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Why Public Administration?

Why Public Administration?

Our professional bureaucracy is a bulwark against the potential incompetence and corruption of elected officials. Francis Fukuyama's latest.

Francis Fukuyama

On April 12, I will be receiving the Fred Riggs Lifetime Achievement Award in comparative and international administration from the American Society for Public Administration. I am incredibly honored to receive this award. Public administration has become both my central academic research focus as well as field for policy activism over the past several decades. It is particularly gratifying since I have no formal qualifications in this discipline, having been educated and employed as a political scientist.

Public administration—that is, the operation of executive branch bureaucracies—is one of the most important aspects of modern government today. While voters, politicians, and legislatures may debate and choose policies, the latter need to be implemented by agencies that can perform their jobs better or worse. And indeed, in many modern liberal democracies, those executive branch agencies go on to shape, if not make, policy itself. Citizens vote only every few years, but are in constant contact with policemen, teachers, public health workers, weather forecasters, air traffic controllers, tax authorities, and a host of other bureaucrats who are part of a larger system of public administration. 

And yet, if you utter the words “public administration” in a classroom, students will start looking at their phones or computers or fall asleep. Public administration in the mid-20th century was considered one of the four main branches of political science, but it was subsequently ejected from the discipline and is not even taught as subject in many universities (this includes my own, Stanford University). The reasons for this are, I believe, largely methodological: the study of executive branch agencies is for the most part not susceptible to the kinds of economic analysis that have taken over academic political science.  This is too bad, because it is a very critical subject at this political moment.___STEADY_PAYWALL___


I started my academic career as a political scientist specializing in international relations, and wrote my dissertation on Soviet threats to intervene in the Middle East. My shift towards public administration occurred after the September 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In both cases, the U.S. invasion planners were expecting relatively quick and smooth transitions from autocracy to functioning democracy, much as had happened in Eastern Europe after 1989. Instead, state authority in both Afghanistan and Iraq collapsed, leaving a huge power vacuum and a chaotic war of all-against-all. Americans expected to help create democratic institutions; before they could do that, however, there needed to be a state that could provide basic order. With regard to this task, the new American overlords were at a total loss.

In reflecting on this U.S. foreign policy problem, I came to realize that my home discipline of political science offered very little help in explaining how states came to be. The field assumed that states existed; the main problem, especially for American scholars in the then-dominant rational choice tradition, was how to limit the power of the state. There was almost no literature on state formation in political science; for that one needed to go to anthropology or history. 

The 1990s and early 2000s were a period of failed, weak, or fragile states, and the attention of much of the international community had turned to the question of how to strengthen them. In the wake of the Iraq invasion, I had been asked by the World Bank and the Australian development agency to look at their governance programs in Melanesia—Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. This work in Melanesia was eye-opening, because I had never encountered societies at this level of development where modern parliamentary institutions had been imposed by colonial rulers on top of deeply tribal societies. Once again, the central issue in this region was the absence of anything remotely resembling a Weberian state that could exercise a monopoly of force over a defined territory. Getting to a state of any sort, much less getting to Denmark, was the chief priority.

My turn towards public administration occurred against this global backdrop. International order and security rested completely on the existence of capable states that could control terrorism on their territories, or provide basic services without high levels of corruption. My dissatisfaction with the existing academic literature is what led to me to a stream of writing on the state, beginning with State-Building (2004), an edited edition Nation-Building (2006), and my two-volume series The Origins of Political Order (2011) and Political Order and Political Decay (2014). 

My academic interest shifted further over the past decade to a focus on public administration in the United States. Among developed liberal democracies, the United States is exceptional in a number of ways as outlined by Seymour Martin Lipset. One of the deepest facets of American political culture is its anti-statism and profound distrust of state institutions, something that affects both the right and left ends of the political spectrum. Professionalization of the federal civil service began much later in the United States than in Europe, commencing with passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883 and completed only towards the end of the Progressive Era in the 1920s. 


The conservative critique of the U.S. administrative state began with the vast expansion of federal authority during the New Deal and has continued ever since. The core of the argument is that too much authority has been delegated to, or arrogated by, the federal bureaucracy. The latter, it is charged, has a progressive bias and has enacted its own policy preferences that run contrary to popular will. Cutting back the extent of the administrative state and putting it under much stricter control by Congress and the courts has therefore been at the top of the agenda for many U.S. conservatives. 

For reasons I’ve explained in earlier blog posts and in my Donald Stone lecture “In Defense of the Deep State,” I believe that this critique is fundamentally misguided. There is no way to avoid substantial delegations of authority to expert agencies in modern government, given the complexity of the tasks that government is expected to perform. As I noted in agreement with Philip Howard, we need more delegation to competent bureaucrats rather than less. A professional bureaucracy, moreover, provides an important check on the power of elected executives who are themselves incompetent, corrupt, or under the sway of foreign influences. 

I don’t need to lay out in detail why this is a problem at this particular juncture in U.S. history. The U.S. bureaucracy will come under direct attack if a Republican administration is elected in November; Trump and his associates will re-introduce some version of the Schedule F executive order they promulgated at the end of his last term that would allow them to fire tens of thousands of civil servants and replace them with political loyalists.

Paul Volcker is best remembered for his work as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. But his lifelong passion was really public service, which he felt was severely under-appreciated in the United States. One of his last acts was to found the Volcker Alliance, an NGO dedicated to the study and teaching of public service (on whose board I currently sit). He used to tell a story of a conversation he had with a Nobel-laureate economist at Princeton in which he, Volcker, argued for greater academic attention to the subject of public administration. The economist scoffed and said that public administration wasn’t a real field like economics, and that it wouldn’t attract serious social scientists. When Volcker pointed out that one of the greatest social scientists of the 19th century was a public administration scholar who went on to greater things, the economist asked who that could possibly have been. 

His name was Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University and later president of the United States of America.

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Image: Woodrow Wilson (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Harris & Ewing, item number 2016857917)

DemocracyPolitical PhilosophyUnited States