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The Evolution of Scientific Thought in Public Administration

Public Administration as a Science

The study of Public Administration begs the question as to whether the field is a science, craft, or an art. It is a hotly debated topic through the study’s short history, but given the use of facts, sociology, and scientific endeavors, the study of Public Administration is a science – and just as science is used in virtually every field to improve its discipline, science has and will improve the field of Public Administration. Science has continually advanced the world in strides, and for Public Administration, it has just begun – to refer to the late Scientist Carl Sagan: “somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known” – this is increasingly true when applied to administration.

The science-art debate first gained momentum in the 1940’s debates between Herman Finer and Carl Friedrich where the former argued that Public Administration is a craft whereas Friedrich “took the position that administrators must answer to scientific standards represented by their expertise and fellowship of science as represented by professional organization standards and accepted practice”. It was in this infancy of the field that many classical thinkers believed administration to be a science. Max Weber, although did not believe it is possible to analyze all social phenomena completely, did admit that science is a quest of knowledge of the particular causes of social phenomena. Weber also believed that there must be a displacement of magical elements of thought to achieve rationality – the act of displacing magical thought is also the act of separating value rationality from purpose rationality. It is this distinction that lays the foundation for a science within the field.

Science was not so firmly pressed into the field of Public Administration as when Frederick Taylor developed his principles of Scientific Management. In an attempt to increase efficiency, Taylor developed Time-motion studies and tested his findings in a controlled setting. This blatant use of the scientific method to analyze the output of work is exactly what science is: a tool to better human lives, organizations, and efficiency. These sorts of tests are also used by Elton Mayo in his studies like Western Electric. Through trial and error, repetitive study, and interviews, Mayo set a precedent on how the study of people in an organization will act and behave. This also introduced a better work environment, something Taylor’s methods lacked.

The study of Administration goes beyond just observation in the workplace, the study soon reached the group and individual within the workplace. Chester Barnard dives into the nature of humans and how it relates to the organization as a whole. Barnard saw that “participation will continue only as long as he (or she) perceives that he is receiving more from the organization than he is required to contribute”. This was a huge development that opened the question of the human behavior in an organization and also its limits. The basic assumptions Barnard lays out are that humans are both physically and biologically limited, socially active, striving for purpose, and have limited free will. One is immediately reminded of the works of scientist Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene and Sam Harris’ Free Will and their similar study of human nature and lack of free will. Like Dawkins and Harris, Barnard asserts that because of outside stimuli and inside stimuli (biological limitations), humans will behave a certain way in response to a group or organizational goal. Barnard asserts that this should be used above all to learn and study people within a group setting. This continuous strive for a better understanding of humans results in a better workplace, better human relations, better efficiency, and – perhaps most importantly, better predictability.

Herbert Simon builds onto Barnard’s observations and sought to construct a science of administration. Simon strove for a focus on facts within administrative decision making – he adopted decision making procedures that emphasizes systematic, empirical investigation which truly brought Public Administration into the realm of science. The most profound principle Simon laid down was the Fact-Value dichotomy. Unlike the politics-administration dichotomy his predecessors sought to apply to the field, Simon uses the Fact-Value separation as a better basis “for a science of administration and a more appropriate standard for administrative conduct”.

The separation of facts and values does another important favor for the field: It helps to assist in defining public interest. There is a calculation of public interest within an organization when determining the direction it wishes to go. Because public interest is identified outside of the agency, it is often difficult to define. Administrators must rely on communication from the outside which can obscure the true decisions the organizations need to make to meet the public’s needs. President Woodrow Wilson’s separation of politics and administration is impossible because of this. By separating the values individuals hold from the actual facts, administrators can shed light on more alternatives they can take and choose the most rational choice.

Much like David Hume’s is-ought dichotomy, Simon wanted to establish factual premises in which public administrators can observe in the workplace. In doing so, Simon solidified the science of administration with observable facts and empirical analysis in which to work with. The suggestions made by Weber were put into place by Taylor, humanized by Mayo, and rationalized by Barnard. The final step was for Simon to establish the observable information to be used as a systematic empirical investigation – christening public administration as a science.

The Rational Bureaucracy 

In the incredibly difficult world of government and public administration, an unclear and dangerous swamp is developed. Choices are obscured by self-interests and outside influences. The rational bureaucracy is the method by which governments find their way.

Although Max Weber asserted that bureaucracy has the tendency to trap the individual spirit inside of der eisenkäfig or ‘iron cage’ – he also strongly believes that bureaucratic organizations are the most “rational and efficient form of organization yet devised by man”. Bureaucracy not only works alongside Western sense of justice and religious ethics of the modern middle class, but it is a perfect complement to modern capitalism. Weber sees capitalism as the highest stage of rationality in economic behavior. Just as Western justice, law, and capitalism assists man to reach his highest form of rational behavior, bureaucracy acts as a way for the state to guide this efficiency toward a common, collective goal. Even if Weber asserts that “bureaucracy contains ‘the seeds of its own destruction…” with emphasis on red tape and rules, it is for the betterment of the organization’s goals when decided in a democratic, and fully rational way.

Luther Gulick saw that government’s role in society is to manifest a decent sympathy for the weak and to regulate the economy. Just like Weber, Gulick saw the state as a means to assist in the growth and efficiency of the nation as a whole. But, in order to avoid the slippery slope of totalitarianism that Weber did not predict or live long enough to see, democracy is supplemental to bureaucracy and asserts that government activity should be “preceded by careful examination of the consequences of such action for society and attempts to make the state omnipotent should be resisted”. Thus, the method by which government is tamed lies within the democratic system. Democratic governments, Gulick observes, is far better than the totalitarian societies of Europe and the USSR at the time based on its abilities to generate new ideas, allows for criticism and improvement, and requires the common man’s approval of the end product through a sufficient channel of communication between the government, interest groups, and the voter (The Iron Triangle). It is through this constantly moving relationship between government and citizen that bureaucracy is balanced.

It was Frederick Taylor that tied the concept of western capitalism and democracy together with scientific management. There is a natural weakness in man, Taylor asserts and Bernard seconds, that can be curbed with hierarchical controls. These controls help focus the manpower of an organization towards a common purpose and goal. Scientific Management can best be seen, not only by the time-motion studies, but also in the focusing of worker and management. The old way of managing was seen in the brutal industrial workplace in the Industrial Revolution where management simply tried to increase output at the lowest costs. Taylor changed this by focusing output, improving working conditions (monetary rewards), and putting the responsibility of success back onto management. Scientific Management also assumed that the organization is rational and relies on the lines of authority to direct the worker. The major flaw in scientific management is that the individuals are still treated as assets and cogs in a machine. This flaw is seen in Ford’s application of it and in criticism from communist leaders including Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. The crude focusing of the worker’s labor is polished as the study of administration goes on and finally turns its focus to the psychological and social factors of the workplace when more humanist school of thoughts develop. This is the democratic process through which bureaucracy continues to grow and change to reflect the absolute best conditions for the organization and its workers.

Of course, as the study of administration went on, it became even more fine-tuned and tied together efficiency and economy with the democratic and hierarchy principles of western democracy. With consistent communication between government and the citizen, scientific management and bureaucracy helped to create the most rational and efficient form of organization.

Democratic Administration

As the study of public administration developed out of its classical roots, it becomes more focused on the individual and far more humanist in its methods of motivation. Where classical management thought the primary means of motivation was economic (payment for their work), the Human Relations school of thought was social and psychological needs must be met to truly motivate employees to improve an organization’s productivity.

Contemporary motivation theory focuses on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The steps of this hierarchy start at the bottom psychological needs for food, water, and basic needs for living. The next stage becomes more complex as safety and health becomes the next stage of need. Needs become more complex still as love and belonging leads to self-esteem and confidence, and finally to the last step of self-actualization. Contemporary theory asserts that once one step is fulfilled, it will no longer motivate and the next step becomes the next motivation goal for a person. So, as the monetary need is gained by employees, their needs then focuses on status, confidence, respect, then finally self-actualization or a purpose. Frederick Herzberg asserts that the organization should use this motivation to encourage an employee’s happiness and thus increase the organization’s efficiency.

These ideas have translated into public administration through scientific enquiry in experiments and studies such as in the research of Elton Mayo. In Mayo’s Western Electric study, he tested various aspects of the worker’s environment – from elements as small as lighting in the workplace to socialization and rest periods. Mayo’s studies opened new possibilities for productivity by appealing to more of the worker’s needs and discovered that the environment played a role in efficiency. Although the study saw increased productivity from more breaks, better lighting and environment, as well as better socialization, the biggest conclusion of these studies was the so called “Hawthorne Effect”. The Hawthorne Effect was the response from the employees regarding the management’s concern. Through the constant attention, interviews, and caring management, the workers acted more efficiently and were happier. This is the big step from the classical school of thought to the Human Relations school of thought. Even though the classical school of thought strove to include democracy in their management (partially in response to the growing Marxist ideals of the early 20th century), they did not have a completely open channel of communication from below. Now that communication is upwards and downwards, organizations increasingly democratize its decision making process leading to more inclusive and rational decision making. As Mayo discovered, “democracy involves two phases: critical control from the top and spontaneous and cooperative control from below”. In other words, democratic administration needs the cooperation and participation form below.

The relationship within an administrative hierarchy must be understood and opinions from the worker’s must be taken into consideration. Chester Barnard correctly asserts that “authority ultimately arises from the bottom; it does not descend from the top”. Barnard builds on Taylor’s idea of reward by suggesting that as long as the employee’s needs are met, the authority in the hierarchy will be more eagerly fulfilled. Because organizations are cooperative systems naturally, by encouraging cooperative behavior in people, management can motivate them to pursue the organization’s goals through more passionate and effective work. Once the worker’s needs are met, they can transcend Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and associate the organization’s success with their own.

There is a clear path of thought here: because there is a hierarchy of human needs as proposed by Maslow, management can and must meet those needs through democratic administration. The result is a much happier and passionate workforce who will associate themselves with the success of the organization and strive to help their organization to reach its goals.

The Evolution of Scientific Thought in Public Administration

There is an amazing rational behind the structure of this course of thought which can help anyone navigate the metaphorical swamp public administrators often find themselves in. By starting with Weber and Wilson’s classical thoughts on public administrations then ending on the factual decision making principles of Barnard and Simon, this thought pattern forces the novice’s thought process to develop and evolve along with the great writers and figures in administration’s short but powerful history. The student of administration can grow, evolve, and determine the best process of thinking when the science and rational is presented so. The pattern of thought that results is, for me, one that focuses on human limitations and a fact-value dichotomy. Just as in the procession of enlightenment philosophical thinking brought people closer to humanist and scientific thinking, so does the principles of Herbert Simon light the way for a more effective and reason-based evolution of thought within Public Administration.

But just as administration courses start at the beginning, so must the pattern of rational thinking of administrators begin with Max Weber who first asserted that there is a difference between value rationality (or Wert Rationalität) and purpose rationality (or Zweck Rationalität) . The former form focus on ethics and inner demands, whereas the latter purpose rationality is focused on the consequences of its action – which is reminiscent of the ethical debate between Consequentialism and Deontological theories. This foundation of classical thought is then transformed by Mary Follett who distinguishes between quantitative and qualitative analysis which are informed by both pragmatism and idealism. Follett, like with her conflict resolution method, sought to balance the two. The balance of objective analysis and personal observation is satisfied in her book Creative Experiences when she explains “that researchers should not rely exclusively on quantitative or qualitative methods but, instead, should try to understand the relation” between the two. Follett asserted that the two must not be separated, but must be considered together in an interaction between subject and object which leads to her profound thoughts on the circular response.

In addition to conflict resolution, distinguishing between quantitative and qualitative analysis has more uses in public administration. Weber and Follett both identified the same concepts of a value rationality (qualitative) and a purpose rationality (quantitative). Both concepts can be balanced and used to understand the goals and biases of human nature (value and qualitative rationality) as well as the observable facts used to direct organizational goals (purpose and quantitative rationality). Chester Bernard touched on this concept when explaining the limited nature of humans in the decision making process and how the organization can work with that to motivate and achieve its goals. Barnard effectively balanced the two, just like Follett suggested, to create a method of motivation for the worker and effectiveness for the organization.

Just as scientific thought within Public Administration encourages, the idea and application of a value and purpose rationality grows and evolves with each decade – but the idea is finally perfected with Herbert Simon’s application. Herbert Simon also names the two rationalities when he discusses value premises and factual premises. Factual premises are statements about the observable world and value premises are personal and ethical statements. The idea of value premises is cut from the same cloth as Weber’s value rationality and Follett’s qualitative analysis just as Simon’s factual premises are cut from the same cloth as Weber’s purpose rationality and Follett’s quantitative analysis. But Simon balances and transforms these ideas even further by using them to replace political-administration dichotomy with fact-value dichotomy and asserts that the factual premises can be used to created predictability in an unpredictable and messy swamp. In determining fact versus value, or qualitative versus quantitative, or value versus purpose, not only can conflicts be better understood and handled, but the decision process can become much clearer and predictable. The individual transcends from the bounded rationality all humans suffer from to the “Economic Man” which Herbert Simon depicts as knowing all alternatives and can clearly and rationally choose the best course of action – an ideal concept for administrative action.

Creating a predictable, measurable, and reliable science out of public administration is a difficult process, but Simon has done it. It is this development of science in administration that will assist administrators in navigating the political swamp as well as distinguish Herbert Simon as the most influential author in tomorrow’s public administration. Just as all science has enlightened the many fields it touches, it will also illuminate the minds in public administration. And the administrators of tomorrow will look back and see the rational Herbert Simon who put together the pieces of past authors to give us a true science of administration.


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