Approaches to the Study of Public Administration

The emergence of the study of Public AdministrationOpens in new window can be dated back to 1887, the year in which the political scientist, Woodrow Wilson,Opens in new window published an article entitled The Study of AdministrationOpens in new window. Since then, there have been different approaches to the study of public administration when this subject as a separate academic discipline was born.

These are relatively distinct approaches that emanate from the different structures and functions of administrative activities. These approaches—briefly reviewed below—are best regarded as ways in which to approach the study of administrative activity, rather than as theories.

1.    Historical Approach

The theorists of the historical approach believe that knowledge of historyOpens in new window is essential for a thorough study of any field. The historical approach sought to explain the administrative institutions in the light of their past. It analyses the administrative institutions by tracing their development within a particular time span. Therefore, this approach organizes and interprets the information relating to administrative institutions in a chronological order.

The father of the study of Public administration Woodrow Wilson Opens in new window emphasized the historical method as one of the two best suited methods (the other being comparative method) for the study of Public Administration.

A society furnished with rich history would gain huge benefit employing this approach as the uniqueness of its administrative systems is thus identified. In fact, quite a sizable number of administrative institutions can be comprehended in the light of their past by adopting this approach. For instance, it is rather difficult to understand the creation of Nigeria into one unit without going into her origin and her phases of development.

2.     Legal Approach

Another name for the legal approach is juristic approach. The proponents of this approach sought to study public administration Opens in new window as part of law and focus on the formal legal structure and organization of public bodies.

The primacy of the legal approach is concerned with power—its structure and functions. It lays emphasis on the formal organization of offices, official duties, limitations of power and discretionary authority of administrators. Its source materials include constitution, codes of law, office manuals of rules and regulations and judicial decisions.

Some European countries, for example, Germany, Belgium and France, are particularly known to have employed the legal approach to the study of public administration. In these countries there are two principal divisions of law, namely: constitutional and administrative. Constitutional lawOpens in new window deals with the three main organizations of the government, their interrelation and the distribution of power among them; whereas administrative lawOpens in new window is mainly concerned with the structure and functions of public bodies, departments and authorities.

The legal approach is valuable for the understanding of the legal framework within which the administrative system operates. However, by neglecting the informal forces operating in the organization (the sociological and psychological variables).

It remains to a great extent an incomplete approach to the study of public administration. Frank J. GoodnowOpens in new window is known to be the main advocate of the legal approach.

3.     Philosophical Approach

The philosophical approach comes with a comprehensive range as it takes within its purview all aspects of administrative activities and enunciates the ideals underlying those activities.

It tends to focus attention on the rationalization of human behaviour in administrative activities.

By a philosophy of public administration is meant that scheme of classification and analysis, which looks at values of the administrative structures and the values and expectations of the individuals or society it ought to serve.

This might incorporate a philosophy of the science of administration, i.e., the ways and methods by which the administrationOpens in new window, ranks and justifies decisions.

Philosophical approach is said to be the oldest approach, examples of which are found in the following works: RepublicOpens in new window, by PlatoOpens in new window; LeviathanOpens in new window, by Thomas HobbesOpens in new window, Second Treatise on Civil GovernmentOpens in new window, by John LockeOpens in new window.

4.     Systems Approach

The system, in relation to the study of Public Administration, is derived from the technique of engineering.

It appeared on the scene in the 1960s. The term systemOpens in new window may be defined as ‘a complex whole, a set of connected things or parts’.

In other words, a system is a collection of interrelated parts which receives inputs, acts upon them in an organized manner and thereby produces certain outputs.

Systems theory, therefore, generally means that the administration is seen as a system of interrelated and interdependent parts (sub-systems) who interact among themselves.

Interdependence implies that a change in one part influences the other parts, ultimately affecting the entire system. Persons in the organization are seen as the basic unit of organizational systems.

All human organizations are open sub-systems engaged in transactions within the larger social system, that is, society.

All sub-systems receive inputs in the form of human and material resources from the larger system, while giving out outputs in the form of products, services or rewards to its members as well as to the larger system. Characteristically, organizational sub-systems are adaptive in nature; they can affect the larger system and can as well be affected by it; they are dynamic in the sense that they undergo continuous change as a result of interaction with other sub-systems within the larger social system.

A major contributor to systems analysis in organizational theory is Herbert SimonOpens in new window — who views the organization as a total system, a composite of all the sub-systems which serve to produce the desired output. His basic assumption is that the elements of organizational structure and function emanate from the characteristics of human problem-solving processes and rational choice.

Therefore, the organization is seen as a system made up of individuals making choices and behaving on the basis of their reactions to their needs and environment.

The chief value of the systems approach lies in its capacity to conduct systematic search for significant interactions while evaluating policies or actions of any organization.

The objective of systems analysts is to predict the system’s movements by interpreting the relationships between its parts. The systems approach is particularly relevant to the study of large public organizations operating in larger social, political and economic environments.

The systems theory does not oppose either the traditional structural theory or the modern behavioural approach. However, it’s an approach merely devised to avoid the pitfalls of both and to integrate the elements of the internal formal structure of an organization Opens in new window and the social-psychological relationships. In addition, it sees organization in interaction with its environment.

Therefore, the systems approach shows a way of looking at reality that emphasizes “wholes”—their properties and inter-relationships—as contrasted with specialized parts.

5.     Case-method Approach

The case-method approach began to develop in USAOpens in new window in the 1930s. It narrates what has actually occurred in the past in the sphere of administrationOpens in new window by giving detailed account of specific events leading to a decision taken by a public administrator. In other words, the Public administration case is a narrative of the events that constitute a decision of an administrator.

The case-method approach emphasizes the decision-making behaviour of the administrator and the influence of the various factors such as personal, legal and institutional on the decision making process.

This approach is very useful to study the empirical behaviour of decision-makers and the dynamics of decision-making in public administration. Therefore, it is realistic, but the pitfall is that this approach deals with only those decision-problems that involve policy rather than technical issues. It is also limited in its ability to provide the conceptual knowledge and principles of public administration. Despite its limitations, the case method is believed to remain a consistent feature in the study and teaching of public administration.

6.     Mechanical or Managerial Approach

This is the earliest approach to the study of public administration. Its main advocates are Leonard D. WhiteOpens in new window, William F. WilloughbyOpens in new window, Frederick W. TaylorOpens in new window and Richard Warner. These theorists deliberated efforts and focused attention on achieving efficiency in public administration.

Taylor particularly believed that the problems of efficiency were alike in private industry and public administration and advocates the idea that the principles of organization are of universal applicability to all forms of administration.

His resolution was to break down workers, experiment with different work methods and procedures, and finally adopt those which proved most efficient. He was concerned with mechanical efficiency and viewed Public administration as a purely technical and non-political organization concerned with ‘getting things done’ effectively.

The basic idea underlying the mechanical approach is that administration is a mechanical organization and that we can find out certain principles which will make the organization function efficiently.

According to his approach, efficiency is chiefly the number one axiom in the value scale of administration. The mechanical approach may therefore be also called efficiency oriented approach or scientific management approach with a little difference of emphasis.

7.     Behavioural Approach

The behavioural approach also called the socio-psychological approach is basically concerned with the scientific study of human behaviour in diverse social settings, being that it incorporates a diversity of perspectives, including the Human Relations MovementOpens in new window, Simon’s Model of Decision-makingOpens in new window, Theory of Organizational HumanismOpens in new window, and Contingency TheoryOpens in new window.

The approach grew out of the criticism against the traditional approaches which laid emphasis on descriptive analysis rather than substantive one.

According to James FeslerOpens in new window the following characteristics can be ascribed to behavioural approach:

  • It entails the study of actual behaviour, usually taking the individual as the preferred unit of analysis.
  • It is multidicisplinary in focus.
  • It calls for ‘rigor’ in the use of scientific procedures.
  • It proscribes prescription (that is, it is primarily descriptive in intent).

In the sphere of Public AdministrationOpens in new window, Behaviouralism dates back to 1930’s with the Human Relations MovementOpens in new window and was later popularized by Chester Irving BarnardOpens in new window, Herbert Alexander SimonOpens in new window and others.

Simon argued that ‘Administrative behaviour’ is part of behavioural science movement and the only difference lies in the subject-matter of various disciplines. He said, ‘before a science can develop principles, it must possess concepts’ this was however, after critically examining the principles of public administration. In his book, administrative behaviour, Simon rejects the traditional approach and holds that public administration should be concerned with the study of human behaviour in organization.

Behaviouralists observed that the conduct of administration is greatly influenced by human sentiments, perceptions, and the environment in which administration operates. It is interdisciplinary in nature as it draws on sociology and psychology.

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