Public administrators surveying proposals

The difference between public administration and political science


The road to a successful and long career in the field of politics, charity or any other facet of public service is by no means a narrow one. In fact, viewing it as a single road under any circumstances is fairly shortsighted, and thus unwise. Figuratively speaking, the road begins at a single point – namely, a desire to work toward the greater good of a community or society rather than working in the name of profit or personal benefit – and from there diverts into many different paths, each with its own peccadilloes. (Ultimately, a river and its streams or tributaries might be a more effective metaphor.)

Public administration and political science both represent individual paths (or streams, if one prefers) that are pointed in the direction of public service. But they are, in numerous ways, fundamentally different, despite how often they can be confused with one another by those who do not know the field. Students with a general interest in pursuing their graduate education to better their chances at obtaining a public service job might even think this way, and thus end up choosing a path of higher learning that isn’t truly right for them. With this concern in mind, it will behoove all those with any serious desire to aid their governments and communities by entering the arena of public service to fully understand the specific ways in which political science and public administration divert from one another, and in so doing make the best possible choices for the future.

Historical context

According to a piece written by John Raymond Jison for the International Association for Political Science Studies, President Woodrow Wilson played a major role in all of this – in 1887, several decades before he would assume the Oval Office in 1914. Within the pages of an essay entitled “The Study of Administration,” Winslow stood out as an early proponent of defining public administration as a sui generis discipline. His advice was not entirely heeded, as political science remained the predominant field of study for those who wanted to step in the arena of public service throughout the majority of the 20th century, with administration categorized as a tangential concentration.

That being said, Wilson’s groundbreaking ideas did eventually catch fire. His essential principles are now recognized as core tenets of the various methods and lessons that form the curricula of public administration degree programs at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

For example, in the above-mentioned essay, Wilson wrote that administration was integral to the proper application of the laws that federal, state and local representatives (and their many aides and staffers) devise – more concerned with the occasionally mundane day-to-day realities of a given community or society than pure policymakers. The latter, Wilson noted, sought largely to answer the question, “Who shall make the law and what shall it be?”

In Jison’s analysis and estimation, Wilson’s ideal government would involve administration that functioned with businesslike efficiency and did not readily yield to political pressure. Legislators and those who assist them, by their nature, had to more openly accept this pressure, in that they needed to understand and carefully consider what their constituents want. But when they must commit to an unpopular initiative that would benefit the area they govern in the long run – such as a tax hike that would allow underpaid public workers to earn more annually – administrative staff would ensure that the work was carried out.

Unity of purpose, difference of method

As is noted above, public administration and political science share the same essential goal. Both disciplines are contingent on learning the political, social and economic dynamics of a given community – be it a council-governed town or America at large – and applying that knowledge to benefit the good of all (or at the very least, a vast majority, with as little barriers in place as possible).

The fundamental difference between the two comes down to methodology: Political science involves the creation of policy and strategy. Public administration involves the implementation of that strategy in a manner that is as effective to as many people as possible, and as such not infrequently requires the attendant “science” to be set aside in favor of more practical, pragmatic concerns. Most simply put, this is a difference of theory versus execution. The schism of thought between public policy and public administration is quite similar, although not identical; the former does involve the analysis of data-based concerns with which political science may not necessarily concern itself.

None of the previous statements are intended to disparage the fields of political science or public policy, or propose that their study and application be eschewed by those interested in public service and administration. The three disciplines can – in fact, must – exist in conjunction with one another. But just as Jison explains in his piece, these fields cannot be viewed as interchangeable: He wrote, “The need for dichotomizing politics and administration…has never been this necessary.”

Possibility of conflict

Scholar James Q. Wilson, in his landmark textbook Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It, spent a great deal of time outlining the ways in which political science (and, by extension, public policy) can drastically diverge and cause conflicts:

“Executives who want to influence policy but who define ‘policy’ largely in terms of what outside constituencies want (or will not denounce) are in an awkward position – more awkward than they sometimes realize,” Wilson wrote. “To change their agency, these officials need to understand its workings, know its people, and appreciate its constraints. But the external, constituency-serving orientation of such executives, combined with their short tenure in office, reduce the time and energy they can devote to this learning process. As a result, the policy changes they make are likely to be ill-considered and inadequately managed.”

Essentially, Professor Wilson acknowledges in this passage the need for policy to serve the public good, but believes that partisanship and a lack of concrete, real-world perspective regarding that policy’s implementation can get in the way of achieving an optimal result for the most people. Brad DeLong, writing for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth’s blog, explained the conflict thusly in a paraphrase of his late grandfather, a public administrator: “Everyone wants to fantasize about [German WWII general] Rommel, and no one wants to be a real quartermaster, even though real quartermasters won…more real battles than real Rommels have.”

DeLong cited the countless snags connected to implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as detailed by The Washington Post, as a perfect example of this. Partisanship on both sides of the aisle and bureaucratic inefficiencies independent of politics combined in a perfect storm that nearly sunk Obamacare. The law was eventually passed, but its controversies continue to reverberate.

Policymakers and administrators cannot be regularly at odds. They must understand each other to some degree, with their relationship symbiotic rather than combative. However, as far as academics are concerned those best equipped for method over theory, or vice versa, are best served by studying one or the other.

Learn More

The School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark, provider of the online Master of Public Administration, is accredited by the NASPAA. Before a program becomes eligible for accreditation by the NASPAA, its parent school must be recognized by a regional, national or international agency. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education and is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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