BEYOND THE PARADIGM CLASHES IN PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION Jan Rommel Ghent University Johan Christiaens Ghent University

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Administrative Theory & Praxis Vol. 28, No. 4, 2006: 610–617 R


Jan Rommel Ghent University

Johan Christiaens Ghent University


One of the “must-read books” for any research student is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970). Although this book was not specifically written for public administration, it is compul- sory material for those who want to get a grip on the discipline. When reading the other part of the “must-read” list, namely those exemplars that are specific to public administration, it quickly becomes clear that Kuhn’s paradigms pop up very frequently. The traditional literature seems to be punctuated with authors and themes that have engaged in paradigmatic debates. However, the more we look at Kuhn’s book next to these other authors, the less likely it appears that Kuhn would have liked their use of his concept. Naturally, science has a lot to do with discourse, and we have to make articles controversial enough to get them published. It is tempting to label one’s findings as a paradigm but what price do we pay for the random use of this concept?

In our essay, we want to illustrate that traditional scholars, which we consider conveniently here as the “old generation,” use the paradigm concept too loosely, thereby only leading to heated scholarly discus- sions and “paradigm wars” but not resulting in practical or useful an- swers. We will look at one recent paradigm war, the one between public management and public administration and show how the traditional scholars misuse the concept. We will argue that younger students, who are not yet established academicians, are well suited to end these para- digm wars because they are not yet fully socialized by the older genera- tion. If we can avoid the paradigm trap in the future, then perhaps we, as students, can actually impart something to our supervisors.

2006, Public Administration Theory Network

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Although he is not the sole author to write on this theme, Kuhn (1970) is certainly the most famous. His argument is that science does not progress through accumulation. Rather, a series of tradition-shat- tering revolutions occur. He asserted that science develops along dif- ferent paths. In the period of normal science, researchers incrementally refine and expand a paradigm by solving puzzles. Paradigms are “uni- versally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners” (Kuhn, 1970, p. x). Competing paradigms distinguish themselves in terms of the philosophic assumptions, goals and methods each brings. They play a crucial role in prescribing the norms and rules that guide further re- search. At some point in time, scientists will find unexpected facts that cannot be integrated into the existing paradigm. After a pre-paradig- matic period, characterized by profound debates between several schools, a new paradigm arises, with a new vocabulary and new con- cepts, necessary to analyze the new facts. That new paradigm is not a special case of the old paradigm, it is “not only incompatible, but often incommensurate with that which has gone before” (Kuhn, 1970, p. 103). Rival scientific frameworks are incommensurable if neither can be fully stated in the vocabulary of the other. Competing paradigms are differ- ent worlds and see different things. After the revolutionary shift, a new period of normal science begins to refine the new paradigm, which dif- fers substantially from the normal science that preceded it in the old paradigm.

One could draw up an impressive list of authors arguing that public management can be seen as a Kuhnian paradigm, including Aucoin (1995), Barzelay (1992), Behn (2001), Borins (1999), Cheung (2005), Holmes & Shand (1995), Hughes (2003), Mathiasen (1999), Osborne & Gaebler (1992) and the OECD (1995). These authors claim that tradi- tional public administration, which had its base in political science, was no longer able to solve certain problems. These problems (e.g., bad per- formance of governments) could only be solved by using assumptions coming from economics. Using these assumptions would lead to new techniques that are incommensurate with the previous paradigm.

As a first step, these authors view public administration as an outmo- ded paradigm. Being a model derived from Weber, Wilson and Taylor, its assumptions of input-based hierarchical control, technocratic profes- sionalism, rule-based government and insulation of the private sector would make the traditional paradigm inherently inefficient. As a second step, they see public management as an incommensurate alternative

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and as capable of dealing with the new challenges. Being the antithesis of traditional administration, public management could adequately ad- dress the performance problem. The key difference between the two forms of organization is that the market would lead to an agreed result instead of having it imposed by bureaucracy. Borrowing from the pri- vate sector would allow the public sector access to the same efficiency as the former. The traditional assumptions would then be radically redefined, leading to a revolutionary paradigm shift: “A new paradigm for public management has emerged, aimed at fostering a performance- oriented culture in a less centralized public sector” (OECD, 1995, p. 8). The new assumptions allow for an increased use of mechanisms such as privatization, downsizing, contracting, and a focus on customer satisfaction.


The paradigm claim is made surprisingly quickly. Although many au- thors cite Kuhn’s work and argue that they are using his concept, only rarely do they seem to have carefully read his work. They never seem to use a systematic framework for analyzing whether one can actually speak of a paradigm, nor do they apply Kuhn’s own framework on their claim. Although many emphasize the differences between the old ad- ministration and the new management, few look at the convergence in literature, let alone the consistency of New Public Management (NPM) or its problem-solving capacity, which are three essential characteristics of Kuhnian paradigms (Rommel, Christiaens & Devos, 2005). Further, most of the authors are talking about changes in practice, whereas para- digms are about science and research. Even if many governments would be organized in a way other than the traditional way, that does not mean that research has made the same change. Hughes (2003), being a fierce defender of the idea that public management is a Kuhnian para- digm, argues that there is also a convergence in theory. However, theo- retical change is not the same as paradigmatic change. For instance, we have not found any author who mentions what kind of research meth- ods public management fosters, how they have changed because of NPM, or why those methods were not useful in traditional public administration.

As a result, the notion of paradigm quickly becomes a loose and watered-down version of the original. It becomes nothing but a “nice buzzword for social scientists, especially those frustrated by the inher- ent ambiguities of human systems. Too vague to be pinned down, so it pops up everywhere” (Mintzberg, 1978, p. 635). As a consequence,

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when the term paradigm is interpreted vaguely, the paradigms spoken about are equally nebulous, indicating whatever one wishes them to in- dicate. Indeed, NPM is notorious for its amorphous nature and just about the hardest thing about NPM is to actually define and character- ize it, since it has largely evolved from an inductive process of observing NPM practices. For instance, for some, the politics-administration di- chotomy is characteristic of traditional public administration and is re- placed by a shared governance model by NPM (e.g., Barzelay, 1992), whereas for others the reintroduction of the dichotomy is the very es- sence of NPM (see, e.g., Gruening, 2001).

In a response to Mintzberg’s critique on paradigms, Morgan (1979, p. 137) acknowledged that the concept is often misused. Paradigms can have a metatheoretical and philosophical sense, representing a com- plete view of reality or a “way of seeing.” It may also relate to a social organization of science in terms of schools of thought built around a set of scientific habits connected with particular kinds of scientific achieve- ments. A third possible meaning is that paradigms relate to the concrete use of specific kinds of tools and techniques for the process of problem solving. Public management literature seems largely involved in propos- ing new tools and ideas for solving performance problems. Rarely can we find authors providing an alternative worldview or explaining how public management does not strive for rationalism or efficiency, the two criticisms it has against public administration. For Morgan, this would not be considered as a paradigm. Paradigms require a shift in the first sense, that is, they have to present a new reality. Such shifts are only rare, compared to changes in the second and third sense. Labeling changes in problem solving or schools of thought as a paradigm shift, is a clear misuse of the concept: “All too often changes at these levels are heralded as revolutionary and radically new when, in point of fact, they represent but minor variations on old and familiar themes” (Morgan, 1979, p. 138). In fact, Kuhn himself doubted the appropriateness of the word paradigm for the social sciences, as they may still be in a pre- paradigmatic stage.


So why do so many authors use the word paradigm, if it may not even be applicable in the discipline? Probably because it is easier to win a debate in which there is no single Truth. Paradigms serve as a rhetori- cal tool in a debate between two approaches: “The paradigm notion often is invoked not simply for its descriptive potential but because of its public relations cachet: the term, for example, has been used to add

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gravity and significance to the most mundane matters“ (Donmoyer, 2006, p. 14). In particular, the notion is used to depict the new as good and the old as bad. Especially the incommensurability thesis, inherent in paradigm talk, can suggest that new approaches are not only radically different but also superior to the traditional ones. Donmoyer (2006, p. 16) asserts that “(Contemporary paradigm talk) more often than not also retains a Kuhnian faith in progress and a belief that new, more superior paradigms eventually will trump older, existing ones. This thinking is hardly surprising . . . since one can hardly champion a new perspective one considers incommensurable with existing ones without assuming that one’s new perspective is not merely new but also im- proved.” When labeled as a paradigm, the idea gains almost an aura of sainthood, and it becomes almost unimaginable to question it. As Mintzberg (1978, p. 635) states, a paradigm quickly becomes an article of faith and is to be accepted without question. Therefore, it is very convenient for one’s theory for it to be recognized as a paradigm.

This inherent feeling of supremacy leads to a build-up of tensions between the old and the new, leading to paradigm wars: battles between adherents of two paradigms in which the objective of one side is to subordinate the other. This has also happened in the case of public management, with the opponents retaliating in equally strong language, such as speaking of public management as a “full-scale attack on tradi- tional administration” (Moe & Gilmour, 1995, p. 116).

Such confinement into wholly incompatible paradigms hinders analy- sis and leads to hermeticism and provincialism (Willmott, 1993). The dominance of a single perspective results in a narrow view that does not fully reflect the multifaceted nature of social and organizational reality. In public administration, we can benefit from looking at problems from different perspectives, using multiple theories and methods. Incommen- surability makes a caricature of both approaches, as it fails to grasp their shared tradition. Certain debates, such as the one on the politics/ administration dichotomy, have already been going on for ages and there is still no clear-cut solution to the problem, as governments are still looking for a balance between autonomy and control. The idea of organizing administration in a businesslike way goes back to Wilson, one of the exemplars that the proponents of the management paradigm claim to reject. Further, some innovations that are new are not merely results from the new way of seeing the world but are made possible because of evolutions that have nothing to do with public administra- tion. E-government may well be a tool with much potential to stimulate a customer-oriented government but it is not made possible simply be-

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cause governments are currently customer-oriented. Rather, it is possi- ble because of the technological evolution, apart from any paradigm.

Finally, paradigms make us believe that we can ultimately find the Truth, since the institutionalization of paradigms means that the com- munity will gradually be conversed towards the new paradigm. How- ever, unlike the natural sciences, public administration is not about (dis)proving facts, it is about values that shape a worldview. These val- ues have to do with beliefs and visions, and can not be proven “wrong.” Therefore, it is expected that a debate has continued on the politics/ administration dichotomy and there will most likely never be a single clear-cut answer.


If we still have not found the Truth, and it is likely that we never will, then perhaps we should stop looking for it. The hermeticism and pro- vincialism that come with paradigm confinement may be turned to- wards a more complete view of phenomena by looking at multiple perspectives. As Kuhn argued, students of a younger generation are conversed into paradigms by their supervisors, who pass on their theo- ries, values and methods. But that does not mean that we should also be guided into the same paradigm wars that our supervisors have fought. The current generation of students may play a role in creating a sort of paradigmatic détente. Admittedly, we are being socialized by our su- pervisors. But at the same time, we are still searching for which re- search community to take part in, which conferences to attend and which journals to publish in. We are not yet completely forced into one direction or another, we do not have a Truth to defend so that we are not yet trapped in paradigm talk. Mapping contradictions, tensions and contrasts remains valuable, but we should also move between different perspectives by transposing contributions from studies in one theoreti- cal framework into the frameworks of another. Research conducted within one paradigm should be allowed to be recontextualized and rein- terpreted so that it also informs research conducted within a different paradigm. Current generation students may be ideally placed to utilize such a mind-set of both-and, instead of a traditional paradigm mentality of either-or. This is not so much about what we are looking at, as stu- dents, but rather through which glasses we are looking. With a both-and mentality, we may be able to see more.

Or perhaps even better, let us drop the paradigms and look at what works in praxis. There is great diversity in governmental reforms and

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sometimes they are even contradictory to NPM. Paradigm warriors would argue that this is due to an incorrect understanding of the para- digm, for instance by blaming politicians who have a lack of commit- ment to reform. But perhaps governments also do it because, for them, it may actually seem to work. Since the field of public administration deals with values, depending on beliefs, it is logical that recipes for re- form differ in praxis since what is useful for one government may not be useful for the other. Even if researchers continue to write from their one-dimensional perspectives, policy-makers and practitioners would still pick and choose from them and create their own unique plans for reform. Let us keep Kuhn on the must-read list, that is, the list of re- quired readings . . . for our supervisors.


Aucoin, P. (1995). The new public management; Canada in comparative perspec- tive. Montreal: Institute for Research and Public Policy.

Barzelay, M. (1992). Breaking through bureaucracy. A new vision for managing in government. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Behn, R. D. (2001). Rethinking democratic accountability. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Borins, S. (1999), Trends in training public managers: A report on a common- wealth seminar. International Public Management Journal, 2, 299-314.

Cheung, A. (2005). The politics of administrative reforms in Asia: Paradigms and legacies, paths and diversities. Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions, 18, 257-282.

Donmoyer, R. (2006). Take my paradigm . . . please! The legacy of Kuhn’s con- struct in educational research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 19, 11-34.

Gruening, G. (2001). Origin and theoretical basis of new public management. International Public Management Journal, 4, 1-25.

Holmes, M., & Shand, D. (1995). Management reform: Some practitioner per- spectives on the past ten years. Governance, 8, 551-78.

Hughes, O. (2003). Public management and administration: An introduction (3rd ed.). Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mathiasen, D. (1999). The new public management and its critics. International Public Management Journal, 2, 90-111.

Mintzberg, H. (1978). Mintzberg’s final paradigm. Administrative Science Quar- terly, 23, 635-636.

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Moe, R., & Gilmour, R. (1995). Rediscovering principles of public administra- tion: The neglected foundations of public law. Public Administration Re- view, 55, 135-146.

Morgan, G. (1979). Response to Mintzberg. Administrative Science Quarterly, 24, 137-139.

OECD. (1995). Governance in transition: Public management reforms in OECD countries. Paris: PUMA/OECD.

Osborne, D., & Gaebler, T. (1992). Reinventing government. How the en- trepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector. New York: Plume.

Rommel, J., Christiaens, J., & Devos, C. (2005), Rhetorics of reform: The case of NPM as a paradigm shift. Ghent University, Working paper 05/354.

Willmott, H. (1993). Breaking the paradigm mentality. Organization Studies, 14, 681-719.

Jan Rommel is a research student at Ghent University, Belgium. His research interests include governmental accounting reforms and politico-administrative relations in an agency context. He is currently working on a PhD, writing how management reforms affect the mutual relations between agency managers, de- partments and politicians, at the level of the Flemish regional government.

Johan Christiaens, PhD, is a Professor, Department of Accountancy and Cor- porate Finance, Ghent University, Belgium; he is Chartered Accountant at Ernst & Young Belgium and he is Director of the Accounting Research Public Sector Ghent University—Ernst & Young. He has published several articles in Financial Accountability and Management and European Accounting Review. His teaching and researching areas include governmental and not-for-profit ac- counting, reporting and auditing.


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