walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: January 1, 2012
Why Public Administration Gets No Respect But Should

Much of my life has been spent in institutions dedicated to public policy: the State Department, the Rand Corporation and the Rand Graduate School, George Mason’s School of Public Policy, Johns Hopkins SAIS, and now Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. People in these places make policy, give advice about what governments should do, or else try to equip students with high-powered techniques to achieve the same end.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to realize that the emphasis put on public policy is mistaken, and that what we should be focusing on and teaching is basic public administration.

There, I’ve said it. Uttering the words “public administration” usually puts people into an instant stupor, or else sends them scrambling to check for messages on their iPhones. But in fact, the biggest problems we face in contemporary governance are often not related to what the government should do, but rather how to actually get the existing machinery to implement a policy that everyone can agree upon.

There are no end of examples of this. In many developing countries, before you can even address the question of the best public school curriculum, you have to solve the problem of getting teachers to show up for their classes every day. My Stanford colleague Scott Rozelle describes an initiative in rural China to get school principals to encourage anemic children to take daily vitamin tablets, the cognitive advantages of which had been proven beyond a doubt. This policy was stymied when the principals gave out eggs instead (which contain no iron), and the parents could not be persuaded to comply–and this in an authoritarian country where everyone assumes the government’s orders will be obeyed.

When it comes to the United States, we of course argue about the direction of policy–higher or lower taxes, whether to build a pipeline through the Midwest, etc. But anyone who has spent time in government realizes that the real questions that preoccupy officials have to do with implementation, or rather, the impossibility of implementing many desirable policies because of the huge number of constraints under which modern governments work. This is certainly the observation of another Stanford colleague, Jeremy Weinstein, who has just returned from Stanford after a stint on the Obama administration’s National Security Council working on democracy and development issues. Despite huge efforts to reform the civilian side of our foreign policy apparatus, aid programs in critical countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan are a mess. Poor implementation undercuts US foreign policy goals, as in the case of the botched occupation of Iraq.

Fixing the public sector therefore has got to be a top priority for anyone interested in public policy. In countries where public services work relatively efficiently, like those in Scandinavia, people are willing to tolerate high tax levels because they think they’re getting something back. In the US, however, as in Latin America, many people object to higher taxes because they are convinced that the government will simply waste their money. The inability to implement effectively affects what policies will be chosen; the Obama administration’s arguments for universal health care in the US would have been much more persuasive if people thought the government could deliver on its promises.

So: stop worrying about public policy, and go back to humbler concerns about public administration. Solve that, and you’ll rise to the top politically.

show comments
  • Lok Sang Ho

    I wonder how do you respond to my thesis, put forth in a book I jointly edited with Brian Bridges, entitled Public Governance in Asia and the Limits of Electoral Democracy, that party politics is counter to the cause of working democracies, and that individuals vying for power should compete as individuals on the basis of their substantive ideas on policy and how to govern. I argued that public governance against power abuses is “preventive”–preventing power abuses, while the ballot box is “remedial”–stripping a failed and abusive ruler from office. Would love to hear from you.

  • Mark Cordovet

    So how do we go about doing this? Where are there recent examples of good public administration of any size?

  • kzndr

    Perhaps a certain segment of the political spectrum could agree on this, but isn’t it the case that many people (particularly those of a more libertarian persuasion) simply look at government and see an institution that is fundamentally unsuited to do many of the things we currently ask it to do? One could argue, for example, that the poor outcomes of our aid policies cannot be ameliorated: they are endemic both to aid and to the fact that, even if aid were effective, it would be delivered by an ineffective bureaucracy. Or, to put it another way, how is “basic public administration” an achievable goal when the government is exposed to so many malign influences (lobbying, the revolving door between Washington and Wall St.), influences that are, to a large extent, created by bad policy (overly activist and intrusive government)?

  • Sally Eaton

    I am so glad to hear someone else talking about the need to focus on how government actually works. One of the problems in doing so has to do with accountability, which is bureaucratized in the public sector. Thus, no one is accountable. For example, in school systems, we are mandated to provide “special education”. We don’t really understand “learning disabilities” and can’t really measure them. But we fill out a lot of paperwork and than makes the bureaucrats happy. We spend 20%+ of school budgets on this and less than 1% on talented kids. And we don’t teach math and our own youth can’t take high tech jobs.

  • Cunctator

    The machine to implement policy is almost always as important as the inputs. So, focusing on and revising Public Admin is good advice. That said, if the inputs are bad, well, not much the best-oiled mechanism can do to advance the public interest.

  • Foobarista

    Part of the problem is much of the legal apparatus of government effectively prohibits firing and allows government to effectively lobby for more of itself. If you want to reform public administration, and improve respect for it, you have to abolish government unions, get rid of most civil-service laws, and implement something like an “up or out” policy for civil servants. (Their compensation needs to be structured so they aren’t financially destroyed if they’re “out”.)

    If you can’t be fired, you can’t be trusted.

  • Mike

    This reminds me of an essay by an auto workers union leader on why government should learn better how to administer GM.

    Maybe the answer is that governments don’t run things like schools or delivery services or factories very well; they never have, and there’s no reason to believe they ever will. The incentives are all wrong as various commentors have pointed out.

    The markets deliver high quality food and phones and autos and airplanes. Private schools are generally the best in the land.

    Whys is this concept so frightening to you,
    Francis? Because when people are free to make their own choices without interference from government it reduces the power and influence of people like you?

    • Brendan Doran

      Yes. That and The American Interest interest’s apparently lie with the Public Sector. Good luck, it’s beyond salvation.

  • Jens Laerke

    It was said long ago by Alexander Pope: “For Forms of Government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best”. There is a lot of truth in that; the importance of how we “get there” and how we administer and manage change and progress. But this doesn’t take away the equal importance of politics, ideas, values and meanings of development and the crucial question of where the “there” we are trying to get at, actually is.

  • Michael Brand

    Poor public administration creates a spillover effect to the non-governmental sector. Since a large number (in US) of nonprofits depend upon government contracts, their administration and management tends to mirror that of their funding agency….and be as dysfunctional as a result.

  • teapartydoc

    Citing more successful instances of public administration in smaller countries with more homogeneous societies with less risk of large free rider problems as if they can be duplicated here is getting very old and very tired.

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  • Timothy Nunan

    I enjoyed this opening post a lot. A post in response/reflection can be found at the link below:

    More specifically, since you begin your post by mentioning some of the institutions – RAND, GMU, SAIS, etc. – that fostered a ‘what’-driven education, rather than a ‘how’-driven education, I’d wonder what your ideas would be on how young people could get the training needed to resolve the public administration woes you mention. Much of it seems to boil down to political savvy needed to negotiate with stakeholders – Chinese principals and parents for example. But what *specific* educational experiences, if any, do you think could be useful in preparing to implement the kinds of reforms you’re talking about?

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  • Joshua Rosenblum

    Dr. Fukayama,

    Thank you for the link to the Innovations Successful Societies Initiative. I am eagerly in the process devouring the various papers. However, I have to say I am skeptical. I’ve spent seven years in Iraq and now one year in Afghanistan promoting democratic development. I came to the war as a neoconservative and am leaving as a libertarian.

    I have not changed my mind concerning the central neoconservative strategy of achieving security by robust dissemination of our value system. In fact, I have become even more convinced of its ultimate importance. What the past eight years has taught me is that we are utterly incapable of figuring out a way to do so given our current bureaucratic system. It is impossible for us to implement policy formulated at higher levels at the level where the rubber meets the road. And I have little hope the system can be reformed to be able to do so.

  • Dominic


    First off, there is a push in younger generations that it still is really all about policy. Everyone wants to be like you and come up with the next great idea, theory or policy. They believe that policies are answers to problems. In order to deemphasize policy as answers we need to reframe it so everyone believes the process is the answer.

    Second, once the process is believed to be the source of the answer people, at all levels of the bureaucracy, will actually work more collaboratively to improve the process.

    Thirdly, we need to analyze this premise on the different grounds of decision-making. There is no doubt that the rational actor can have a strong influence on an organization, but, to me, this at best explains a leader whereas, the bureaucratic model explains the entire organization’s thought and decision making process. If we are going to teach skilled public “administrators” we must also teach them how to learn, adapt and respond to the particular trials, tribulations and rewards of their respective bureaucracy.

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  • R. B. RAMOS

    I enjoy reading what Dr. Fukuyama wrote and the reactions that it received. I am learning a lot from them. In the Philippines where I have been involved with public affairs over the past 30 years, there is really no much appreciation on both public policy and public administration. What we have then and now under the Aquino administration is still same old Patronage Politics, which P-Noy (as what President B.S. Aquino III calls himself) said during his Inaugural Address last 30 June 2012 will be a thing in the past. When I read abut decision-making, leadership, changing the status quo, genuine reforms and others, I can only we have them in the Philippines.

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  • Natasha


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