Types of Public Administration Theory

Posted on April 13, 2020

Public administration is a sphere of science that is aimed to explain the role, influence, and mechanisms of governmental policy implementation. Generally speaking, public administration refers to the realization of government policies through specific powers, methods, and documentation. Public administration is a practical sphere that has been developing since ancient times for the purpose of local problems and issues regulation. Civil servants are responsible for consideration of local community requests and the solving of problems following the official policies of the government. At the same time, public administration is a branch of theoretical science that studies various aspects of the discipline, offering information for the preparation of future civil servants. Numerous experts are representing their visions of effective mechanisms of public administrations functioning. In fact, public administration theory is an amalgamation of various scientific spheres, including political theory, organizational theory, social theory, history, and other interconnected fields of science. Therefore, the general theory of public administration can be classified into three major branches, including Classical Public Administration Theory, New Public Management Theory, and Postmodern Public Administration Theory.

Classical Public Administration Theory

Classical Public Administration Theory can be determined as a combination of several theories that were developed to explain the management of countries and their separate regions. The classical approach emerged as a result of an analysis of how governmental control influences the effectiveness of labor. Theorists tried to depict how public administration changes the position of employees, conditions of their work, and private lives. The development of the theory was launched in the late nineteenth century when the rights and status of employees were the most topical issues. Classical Public Administration Theory can be divided into two broad branches, including the theory of bureaucracy and the theory of scientific management.

The bureaucracy theory was developed by the German sociologist Max Weber at the end of the nineteenth century. He was emphasizing the bureaucratic aspects of the public administration. Weber determined bureaucracy as a hierarchical organizational structure that is aimed to govern different spheres of the local residents’ lives (Elkatawneh). Generally speaking, Weber associated bureaucracy with public administration, determining these two concepts as an authority. Weber stated that the main aim of the authority in the country is the establishment of domination that can be done through administration. In such conditions, domination can be established legally.

What is more, Weber also offered his approach to the classification of authority in the country into charismatic, traditional, and rational authority. The sociologist developed several theoretical grounds of a bureaucratic system including:

  • Functional specialization and division of powers by a sphere of the activity.
  • Distribution of the authorities in order to maximize the effectiveness of the institution.
  • Professional methods of work and approaches to solving different social problems.
  • The work of bureaucratic institutions is based on official legal documents.
  • Bureaucratic system is hierarchical, and higher levels are controlling the work and effectiveness of the lower ones.
  • Members of a bureaucratic system should be professional and should experience flexibility and training (Elkatawneh 2013).

The theory developed by Weber is aimed to create a specific bureaucratic system designed to regulate the state issues effectively. Public administrators currently have bureaucratic features because of structural arrangement and hierarchical structure; these aspects were defined in the framework of the Classical Public Administration Theory.

The bureaucratic theory of Max Weber was often criticized for not considering the human factor in the cooperation of civil servants with workers. In addition, the sociologist was concentrating the attention predominantly on higher hierarchical levels of authorities; the theory of Weber separated the social and professional lives of employees. Finally, experts often state that the approach includes a lot of unclear statements that can be false understood.

The scientific management theory was developed in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. The first ideas included in this theory were developed by Frederick Taylor, who was also considering the public administration through an emphasis on work and employment. Taylor was interested in increasing productivity and improvement of the working process. Two main statements of the theory regarding productivity are the following:

  • Productivity is a state of a system that consists of specific sustainable elements and is functioning in order to reach particular goals.
  • Productivity can also be analyzed as a process of activity of people aimed to implement innovations in the existing system seeking to balance it with a current level of scientific and technological development (Elkatawneh).

Taylor’s theory is currently considered as a basic idea for public administration because these institutions follow quite similar aims to scientific management theory. Modern experts state that this theory was not precisely concentrated on the creation of specific public administration models. However, in other methods, experts aimed to implement business structures in the public administration theory trying to repeat its efficiency.

Classical Public Administration Theory is also associated with the ideas developed by Woodrow Wilson at the beginning of the twentieth century. Wilson is considered to be the father of the public administration theory due to his ideas presented in the book “The Study of Administration.” According to the views of Woodrow Wilson, all governmental institutions in the country should be divided into two sectors, including administration and politics. The main aim of public administration’s work is to execute federal law and implement governmental regulations effectively. In fact, Wilson was convinced that it is more difficult to perform all regulations than to develop these laws in theory. The division between the administration and politics is significant because the execution of politics is more interconnected with the business system and methods of management. Wilson stated that civil servants should be professional and responsible people who would know and understand local problems and the global political system of the country. Generally speaking, the theory of Woodrow Wilson became fundamental for the modern American public administration system. The President promoted the productive work and successful functioning of the public administration sphere considering it as a pragmatic and sustainable system.

New Public Management Theory

The American and European academics developed the New Public Management Theory term in order to name a set of theories and ideas about public service that emerged in the 1980s. The central point of view in this theory refers to notions of capitalism and the perspective of globalization. Experts considered public administration through the context of new forms of economic relations and the spreading of free market system. Among academics who have made the most considerable contribution to the theory are John Major, Linda Kaboolian, Christopher Hood, and Taku Yamamoto.

Generally speaking, the first example of the New Management Theory practical use is the functioning of public administrations in the United Kingdom during the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. She implemented fundamental reforms in the system of public service in such aspects as labor relations, civil service, evaluation and audit, organizational methods, and also financial management (Alonso et al. 648). The new theory was mainly concentrated on a stable economy and effective delivery of public services. However, the system of British public administration of that period is often criticized because it was making the primary emphasis on interests of elites and this aspect negatively influenced the ability of public authorities to approach necessities of all other layers of the British society.

In fact, the New Public Management Theory includes several aspects that experts consider as the main elements of the new type of public administration. The fundamental issue refers to the management and its effectiveness in terms of public problem solving. The theory considers management as a practical sphere of public administration that is used to maintain the work of the institution and regulate its effectiveness in addressing civic issues (Alonso et al. 653). However, the approach to management is often criticized because its methods are not determined in theory. This issue leads to the freedom of the leader’s managerial decisions and the possibility of exaggeration of authority. The second aspect to consider regarding the New Public Management Theory refers to performance standards that were used as essential characteristics to the evaluation of public administrations work (Frederickson). Public service needs to establish clear goals and requirements to work in order to increase the effectiveness and quality of public administrations work. The considered theory includes issues of control and decentralization that are aimed to maintain the quality and establish an effective structure of the sphere. The last characteristic is the issue of cost reduction that emerges from economic rationalism and endeavors to make the use of costs more effective and beneficial for the state budget.

The New Public Management Theory is often criticized because the authors of this theory do not pay enough attention to the division of the services provided for the public and the policymaking process. In addition, this theory is often mistakenly associated with the New Public Administration, which was widely spread in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, the New Public Management Theory cannot be applied for current public administrations because it does not promote citizen-oriented services.

Postmodern Public Administration Theory

The Postmodern Public Administration Theory was represented in the framework of political and management studies. The theory makes emphasis on such postmodernist aspects as leadership, efficiency, management, and organization. The central element of the postmodern theory refers to the acceptance of positivism and logic of objective social science as fundamental principles of the public administration exploration. Generally speaking, the whole postmodernist theory is closely intertwined with imagination, creativity, seeking for interconnections between real and imaginary. The researchers of the postmodern approach to public administration make emphasis on values and ethics.

Humanistic and behavioral schools of thought influenced the emergence and development of the postmodern public administration theory. Experts of the postmodern approach prove the interconnection between the study of public administration and the Hawthorne experiment. The main aim of this experiment was to reveal what factors are making a significant influence on the productivity and effectiveness of employees’ work (Frederickson). As a result, psychologists decided that physical factors have less impact on productivity than the social and economic aspects. In fact, people take into consideration the achievements and success of others, establishing personal aims and dynamics of work. The behavior and psychology were considered as fundamental elements for the development of the Postmodern Public Administration Theory.

Generally speaking, the Postmodern Public Administration Theory proves that all levels of public administration hierarchy cannot be objective or neutral because all civil servants also are members of the community. This aspect can cause problems for the effective implementation of governmental decisions because public servants cannot be interested enough in these initiatives. The following feature of public administration in terms of Postmodern Public Administration Theory refers to the critique of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Academics supporting this branch of the public administration theory prove that the bureaucratic system is an ineffective organizational structure, which should be transformed in case the government expects to develop sufficient executive power (Frederickson). Postmodern public administrations are more democratic, adaptable, effectively responding to different social changes, economic and political circumstances. Finally, public administrations should organize their work based on principles of cooperation, democracy, and consensus.

The Postmodern Public Administration Theory is criticized because it does not pay enough attention to the role of money in politics. Experts of this theory state that modern public administrations are concentrated on money and financial interests of people in politics. As a result, the legitimacy and finances in public administrations are incorrectly considered that makes the theory ineffective in modern conditions. The approach is also criticized for numerous cliches used by experts to explain it.


Public administration, as a practical executive sphere, is considered by numerous academics aiming to develop the most effective executive system. The general theory of public administration can be divided into three branches, including Classical Public Administration Theory, New Public Management Theory, and Postmodern Public Administration Theory. Characteristics of these theories change depending on the period of their emergence and the elements of the sphere that were considered as fundamental. Finally, the effectiveness and possibility of complete implementation of one theory in the public administration system of one country can be disputed because modern institutions combine features of all three approaches.

Works Cited
Alonso, Jose M., Judith Clifton, and Daniel Díaz-Fuentes. “Did new public management matter? An empirical analysis of the outsourcing and decentralization effects on public sector size.” Public Management Review 17.5 (2015): 643-660.

Elkatawneh, Hassan. “Classical Theories of Public Administration.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2013, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2248449.

Frederickson, H. George, et al. The public administration theory primer. Routledge, 2018.

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