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The Future of Research in Public Administration

As with any field of study, there needs to be defined and uniform standards with which to research and expand the realm of knowledge of the field. The same is true for the field of public administration. But, it is often argued, that because public administration is in its infancy, it lacks a uniform standard of research and “as long as the study of public administration” lacks a comparative standard “there could not be a science of public administration in the sense of a body of generalized principles independent of their particular national setting” (Fitzpatrick, et al., 822). 

The very first major research practitioners of public administration performed in the emerging field would include two key works: Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management and the works of Elton Mayo, particularly the Western Electric Researchers from which the Hawthorne Effect was noted. In both cases, these practitioners sought to increase productivity in the workplace. Frederick Taylor published Scientific Management in 1911 with the aim of producing a fact-based way to increase efficiency in a factory setting, though the principles can, and have, been applied to numerous other settings (Fry & Raadschelders, 76). Because Taylor had a deep “distrust of anything not based on provable facts” like any good enlightened researcher, he relied on observing the workplace and determining the perfect way an employee can perform a specific task. Utilizing scientific and empirical techniques, while abandoning tradition and “the rule of thumb”, Taylor was able to break down every task to discover the one best way to complete it (Shafritz, et al, 43). For example, the instructions Taylor wrote for operating a laste consisted of 183 steps (Fry & Raadschelders, 81). Although Taylor included some impressive progressive ideas regarding pay and management, his tactics were deemed cruel and inhumane. Franz Kafka described it as “the enslavement of mankind” and soon legislation prohibited its use in federal agencies (Fry & Raadschelders, 94). One would argue that this was due to his personal Puritan values seeming into his scientific works. 

Scientific Management was a product of administration research in its infancy. As it evolved, the field of public administration adopted more humanitarian and enlightened ways of applying science to their research. The mother of conflict resolution herself, Mary Parker Follett, believed that studying institutions themselves were not enough – what is needed “is the objective study of how people behave together, which requires empirical studies of human relations and social situations based on both participant observation and experimentation” (Fry & Raadschelders, 153). Follett, and those following her, began to adopt and merge the Enlightened principles of individual freedom and scientific research.

Elton Mayo’s research can reveal the values early works in the field held. Mayo, for example, asserted that for an effective democracy, a strong system of education is needed, “in this way, we can reach the nightmind of the child and the savage surviving in the civilized adult, thereby freeing humanity from the bonds of irrationality and superstition” (Fry & Raadschelders, 202). The liberation from irrationality and superstition is taken right out of Enlightenment history. Mayo expands on this by claiming democracy relies too much on Rousseau and not enough on Machiavelli because Rousseau relied too much on “pious hope” whereas Machiavelli recognized that it is the people and administrators themselves who need to understand and forge their own solutions (Fry & Raadschelders, 201-202). His work in the industry set a valuable tone that only empirical and observable observation should be used in research regarding public administration and “served as inspiration for a succeeding generation of scholars” (Fry & Raadschelders, 221). Mayo also shifted the focus of research toward human needs of the employees in order to increase individual wellbeing in addition to productivity and efficiency. His research notably set the bar for future generations by focusing on human nature and their reactions to research (the Hawthorne effect), pointing out that it is not possible to gain objective knowledge regarding social events, and that reality by nature is subjective (McNabb, 41).

The reasons and the way with which public administrators pursue research and investigation in an ethical and rational way solidifies the relation of public administration to the principles of the Enlightenment – Fact based, individual based, and democratically based research serves as a standard principle in the field until recently. The traditional era of public administration is considered to be from the late 1800’s to about the 1950s and was “devoted to government that is representative, responsive, compassionate, [and] concerned with equal opportunity” making their early contributions valuable (Lynn, 154). Other works from that of Gary Wamsley and James Wolf argue that traditional public administration “incorporated such ideas as collaboration, a moral perspective on the public interest, a concern for democratic administration, and pragmatism” (Lynn, 154). Why, then, have there been works from contrarians like Dwight Waldo and other more recent writers that talk down to the early years of public administration? Laurence Lynn Jr (2001) asserts that these traits have been taken for granted in their roles for the values of democracy which could possibly lead to an “uncontrolled, politically corrupt, or irresponsible bureaucracy”. Lynn also asserts that the “contemporary critics of traditional thought pose a greater threat to democratic values than” traditional writers (Lynn, 154). But there is a worrying emergence of research that is not based on fact and even being celebrated by some. Most prominent contrarian in public administration, Dwight Waldo, claims that the field is “only now freeing itself from a strait jacket of its own devising – the instrumentalist philosophy of the public administration formula – that has limited its breadth and scope” (Lynn, 145 – 146). But are the observed changes in research principles in the field a positive one? 

There is a movement brewing in modern society known as postmodernism – and just like the religious movements known as the Great Awakenings countered the Enlightenment, postmodernism is a reaction in society that is countering fact based research infecting many fields of study – including public administration (Jacoby, 2008, 39-40). Postmodernism is the idea that no fundamental truth exists, there is no right way to obtain knowledge, and “no rules exist to guarantee the rationality of science” (McNabb, 45). Because this point of view takes into consideration the time, situation, and intent of an action, and therefore the emotion of those involved, it is inherently flawed as a method for reasoning from an Enlightenment perspective. Examples of postmodern philosophy at work would be critical theory, feminist, and marxist ideals (McNabb, 51). Because the terms modernism and Enlightenment philosophy are often interchangeable, examples of such would be scientific and free inquiry and rational based research (Honderich, 583). 

Because public administration operates so closely to the public, it is to be expected that popular, or rather, new ideas would creep into its culture. There have been a variety of studies in the past few decades that have noted a swing away from the Enlightenment values that the early practitioners of the field used in their research and a swing toward postmodern approaches that deal more with individual experience and emotion. And because leadership within public administration research has remained “fragmented, [and] guided by narrow frameworks, and lacking a definitive identity”, it has remained impressionable to postmodern trends (McNabb, 391). 

As with any academia, public administration, to be seen as a legitimate field of study, “must extend the frontiers of knowledge to identify important research questions and the appropriate methods to answer them” and that cannot be done without the values and principles handed down by logical positivism and empiricism (Wright et al., 749). Simply stated, direct evidence and reliable measurements “can provide the reader with some assurance that the measure is free of systematic error and reflects the variable intended for study” to allow the reader to “judge indirectly” and come to their own conclusions (Wright et al., 749). The results reported should also be expected to be used in future research, making the evidence based research all the more important to the field. 

In a review of qualitative research covering 143 articles in six different public administration academic journals found that only 7.5 percent provided reliable evidence and 34 percent addressed biases or possible error in the research – and the most surprising finding showed that 59.7 percent of articles reviewed failed to specify the source of reported measurements (Wright et al., 755 – 756). In a 2011 research in the Public Administration Review, 151 articles were reviewed and the team found the field lacked a consistent use of comparative standards and also noted “the scarcity of empirical data or quantification” (Fitzpatrick et al., 822). These observations lead to the idea that the field not only lacks a credible overreaching uniform theory, but it is abandoning its use of logical positivism with which it has performed its research in the past. Another observation of this study shows that the existing literature is “scattered and diffuse” and often covers a wide variety of topics not pertaining to public administration (Fitzpatrick et al., 822). This could be due to the nature of public administration as a diverse and far reaching field – identity crises may be expected as its reach extends into new realms of study. But nevertheless, a firm foundation in Enlightenment principle and truth in the fields research should be shared values across public administration research if it wishes to continue to be an established and respected field of study. 

One could say that the illuminating torch of the Enlightenment principles the Founding Fathers passed on to the early administrators is now at risk of being ignored when being handed off to the current generation of researchers. Enlightenment writer and revolutionary war hero, Thomas Paine, paints a bleak picture of this situation by noting “to argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead” (Paine, 233). But such a picture should not be so bleak with the growing attention to the problem from the field of public administration and those in other fields of study – for the responsibility to establish a uniform standard for responsible and fact-based research lies with each individual in public administration. 

In the emerging philosophy of postmodernism, it maybe hard to distinguish facts from values – but it is worth the attention of students and academics alike. In this post-truth environment, values seem to be gaining the advantage over facts and becoming a dangerous rival to fact-based Enlightenment principles. “Take a few minutes to flip between MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN during prime time” professor Michael Ford (2018) suggests to his students, “after this exercise you could be forgiven for thinking that facts are in the eyes of the beholder.” Ford continues to stress, “objective facts do exist, and they do matter” and now more than ever public administration as a field needs to set a standard and learn from the writers of the past: the lesson and values of the Enlightenment matters. Postmodern and anti-Enlightenment trends encourages “running from unpleasant facts in a search for an elusive alternate truth” and “has disconnected the power of administrators evidence based decision making” and can taint the progress and future works in public administration (Knepper, 2018). Hillary Knepper recently warned that “the vibrant nature of a political system balanced by well-educated and well-trained administrators is currently at risk” because of these trends but paints a more optimistic picture than Paine when Knepper asserts that, “public service professionals can change this. They have the numbers to amplify those knowledgeable and expert voices” (Knepper, 2018). Public Administration lies between the government and the minds of the people it serves and thus makes the writers, practitioners, students, and professors in the field the “caretakers of the evidence, the implementers of policy and the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves” (Knepper, 2018).


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