· What is a paradigm? · Paradigms of public administration · Organizations and people · New Public Administration · New Public Management


Topics to be covered include:

· What is a paradigm?

· Paradigms of public administration

· Organizations and people

· New Public Administration

· New Public Management

· Leadership and ethics

Looking at the long history of public administration we can see the shifts that have occurred in both the research and study and the practice of the field. The public administration started by trying to separate itself from the realm of politics, even though it was considered part of political science. The politics-administration dichotomy was groundbreaking in its day because it demonstrated that government operations could be separated from the political and policy decision making that created it. The study of what constituted the bureaucracy dominated the field of study. How could the bureaucracy be defined in such a way that it was efficient and effective? This led to the science of administration. How could the managers make operational decisions in the most consistent and value-free way? The removal of politics from the public bureaucracy was evident. This approach would provide consistent service to the public and would produce efficient results.

The focus then shifted to just the decision maker. The administrator could be isolated in terms of examination and it did not matter if those decisions were being made in the public or private sector. The focus was on the optimal ways for decisions to be made. The concept of bounded rationality led to the notion of satisficing. Decisions could be made based on limited information and not the entire universe of information which was surely unmanageable. Public administration carried on in fits and starts after the era of satisficing. Did it want to be value-free and follow the behaviorists or did it want to engage the political world in which public administration lived? A series of neutral administrative techniques in budgeting and strategic decision making were paralleled by a call for more justice and equity to be driving decisions and policy.

These debates culminated in another major paradigm shift that reinvented government as an organizational construct. New Public Management tore down the walls of constraint and advocated for an entrepreneurial and catalytic government that could be nimble in decision making and treated citizens as customers. While there was a great appeal for practitioners in the principles of reinventing government, scholars rejected it and instead wanted to focus on the leadership and ethics of public service. Collaborations, networks, and transformation including electronic web-based approaches to the government were considered. Scholars studied the motivations of public service and standards of ethics that democratic accountability requires. Service, as noted by the Denhardts, has now become the focus. Today we find ourselves having experienced numerous paradigms and shifts in understanding public administration as a distinct field of study and looking to distinguish the next paradigm to define newly the realm that we think we know.



A paradigm is a concept found in the hard sciences. It is a body of knowledge that explains the functioning of a particular area. It is an explanatory device that is an archetype or framework that includes the accepted understandings of that area. As the understanding of an area begins to shift and the model of the issue changes, there will be a paradigm shift. The world is flat becomes the world is round. Einstein’s theory of relativity becomes the standard for physics.


Thomas Kuhn (1962) revolutionized our understanding and use of paradigms when he applied it to social sciences, taking it from the hard sciences. Paradigms could help us understand why organizations work the way they do or people behave the way they do. It provides a framework for examining our social phenomena.

The parallel Kuhn used was that scientific revolutions are paradigm shifts. When we see the same world differently, there is a shift in our understanding of what is possible, what is real, or what is fact. The classic illustration of the duck-rabbit is an example of seeing something in an entirely new way.


If we can see the world differently, why do we need the construct of a paradigm shift to explain it? Paradigms are an extension of epistemology – being able to verify with data what we think we see. The behavioral revolution ushered in a new paradigm of understanding social science. People’s behavior could be measured by analyzing election voting, survey responses, questionnaire answers, Congressional voting, Census data, education records, and so on. Paradigms allow our understanding to be structured rather than random debates that may not have any resolution.

Paradigms of Public Administration

Public administration scholars have identified numerous paradigms that have shifted our understanding of what public administration is and how it works. There is not a consensus of which paradigms are the most useful in public administration. Is it essential or even valuable to identify paradigms? Henry (1975) identified five paradigms that outline the progression of our understanding of the field of public administration.



The Politics/Administration Dichotomy



The Principles of Administration



Public Administration as Political Science



Public Administration as Administrative Science



Public Administration as Public Administration

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Let’s take a closer look at these first four paradigms. The fifth emerging paradigm will be discussed later in the lesson.

Paradigm 1

The first paradigm, the Politics/Administration Dichotomy, began with Woodrow Wilson and focused public administration on the bureaucratic organization. This portrayal of a fact/value dichotomy separated the bureaucratic from the political. The bureaucracy or executive branch could be measured and defined as fact while the political was amorphous and depended on the interpretation of values to understand its functioning. “Politics should not intrude on administration; management lends itself to scientific study; public administration is capable of becoming a “value-free” science in its own right; the mission of administration is economy and efficiency, period” (Henry, 1975, p.379).

Paradigm 2

The second paradigm, the Principles of Administration, set up public administration as an administrative science. Gullick’s (1937) PODSCORB (planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, budgeting) defined the elements of a well-functioning administrative unit. It was originally designed for business and demonstrates the move away from politics. It also represents a focus for scholarship that could measure and isolate the organization as the unit of analysis. Other efforts such as the Brownlow Commission sought evidence of administrative neutrality, furthering logical positivism as the preferred way to theorize public administration. If the public administration could be accepted as a science, then organizations could be understood as an independent entity and not subsumed by politics. This approach furthered the reform agenda as well. Political corruption and patronage were bad for the government because it tainted the bureaucracy. Isolating the bureaucracy from politics was a popular agenda as well as a direction for understanding public administration.

What followed this settling on administrative science was a shifting of the paradigm. Henry (1975, p.380) outlines this as the “challenge” and the “reaction to the challenge” (mimicking Kuhn’s model). Herbert Simon (1947) challenged the standing paradigm as he rejected the politics/administration dichotomy as a useful model and rejected the notion of administrative science itself. Instead, Simon proposed an administrative science that was truly a behavioral science. Simon was focused on the rational-man approach of decision making but saw that rationalism as bounded. He contended that the executive could compromise through satisficing. This value-free approach allowed executives (be they in business or government) to separate facts and values in order to make value-free decisions. This value-free distinction further confounded traditional scholars of public administration who relied on political theory to guide their understanding of administration. How could government decisions be made in the bureaucracy without influence from politics? The behavioral approach brought a new paradigm.

Paradigm 3

As public administration entered the third paradigm, public administration as political science, it was entrenched in an intellectual battle with political science. Public administration was reduced to the study of techniques and actions in government. Henry (1975) points out that the operation of government in personnel and budgeting dominated the field and marginalized it within political science theory. Bureaucratic politics was considered a side venture in the large field of political science and public administration scholars sought their own direction.

Paradigm 4

The fourth paradigm occurs at the same time as the third and represents the full realization of Administrative Science. Within this paradigm, the focus is on the techniques of decision making. For instance, budgeting became a very specialized science of decisions. There were planned budgeting systems, performance-based budgets, and zero-based budgets. All were designed to create a science of budget decision making that could be removed from politics and be managed efficiently. Further, the science of decision making employed behavioral methods that allowed organizations to be studied as independent entities, devoid of the messiness of the politics swirling around them.

“Organization development was seen by many younger public administrations as offering a very tempting alternative for conducting research on public bureaucracies but within the framework of administrative science: democratic values could be considered, normative concerns could be broached, and intellectual rigor and scientific methodologies could be employed” (Henry, 1975, p. 382).

While administrative science met the demands of the behaviorists, it neglected to frame this entirely as “public” administration. Administration technically could be public or private. A focus on public required an additional element of theorizing beyond administrative decision making science.

Organizations and People

Paradigms are a useful way to see the field of study change over time and to see how the understanding of the same phenomenon – the public realm – changed over time. Fundamental to the paradigm shifts in understanding the way public administration looks at organizations as the unit of analysis versus individual people as the unit of analysis.


The early years of the public administration focused on the bureaucracy – what it is, how it works, and why it is superior to any other approach to manage the public sector. This was challenged by the behaviorists, who felt understanding the decision-making process and the decision makers was key to understanding the organizations that made up the study of public administration. The focus on people making decisions inside the organizational structure was a significant intellectual shift. It required new thinking about how we view government and what is intellectually important to discover. The concept of rational man and then satisficing was a different form of study than were the principles of scientific management and the hierarchical, rule-bound apparatus that were promoted as the classic study of public administration.

As scholarship focused more on studying the behavior of people inside the organization, there was more interest in studying decision making. This opened up a significant realm of research inquiry that focused on how decisions were made, what criteria could be used to bring forth decisions, and under what circumstances decisions would be made. Simon’s satisficing was an enormous break with the prior paradigms. Researchers were still looking at government, still looking at the public sector, but they put on a different lens to see it newly. The rabbit became the duck (or vice-versa)


Additional contexts for decision making were considered when the issue of power was raised. A political scientist, Robert Dahl (1961), contended that you could not examine decision making in a vacuum. Rational decision making, based on the cost-benefit comparison, was not the sum total of what occurred in public administration. Dahl emphasized pluralism to define how decisions were made and where political power was located. He contended that a shared realm of decision making occurred and that this could be quite fluid. He did not believe that all participants or decision makers would behave rationally or predictably. Instead, he sought to understand the context in order to understand the decision outcome. This was a departure from Simon but still focused on the decision makers.


This duality in public administration could be defined as either rational or intuitive decision making. For instance, Maslow (1943) contended that decisions would be based on an individual’s hierarchy of need representing a rational approach that ensured survival first and optional experiences later.

Charles Lindblom (1959), on the other hand, indicated an intuitive approach called “muddling through” where decisions were based on the context of the environment. As each iteration of policy and decision making arose, the determination to move forward, backward, or laterally was considered in the moment based on the interpretation of the environment. Lindblom’s approach was not tied to rational criteria for decisions. Rather, he looked at how public policy decisions were being made and theorized that decisions are built on the situation immediately prior to it. That situation is assessed and forms the context or boundary for the next decision. Only small, incremental changes will be made in most cases.

Rational decision makers were unsatisfied with this approach because if it were a new policy area, there might not be a prior situation on which to build (Dror, 1964). The criticism of muddling through also pointed to the inability to make better policies if administrators are only standing on the line of existing policy. Dror (1964, p. 156) states that “it reflects the widespread disposition of administrators and students of public administration to accept the present as a guide to the future, and to regard the contemporary practice as a norm for the future.” With that criticism, there erupted a new approach to public administration that challenged all traditional norms.

New Public Administration

In 1968, the Minnowbrook Conference brought forth an exciting new perspective on public administration. Dwight Waldo and many younger scholars took on social equity. Their passion for considering public administration within the context of the political experiences of the time probably could be framed as intuitive decision making. But social equity was larger than decision making. It made public administration socially relevant and took it out of the back room of decision and administrative science. Frederickson (1990) called it one of three pillars of public administration, along with efficiency and economy. Waldo (1988) cited the need for “ethical obligations” to drive the understanding of decision making in public organizations.

The rise of New Public Administration out of this concept of obligations and equity left the public administration in a new realm of what some have deemed public organization theory or public management theory as the fifth paradigm. Consider that New Public Administration forged a new understanding of the relationship that the public had with the administrative state. Bureaucratic responsiveness was a new concept. Prior to this, the bureaucracy was just that – a structure to be deconstructed and understood in terms of particles. New Public Administration looked at the bureaucracy as an entity that could have distinct relationships with politics, interest groups, and the public and do so through a number of techniques such as social equity promotion, governance through administration, and even traditional regulations. This created an entire environment in which public administration lived, providing an altered context in which to theorize about it.

New Public Administration took on values purposefully, whereas previous paradigms had demanded value neutrality. Importantly, the distinction was that the public sector was working toward providing a benefit for different constituencies and interests simultaneously. Asking for whom the organization made decisions was a very different context than asking how decisions were made. New Public Administration ushered in an era of qualitative research which was a major departure from the behaviorists. Qualitative research engaged the world which was affected by bureaucratic and policy decisions. Ethnography and participant observation gave a realism to the study of public administration.

School of Public Choice

At the same time that this shift was taking off, there were other threads of scholarship going in an opposite direction. The school of Public Choice relied on understanding the rational decision-making behavior of citizens and managers alike that could be predicted through economic criteria of efficiency (Ostrom & Ostrom, 1971). The concept of utility maximizing, borrowed from economics, allowed public choice theory to stay within the boundaries of measurable and predictable decision science. This clashed with the New Public Administration that saw how the turmoil in the real world encroached on decision making. Efficiency was not the only motivation for decisions. How could social equity in the form of civil rights be supported if utility maximizing drove decisions? If we treat the public as consumers who consume goods based on fulfilling their own best interests, there is no room for social justice.

This debate extended into understanding the realm of public budgeting as well. Budget decision making was not value-free, despite the effort to invent many budgeting systems. The budget policy was a series of tradeoffs to determine who gets what – the classic definition of power. The budget policy was theorized as guns or butter – either the hard policy of defense or infrastructure or the soft policy of social goods. Making this determination required a significant debate over the purpose of government itself. Should the government be providing social goods as a public good? The rationale was that if government-funded soft services such as welfare and healthcare, that the overall public would be served indirectly and benefit. The public choice could not expand to accommodate that decision because it did not square with maximizing one’s own preferences and personal condition first. There would not be room for supporting the welfare of others unless the citizen could agree that he would benefit in some way. Altruism does not fit in public choice.

New Public Management

Public administration underwent another significant shift in context when New Public Management emerged. Looking at administration as an entrepreneurial environment completely shook the understanding of public administration and constituted another paradigm shift. Osborne and Gaebler (1992) created the new concept of reinventing government. Not only did they reconceptualize the bureaucracy and its mission as steering not rowing, but they also reconceptualized the public as customers.


The construct of reinventing government flew in the face of the completely different normative construct of public service. Public service was understood as a motivation for decision makers that centered on the moral obligation to provide service to the public and the ethical motivation to do good work for society through government (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2011). Reinventing government expected government to be run more like a business to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. It was hard to see how catering to the citizen as a customer, which would be driven by public choice theory, could leave room for social justice or ethics in government. Serving the public good became serving the customer.


New Public Management was intent on freeing the manager to make decisions that could take advantage of the needs of the moment (being entrepreneurial) and eschew the rules and hierarchy of the bureaucratic structure. Being nimble was expected to produce superior results compared to red tape and process. But public service was expected to focus on the citizen as a collaborator of services and government. Accountability of the public sector could not be separated from democratic values. Reinventing government could not accommodate this fully. Instead, it contended that management principles of an entrepreneurial organization would be sufficient to make government work well. But it harkened back to the rational choice philosophy and left little room for social good.


Yet its appeal, especially to public administrators, was palpable. Part of the appeal was a series of guidelines and principles that left nothing muddled and did not put the administrator in the bind of politics. Implementing this reinvention of government was a process that administrators could embrace because it gave them strong direction. Relying on market forces was less easy for public administrators to embrace. How could public services that are focused on being provided to the public in a consistent manner with no discrimination be delivered in the era of entrepreneurial decision making? The focus on outcomes, not inputs seemed logical and reasonable – since it was a way to measure the effectiveness of government programs and decisions. But when power is added to the mix of how that effectiveness is determined, there were unavoidable inequities that would occur. If funds and services were not inherently equal, could a focus on outcomes produce anything other than more of the same? This is especially true if the rules of the bureaucracy were seen as constraints to good service and decision making and not protection for ensuring consistent application. This conundrum raised new realms of scholarship in public administration – leadership and ethics.

Leadership and Ethics

Leadership by Mission

Transformational leadership requires managing by the mission. Having a mission is a departure from traditional ways of managing and even thinking about public organizations. A mission might be public service – even promoting the citizen as a customer. It might be a mission of public service that advances the public good as the common good. It might be a mission of social equity that represents the diverse constituency of the population. This will stir goal conflicts as equity is often seen differently by those who are advantaged by it and those who are disadvantaged by it.

Motivation for Public Service

Public administration scholars started to examine the public service motivation. Why do people want to work in the public sector? Does their motivation affect their behavior and does their motivation affect the outcomes of the bureaucracy? The concept of public duty and wanting to serve is raised as the New Public Service (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2011). Perry (1996) outlined four motivations of public service that could be found within public administrators – attraction to public policy making, commitment to the public interest, compassion, and self-sacrifice.

Parallel to the concept of public service is an inquiry into the ethics of public service. If someone enters public service for self-aggrandizement, this would be considered unethical and may even rise to the level of public corruption. However, it would be too simplistic to expect that only Perry’s four motivations are present in the public workforce. For some public workers, it is a job and they are not motivated by any overarching attachment to public service. Because of this, there is a great deal of attention given inside and outside government to ethical conduct.

Ethical Codes of Conduct

Ethical conduct is prescribed by professional organizations such as the American Society for Public Administrators and the International City/County Management Association. They set professional codes of conduct for the individual administrator. These codes not only describe the professionalism that should be maintained, but also describes the relationship that professional administrators should have to the public at large – serving the public good, maintaining social equity, and promoting participation of the public in government. This goes beyond the confines of how decisions are made to include why decisions are made.

In addition, government regulations, offices, and ethical codes prescribe how government employees and managers are to operate government with integrity and ethically. These prescriptions are codified as regulations that define corruption and demand there be no conflicts of interest. The potential that conflicts of interest will exist is a recognition of the reality of the political environment in which public administration of government lives. There are constant temptations for administrators to enrich themselves out of the decisions that they oversee. Public administrators and elected officials are scrutinized for their personal financial holdings through requirements to disclose their financial holdings and in some cases, to recommend using a blind trust to manage their financial affairs while in office. Decisions are scrutinized to ensure that favorable treatment is not given to specific interests because of bribery or gifts being given to elected or appointed officials. Offices such as the  Inspector General  and the Government Office of Ethics  examine questionable decisions and audit government accounts to ensure compliance and that fiduciary responsibility is maintained. Throughout all levels of government, there are auditors and audits conducted to examine financial accounts as well as examine performance. Audits are designed to create an oversight on the bureaucrats and managers to ensure public accountability is maintained and that effect is achieved.

Prosecuting Corruption

All these efforts to regulate ethics achieves its pinnacle in resisting and if necessary, prosecuting corruption. It may be seen as ironic that the issue that brought about the reform era and the intellectual paradigm of the separation of politics from administration remain today in the context of resisting corruption. Watergate in the early to mid-1970s culminated with the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974 due to the articles of impeachment brought against him in the wake of campaign malfeasance that rose to the level of criminal acts. Watergate shocked the nation and gave pause to how public administration could safeguard the public sector if this type of corruption could occur at the highest level of government. Despite these efforts, we still see examples in the headlines today.

Compliance Efforts

The public administration tried compliance methods to regulate behavior and encourage whistleblowing. Compliance approaches help to identify where corruption or unethical practices are occurring. Cyberspace has left us challenged to understand whether we can have full agreement on what constitutes ethical behavior. Wikileaks, social media manipulation, and even charges of “fake news” leave us with a divided opinion about what is ethical and whether we are seeing truth or fiction. This is played out in relationships that public service delivery has with the public. There are little consensus and a great deal of goal conflict that arises in determining whether agencies such as the police are interacting with the public and delivering services in a way that reflects all the interests of the public or if they are reflecting their own interests. The level of disagreement about these kinds of goal conflicts is nearly insurmountable. Compliance measures such as body cameras have been issued, but it does little to force agreement. Maesschalck (2005) contends that if compliance is not providing an ethical response, then the integrity of decisions must be examined. Are bureaucrats and managers exercising the requisite self-control to make an ethical decision? If they are not, then what is to be done about it? Can we regulate and prescribe ethical behavior?


Paradigms are a way to see the significant changes that have occurred in our understanding of the phenomenon of the public sector. Paradigms identify the different ways we define the public sector, what we choose to study that will illuminate our understanding, and why shifts in these things occur. The concept of paradigms helps us understand why we can look at the same thing and see it newly and differently. The phenomenon has not changed. Only our view of it has changed.

The paradigms of public administration are not always clear or agreed upon by scholars. When we see through the lens of history we can identify what made up very different views of the public sector such as the centralization of the bureaucracy as an organization and the shift to explaining the public sector through decision making and the behaviors of the decision maker. Some scholars see emerging paradigms as governance, public organizational theory, and open systems such as reinventing government and e-government that each reshape our thinking about the public sector. In other observations, scholars see multiple paradigms operating at once because there is little consensus on how to explain what we are observing and little prescriptive agreement can come out of that. Over time, however, there have been numerous theories of public administration that have been validated with scientific testing, with analysis, and with practical application. Despite having some disagreement about normative principles of where the field of public administration should be going, we can agree on where it has been as a discipline and a science of administration.


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Denhardt, J., & Denhardt, R. (2011, 2015). The New Public Service: Serving not steering. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

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Frederickson, H. G. (1990). Public administration and social equity. Public Administration Review 50(2), 228-37.

Gullick, L. (1937). Notes on the theory of organization. In L. Gullick & L. Urwick (Eds.), Papers on the science of administration (pp. 1-46). New York, NY: Institute of Public Administration, Columbia University.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lindblom, C. E. (1959). The science of ‘muddling through’. Public Administration Review 19, 79–88.

Maesschalck, J. (2004). Approaches to ethics management in the public sector: A proposed extension of the compliance-integrity continuum. Public Integrity 7(1): 21-41.

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Osborne, D. & Gaebler, T. (1992). Reinventing government. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Ostrom, V., & Ostrom, E. (1971). Public Choice: A different approach to the study of public administration. Public Administration Review 31(2), 203-216.

Perry, J. (1996). Measuring public service motivation: An assessment of construct reliability and validity. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 6(1): 5-22.

Simon, H. (1947). Administrative behavior. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Waldo, D. (1988). The Enterprise of Public Administration: A Summary View. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp.

Wilson, W. (1887). The study of administration. Political Science Quarterly 2(2),197-222. Retrieved from  http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-study-of-administration/


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