Public Administration: 19th Century to Now

by Colleen on Feb 28, 2012

Public administration has ancient origins, but many changes were made during the past two-hundred years. According to some theories, the discipline of public administration was born in the U.S. But, some of the philosophies adopted by U.S. administrators and philosophers began in Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. This article includes a look at some interesting high points within public administration, including legislation, between 1800 and 2000, and then a summation of how public administration philosophies are changing in the twenty-first century.

Nineteenth Century

Robert Owen1810Robert Owen, a Welsh social reformer who is known as the “pioneer of personnel management,” begins to recognize the value of trained workers, infant daycare for workers, and other personnel practices that were recognized internationally.

1850John Stuart Mill explained concepts such as span of control, unity of command, and wage incentives.

1855Daniel C. McCallum, a supervisor for the Erie Railroad in New York, is credited for introducing organizational charts to the American railroad industry in 1855. McCallum’s charts included lines connecting the superintendents to the subordinates, while keeping them structured within each separate division.

1866The Civil Rights Act of 1866 is a U.S. federal law intended to protect the civil rights of African-Americans, in the wake of the American Civil War. The Act was enacted by Congress over the veto of President Andrew Johnson.

1883 — The Pendleton Act established that Federal Government jobs are awarded on the basis of merit and that Government employees be selected through competitive exams. This act also made it unlawful to fire or demote employees for political reasons, and helped to establish the U.S. Civil Service Commission.

1887Woodrow Wilson, while still a practicing political scientist, called for public administration to focus on effectiveness and efficiency, and not just personnel reform.

Early Twentieth Century

Frederick Taylor1911Frederick Taylor, the “Father of Scientific Management,” recognized the need for labor-management cooperation to control costs and to improve productivity. Scientific management methods called for optimizing the way that tasks were performed and simplifying the jobs enough so that workers could be trained to perform their specialized sequence of motions in the one “best” way.

1919 — The Boston Police Strike removed three-fourths of the force from the city’s streets, and the lack of authority led to riots. The striking policemen were not hired back, and their jobs went to returning servicemen, who were granted higher pay, additional holidays, and free uniforms. This strike led to the unpopularity of collective bargaining and unions in the decade following WWII.

1921 — Congress passed the Budget and Accounting Act, creating the Bureau of the Budget (now Office of Management and Budget) and the General Accounting Office.

1923 — The Classification Act began the rationalization of position classification in the federal service, including Congressional definitions for the terms, “employee,” “service,” and “compensation.”

1930Max Weber, the German sociologist, articulated the classical definition of the bureaucratic form of organization with six major principles, including a formal hierarchical structure, management by rules, organization by functional specialty, an “up-focused” mission, and an intent to treat all employees and customers equally.

1927Elton Mayo began the famous management study at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company near Chicago which examined the relationship between work environment and productivity. These studies were the genesis of the human relations school of management thought known as the Hawthorne Effect.

1930Mary Parker Follet developed a management philosophy based on individual motivation and group problem solving, which was a forerunner of the participatory management idea.

1937 — Luther Gulick and Lyndall Urwick provided the definitive statement of the “principles” approach to management: planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, and budgeting (POSDCORB).

1938Chester I. Barnard viewed organizations as cooperative systems in which the “functions of the executive” (title of his classic work) were to maintain a balance between the needs of the organization and the needs of the individual and to establish effective communication.

1939 — American Society for Public Administration (ASPA), a national professional organization “to advance the science, processes, and art of public administration” was organized.

1943Abraham H. Maslow developed a theory of human motivation in which men and women moved up or down a needs hierarchy, as each level was satisfied or threatened.

Mid-Twentieth Century

President Kennedy1955 — Herbert Kaufman, Fred W. Riggs, and Walter R. Sharp conducted the first course on comparative administration at Yale University. This course, which became a movement representing a broadening of public administration to other cultures, began to wane in later years as American foreign aid programs were scaled back.

1962 — President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988 which permitted unionization and collective bargaining in the federal service.

1964Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VII prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, or national origin in private-sector employment, and this edict would be applied to the public sector in 1972.

1966Equality of Educational Opportunity, or The Coleman Report, applied the methods of the social sciences to the analysis and evaluation of government programs.

1968 — Scholars, under the tutelage of Dwight Waldo, critiqued American public administration for ignoring values and social equity and accepting too readily the status quo. This movement was known as the “New Public Administration.”

1972 — Equal Employment Opportunity Act was amended and applied Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the public sector and authorized the use of “affirmative action” to remedy the results of past discrimination.

1973 — The New Jersey Graduated Work Incentive Experiment represented the first large-scale social experiment ever conducted in the U.S. This experiment spanned 6 1/2 years (1967-1973) and cost eight million dollars.

1990Americans with Disabilities Act extended anti-discrimination protection to persons with disabilities.

1991Civil Rights Act of 1991 combined elements from two different civil right acts of the past: the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the employment-related provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It provided for the right to trial by jury on discrimination claims and introduced the possibility of emotional distress damages, while limiting the amount that a jury could award.

The Twenty-First Century

Ken WilburThe turn of the century brought a new focus on “Millennium” organizations, including developmental goals created by the United Nations (MDGs) and a focus on the “3rd Millennium Organization.” The latter seminar demands a new structure based upon a new definition of “core competencies,” allowing organizations to size up or down quickly, to retain critical employees, and to leverage efficiencies of the competencies of others. In sum, the focus is on fluid and global management and administration.

In contrast, the economic and physical environment within the twenty-first century also emphasizes the increased focus on serving the customer. The importance of “embracing uncertainty,” and avoiding too much time on planning seems to go against the hierarchical grain established during the twentieth century. The “shop local” emphasis and “small business” focus within the past few years shows the public sympathies toward businesses that might focus on customers, such as local mom-and-pop shops.

While this turn of events may seem sudden, the last decade of the twentieth century brought many changes because of the availability and commercialization of the Internet, an increase in technology and communications that allowed more global expansion, and an altered philosophy that became more holistic. Some administrative leaders focused on Ken Wilbur’s developmental psychology, Integral Theory, a philosophy that seeks a synthesis of the best of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern reality.

The ability to maintain communication with staff and with customers, to maintain transparency in business or organizational transactions, and a holistic approach that includes the administration as part of the solution — rather than the problem — now moves this field into the early twenty-first century with an emphasis on simplicity and flexibility.

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