Sample Coursework Paper on Public Administration

Public Administration

  1. Introduction

Public administration can be viewed either as an area of academic inquiry or as an administrative activity performed by a salaried person, who discharges public service and implements public policy within a government framework in accordance with existing laws (Nedelcu, 2010). Public administration is an increasingly complex field as the size of the government grows and the functions that government is expected to discharge to its citizens grows in tandem. Public administration in the information age is also buffeted by many competing interests, chief among them the public perception of the need for, and the efficiency of a public administration bureaucracy (Kettl, 2000). Public administration has long sought to be divorced from politics and is considered as an independent field, not only of study but also of practice, although increasingly, it is becoming a prisoner of politics and is hostage to the political whims of the ruling political ideology.

Although the discharge of services to the public is the raison d’être for public administrators, they are usually judged on how efficient they are in discharging these services to the public. The concept of efficiency in public administration is based on the idea of obtaining the maximum possible benefits for minimal cost (Denhardt, 2004). This concept is at variance with other important concepts like justice and equity and separates the means from the ends, yet in public undertaking, the means by which objectives are met may be as important as the means. The ideal of public administration is to have an efficient bureaucracy that is open, accountable to the public, impartial and not beholden to transient political whims. The assumption is that public administrators have the public interest at heart and do not have ulterior motives or personal biased that will negatively affect the discharge of their duties. However, public administrators work in a dynamic environment with myriad competing interests where it is difficult to be impartial or very efficient, and hence this paper shall examine some of the lessons learnt about public administration and the challenges it faces in practice.

  1. Lesson one: Effect of political culture on public administration

A number of institutions of higher learning have separated political science from public administration into independent departments and sometimes even independent schools (Neumark, 2011). The rationale behind this delineation is that the two fields are distinct, different and have little in common, hence can be studied separately. However, in the real world, the practice of politics and public administration is often enmeshed and there are areas of overlap, where each of the fields influences the other, making it very difficult to divorce the practice of public administration from politics and the prevailing political culture. The foundation of the idea of political culture is that different communities have autonomous and fairly enduring differences in culture, which have political consequences (Guess & Gabrielyan 2007). Political culture refers to the attitudes that people have towards governance and politics and the expectations they have about government functions.

Although scholars agree that political culture has an effect on public administration, the concept of political culture at best remains vague, and the amorphous nature makes it impossible to quantify the effect of political culture on public administration (Peters, 2001). Political culture has normative element and it refers to the way people perceive politics especially the perception on how politics ought to be in an ideal situation (Greene, 2005). The public’s interest on public administration is usually due to the essential services that it provides rather than as an enterprise to judge the managerial skills and excellence of public servants. Political culture has a number of dimensions which singly or in concert affect the way people perceive public administration. According to Peters (2001) one of the dimensions of culture is hierarchy and equality, based on the fact that bureaucracies have a hierarchy of personnel and authority. Cultural values about authority and impersonality of rules determines whether the hierarchical structure can be accepted by the populace.

The recruitment criterion for public administrators is important in the shaping of the political culture and attitude towards public administrators. Generally, administrators can be recruited by achievement criteria, where bureaucrats are appointed to different positions depending on their abilities, or through ascriptive criteria, where public administrators are appointed to their positions depending on such factors as caste, class, language, race, status and such other immutable personal characteristics. Systems which use achievement criteria to appoint public administrators are considered to be the most modern and fair as they lead to the appointment of the most qualified individuals to public positions. However, the use of achievement criteria raises serious questions about equality. Usually, the middle and upper classes have the most qualified persons due to a positive correlation between class and educational achievement. Ascriptive systems are the most unfair as they do not offer opportunity for participation for persons with the wrong personal characteristics.

The second dimension of culture, which is tied to the ideas of equality and hierarchy, is the dimension of liberty and its antithesis, coercion (Peters, 2001). In society, the public administrators decide on the limits for economic liberty and liberty of expression and the acceptable amount of coercion that can be used to enforce these limits. In modern societies, the use of physical violence to enforce compliance is out of vogue and increasingly indirect coercion is used as a tool of political control. Public participation in government is reducing and often, bureaucracies make decisions with far reaching consequences with little or no reference to the public. Bureaucracies are technically competent and the general population lacks the tools to challenge the bureaucracies on the actions that they take on behalf of them. The probability of indirect coercion increases when a citizenship is disengaged from the political process and feels incompetent to challenge the bureaucracy. In this public administration does not serve the interests of the citizens but is akin to a private consortium that makes decisions on its own terms.

Loyalty and commitment is the third dimension of political culture and refers to the terminal community that an individual ultimately professes allegiance and loyalty to. When individuals are ultimately loyal to families, culture, language, ethnic groups, caste or religion, they do not have loyalty for the nation state and this is likely to lead to political instability (Peters, 2001). The purpose of public administration is to engender loyalty to the state to ensure the continued stability of the state since when individuals profess loyalty to sub national groupings outside the family; it poses a grave risk to and for public administration as well as continued state stability. Such loyalty often leads to social cleavage making the political decision-making process very difficult and can lead to political paralysis. Social cleavage limits the effectiveness of executive or legislative decision making due to immobilism or due to imposition of decisions, hence making an apolitical bureaucracy that avoids partisanship invaluable in holding the state together and keeping the country from lapsing into paralysis. Therefore, it is necessary that from the outset, there should be a conscious effort not to politicize the bureaucracy and let it to run its functions without undue political interference.

The last aspect of political culture is the level of distrust or trust that a population has for the political system as well as the bureaucracy. Trust can be separated into two components – social trust, which has to do with the level of trust that an individual has on other individuals, and political trust, which has to do with the level of trust that individuals have on political systems (Peters, 2001). Social trust has a significant impact on the development and success of bureaucracies. When people consider others as trustworthy, there is a willingness to form and observe rules for the conduct of business in society because people believe in the natural goodness of others. Social trust reduces the level of cynicism that is otherwise shown by persons and people will have more trust for the system. In systems with a high level of social trust, public administration tends to be more successful as people are not too skeptical or cynical about the aims of the system. In addition, whenever there is a high level of social trust, it is likely that there will be a significant level of political trust. To increase the political trust that individuals have for a system, the system should have a sufficient number of checks and balances to dissuade abuse of power or process.

In conclusion, political culture has a significant effect on public administration. Public administration cannot be divorced from the political process because, ultimately, it is the politicians who set the agenda that public administrators implement. In this era of accountability and increased scrutiny in public affairs, public administrators must be cognizant that their actions and decisions have an impact on the political arena. Therefore, public administration cannot be assumed completely apolitical, since most of the programs run by public administrators are usually geared towards the achievement of the political goals of the politicians in power, meaning that it can be difficult to unmesh the connections between public administration and political expediency.

  1. Lesson two: Capitalism and public administration

Capitalism is a uniquely American trait with a majority of Americans being of the view that capitalism is a good thing because it makes them comfortable, allows for unparalleled choice and enables most to have a reasonably decent standard of life (Greene, 2005). The concept of capitalism can be considered as an extension of individualism because the capitalist system encourages individual accumulation of wealth. The capitalist system allows the means of production and distribution to be owned by individuals or corporations privately enabling those individuals owning the means of production to accumulate vast amounts of wealth. Capitalism is premised on the concept that free markets are always superior to those that are government controlled, which tend to exhibit structural deficiencies and inefficiencies. Ideally, the government should have no part to play and the markets should be left to run unchecked without any interference from government busy bodies. A casual analysis of capitalism will show that public administration has no place to play in the affairs of business, and it may be considered as an encumbrance holding back the markets from realizing their full potential.

Capitalism has spread from America and is currently the dominant economic system around the globe, especially after the collapse of the Soviet block and the discarding of communist economic policies in China. As capitalism became ascendant and the most widespread economic system, neo-liberalism advanced a public administration theory in which the state had a minimal input in the economy (Schultz, 2011). The minimalist approach envisioned a small state staying in the background while big business went about accumulating wealth for the owners of the means of production and distribution. There was an aggressive push for deregulation in the 1980’s and 1990’s and towards the end of the 90’s, markets were lightly regulated and companies could go about their business with minimal interference from the government. It is important to note that although capitalism is theoretically about individuals entering the market and a few giant corporations own trading as they wish, in practice, the means of production and distribution and small firms find it exceedingly hard to survive in market that is tilted in favor of the multinationals.

The financial crisis of 2008 brought a paradigm shift in conventional wisdom about the role of government in the economy. The widespread notion that business does not need government to prosper was fallacious because a careful examination of government-business dealings shows that the two have coexisted since the foundation of the US (Greene, 2005). Business has always lobbied the government to tilt the legislation to favor their operations and have worked hard to ensure that the government puts sufficient barriers to disadvantage competitors, especially if they are foreign. Although it is assumed that businesses hate government regulations, it is surprising that on occasion, businesses have been the fiercest critics of deregulation. Greene (2005) states that surprisingly, airline companies were some of the strongest opponents of deregulation when the government decided to liberalize the airline industry in the 1980’s. The government also has myriad agencies which deal with economic issues and it is difficult to have a government-free economy. The government has agencies, which promote business, regulate business and formulate the laws governing business practices. In addition, it is also the biggest consumer and has to work with the private sector to obtain the supplies it needs. The government sometimes has to engage in business especially in large infrastructural projects where the private sector may be unable to or unwilling to commit its resources.

Therefore, public administration has an important role to play in the capitalistic system, and the influence of public administration on the economy has significantly increased since the 2008 global economic crisis caused financial chaos that nearly led to the collapse of the financial system. More regulations have been introduced in a bid to ensure that such an event does not recur and that companies are kept from engaging in risky and questionable activities that can upset the global economic system. The need to ensure that the public interest is protected and investors’ wealth is safeguarded has brought public administration to the mainstream of the economy since companies and private individuals cannot be trusted to safeguard those interests, especially since businesses have a tendency to form monopolies that do not give value to consumers. What is now emerging is big government and big business, which have to coexist in the economic arena, with public administration now playing a central role in the ordering of the capitalist system.

  1. Lesson three: Individual rights and liberties and public administration

Citizens of the US are afforded individual rights and liberties, which have been laid down in the constitution and the bill of rights (Webster, 1998). American citizens are allowed recourse to seek protection from the courts in case they feel they are aggrieved and can appeal up to the supreme court should they feel unsatisfied with lower courts decisions (Greene, 2005).  The rights enjoyed by citizens can be classified as limitations on government, that is, those things the government is barred from doing to an individual and obligations on government, that is, those activities that a government ought to do to safeguard the rights of an individual (Gildenhuys, 2004). Public administrators have an important role in the enforcement of individual rights and liberties. The government is charged with carrying out of certain activities in the prosecution of its mandate to protect individual’s rights. Bureaucrats are tasked with carrying out these activities and restraining from those that are prohibited. Generally, public administrators in the US believe in the right of individuals to enjoy their individual rights and liberties.

Although the political culture in the US encourages the rule of the majority while giving minorities certain rights and protections, the implementation of this noble idea poses a challenge to the bureaucracy. Promoting and enforcing the rights of minorities, especially when it comes to correction of historical injustices is an emotive issue that is hard to implement fairly. Pursuing policies like affirmative action can be construes as discrimination against other groupings by virtue of their race or any other distinguishing characteristic. Public administration plays a mediating role between the different competing interests and ensures that all individuals have equal access to public services. The level to which a country respects the rights of its citizens depends on the commitment of the bureaucracy to respect individual rights and liberties, keeping in mind that it is difficult to enforce compliance of rights and liberties when the bureaucracy is hostile to the enforcement of the rights as this deprives the process of state backing which is crucial for success.

  1. Synthesis

Public administration is indispensible in the smooth running of state and in the realization of a state’s development agenda. Ideally, public administration should be apolitical and should not be swayed by politics. However, the essence of public administration is the provision of services to the public and this contains a political element. When politicians run for office, they have manifestos of what they hope to achieve once they are in power. Manifestos contain political programs, which have to be implemented by the public administrators, hence making the work the administrators perform inherently political. Public administration does not exist in a vacuum, but rather exists within a political environment that is highly transient. The public perception of public administration is shaped by a number of factors including efficiency, qualifications, recruitment criteria and political culture among others.

Public administration covers a broad spectrum of spheres including public service provision, the economy, health, education and many other aspects of public life. This omnipresence gives public administrators immense power over individuals and organizations, power which can easily be abused. Therefore, there is a need to ensure that public administrators are held accountable for their actions and are interrogated on the rationale behind their decisions. Public administrators are rarely called to account and hide behind the anonymity of the bureaucracy even as they make decisions that have a serious impact on individuals and organizations. A mechanism for accountability is needed to ensure that public administrators are acting for the greater public good, and are not colluding with powerful organizations to shortchange the common citizens.











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