to undergird the reinventing movement. Nathan sees within this movement the real possibility of "toning down" what he calls "the hyperpluralism of American government" so that "hard problems can be addressed more easily and more expeditiously," so that we can "get policy closure on high-salience issues," and so that we can "bring competence to bear in the implementation of these new policies once adopted" (1995, 215).

Finally, we should observe here that the reinventors themselves are fairly open about their vision of teleocratic governance. Osborne and Gaebler, for example, boldly call for what they term "an entrepreneurial revolution" based on "the shared vision and goals of a community" (1993, 327). They urge "entrepreneurial leaders" to "rally their communities to their visions" and to gain support from "enough of the community" so as "to overcome the opposition" to "the leaders' vision" (327). Also, in reviewing progress on federal reinventing government efforts, the NPR makes evident its vision of teleocratic governance when it argues that "common sense government ... means a government that focuses on results" and that "moves heaven and earth to make it easy for citizens, businesses, and state and local governments to meet the nation's common goals" (Gore 1995, 38). Evidently, then, the efforts of not only federal administrators and elected officials but also the entire national community are to be harnessed in support of the pursuit of national purposes or ends.


Excerpted from Public Administration and the State by Michael W. Spicer. Copyright © 2001 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 The Neglect of the State,
2 The Vision of a Purposive State,
3 The Prussian Experience and the Purposive State,
4 American Public Administration and the Purposive State,
5 The Practical Limits of Teleocracy,
6 Postmodernity and the State,
7 Public Administration in a Civil Association,
8 Implications for Public Administration Enquiry,

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