Wading in an Administrative Swamp

“Public administration is a swamp.” These words were spoken by Dr. Judy Millesen on my first day of class as an MPA student. Since that day, I have not found sufficient evidence to challenge her statement. If anything, my understanding of public administration has only grown more opaque.

Public administration spawned as an academic discipline due to Woodrow Wilson’s 1886 essay, The Study of Administration. Borrowing elements from politics, law, and management, public administration became a mash of theorist- and practitioner-derived ideas. Though the literature is swampy, the discipline is very much alive and well.

As a second-year MPA student, I have gravitated toward management-related literature and texts. Though public administration is often considered exclusively government or non-profit related, I contend that the discipline is growing more businesslike in nature as MPA graduates leak into the private sector. As Wilson once said, “The field of administration is a field of business.”

So if the field of public administration is the field of business, why not pursue an MBA? First, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and private businesses all must understand how to navigate complex laws and policies. Second, from an appropriations standpoint, government agencies are not market-driven, and they are expected to offer a public good that may or may not operate in a sustainable way. Third, public administration is altruistic.

Though these points may be argued, the study of public administration is ever-evolving. As the United States government changes, so will the discipline. However, it is undeniable that public administration will remain a swamp of ideas, information, and practices.


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