Public Administration: Definition, Approaches, Art or Science.

Public Administration as an academic field of study has multiplicity of definitions since different scholars have written on the concept. For instance, the early writers such as Woodrow Wilson, has adopted the politics-administration dichotomy approach and those who adopted politic-administration dichotomy approach insisted that policy-makers should not dabble into administration.

Meanwhile, administrators should not involve themselves on matter of values (politics) and choices (policy decision). However, Marshall Dimock (1937) defined Public Administration as “that concerned with what and how of government”.

The “what” is the subject matter, the technical knowledge of a field which enables an administrator to perform his tasks. The “how” is the techniques of management, the principle according to which corporate programmes are carried through to success. He argued that what and how of government forms the synthesis called public administration.

Ademolekun (1983) defined it as “the activities concerned with the management of government business and the study of these activities”. In other words, it is used in two distinct ways as practice and as knowledge.

Furthermore, Prof. Okwudiba Nnoli (1986) defined it as “the machinery as well as the integral processes, through which the government performs its functions” it is also a network of human relationship and associated activities extending from the government to the lowest point and powerless individuals charged with keeping in daily touch with all resources, natural and human and all other aspect of the life of the society with which the government is concerned.

W.F. Willoughby (1927) defined Public Administration as the function of actually administering the law as declared by the government. Willoughby definition essentially excludes administrative functions that do not bother on the execution of laws.

Luther Gulick and Lyndall Urwick (1937) defined it as the function that has to do with getting things done or the accomplishment of defined or stated objectives. Gulick and Urwick coined seven principles of administration and by so doing, gave scholars of public administration that acronym called POSDCORB.

Summarily, it is as an academic field of study can be summarized as the activities and functions of government, the services performed by a group of officials working together for the interest of the nation. It can also be summed up as Politics which has to do with policies of the State and Administration which has to do with execution of these policies.

Approaches to the Study of Public Administration.

There are many Approaches to the study of public administration. Public administration has borrowed some approaches to the study of other discipline which it considered relevant and useful. These approaches have relatively separate origin and intellectual traditions, emphasizes different values, promotes different types of organizational structures and have a markedly distinctive view of individuals.

The Institutional Approach: this is the earliest approach to the study of governmental administration. This approach emphasizes formal relationship and separation of powers among the arms of government; the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Under this approach, generalizations were often based upon analysis of formal organizational practices and the constitutional delegation of authority and responsibility to three arms of government.

Decision Making Approach: the decision making approach believes that decision is the heart of understanding organizational activities. Its efficacy and effectiveness revolves around decisions. This approach in essence assumes that the most critical factor in the achievement of organizational objectives is correct decision making. In studying public administration using this approach, the focus is usually on the persons or organized groups making the decision, analysis of the decision making process; the environment of the decision making and the development of basic information for the decision. In this context, organization can, therefore, be conceived of as a gadget of decision making apparatus. Decisions are made until the level of specific performance is reached where the job becomes mainly operational.

The Comparative Approach: the Second World War marked the development of this approach to the study of public administration. The development was as a result of the dissatisfaction with the traditional approach called classical, orthodox and rational which dominated the thinking prior and during the first half of the nineteenth century. This traditional was perceived by many students of public administration as too narrow, too rigid and too parochial. This is because they were based on western mainly American experience and therefore, were not relevant in cross cultural situations.

Seconds, there was gradual realization of Americans that administrative principles which worked in their country did not necessarily work in other countries where some American were involved in technical assistance projects for the newly emerging countries of Africa and Asia. As a result of these observations many scholars started seeing the comparative approach as a more reliable way of studying public administration.

This approach then projects the environment as the basis of examining and understanding the operations of any administrative system. Comparative approach is primarily concerned with understanding the similarities and difference in administrative systems within and across countries and cultures. Using the comparative approach, one can compare the civil service, local government system, administrative reform, etc within and across countries and cultures with the aim of ascertain difference and similarities and providing explanations.

The historical Approach: the historical approach is an orientation which relies on understanding the present through a probing of past events. For instance, this approach can be used in studying public administration system in Nigeria, by studying the features of the British administration from the period of amalgamation until independence in 1960. One can also look at Nigeria’s public administration under different regimes or political systems. This approach helps place a given administration system in a wider context.

System Approach: this approach assumes that the only meaningful way to study organization is to study it as a system. This approach sees public administration system or a public organization as an adaptive system which must adjust to changes in its environment and whose parts are interdependent and depends on the other for resources. The environment could be social, political, economic, ethical or technological in nature. An important element in the system approach is the emphasis on input and output analysis.

Behavioural Approach: this approach adopts scientific methods in the study of public administration and aims at developing knowledge that is verifiable, systematic and general. This approach concerns itself more with finding out why people behaves as they do, how their strength and weakness can be evaluated, what their needs and wants are and how these can be considered in the performance of their duties and functions.

Behavioural approach applies the techniques of science in understanding and explaining employee behaviour in terms of their attitudes, sentiments, motives, desires, aspirations and informal group relationships. This approach sees an organization as a societal system. It lay emphasizes on the informal relations and communications among people working in an organization.

Ecological Approach: the ecological approach attempts to relate public administration to its environment. This approach focuses on identifying and looking at the dynamic relationships between public administration system and its total environment; physical, cultural, historical, economic and political. The approach assumes that every public administration system is influenced by its environment.

The Study of Public Administration: An Art or Science

Scholars argue that public administration can only be meaningfully conceived as an art and that it is not and cannot be studied scientifically. Those scholars who argue that it can only be studied scientifically make the following arguments in support of their position.

Control of Experimentation: The requirements of controlled experiments and measured observation, which can be tested and even replicated as is the case in physical scientific experiments, are difficult if not impossible to fulfill in public administration studies.

Indeterminism of human behaviour: this is another argument against the possibility of studying public administration scientifically. Human beings are in the least, controllable, verifiable, law abiding and predictable. The freedom of the will of human beings makes it difficult to determine how they will behave at any point in time. I this circumstance, generalization describing their behaviour cannot be formulated. And if you cannot predict human behaviour the whole issue of determinism which is the basic attributes of science cannot hold in public administration studies.

Reliability of Human Reaction: research in public administration is based on the reactions of those being studied. For instance, human beings are questioned to elicit responses that will describe opinion and attitudes. The outcome of this kind of research depends on the reaction or response of the subjects. The problem here is that if the subjects are aware that they are being studied, their responses cannot be taken to be valid indicators of their opinion.

This is because they are likely not to be themselves. Some may be indifferent, some may like to please the researcher with their kind of answers while some may just like to offend or frustrate the researcher. As long as people know they are being studied, there is the likelihood that they will adjust their behaviours or opinions and this may ultimately vitiate the science in public administration research.

The concept of Public administration: This factor makes the scientific study of public administration very difficult. There are too many variables and possible relationship between them that is very difficult for one to draw any generalized statement in respect of their relationships. This is unlike the physical science, like physics or chemistry, where one can discover relationship and construct theories with relative ease because the phenomenon being studied is less complex and could be studied as absolute constant.

Influence of personal values: the public administrator researcher is a value holding person who cannot prevent his own values from influencing his professional research. The personal values and ideological bias of the researcher is always evident in public administration research. Therefore, value freeness which is an attribute of scientific research cannot hold in the case of public administration research.

Ecological constraints: scholars argue that there is nobody of comparative public administration studies from which it may be possible to discover principles and generalization that transcend national and peculiar historical experiences. It is wrong to suppose that a principle of public administration drawn from the context of one nation could be adopted or made to work with equal success in another. Thus ecology of public administration constrains the development of principles of public administration that have universal validity.

Public administration cannot be a science because there are no exact and universally recognized principles of public administration as they are always affected by the circumstance of time, place, social set up and other environmental factors.

Scholars who contend that public administration is a science argue that even though the science in public administration studies cannot claim the precision and refinement of the natural science. It needs to be noted that the identifying mark of science is its method of study which is painstakingly accuracy in identification of a problem, in the formulation of hypothesis, in observation and collection of data, in the classification of these data into various categories, in a systematic analysis or verification data, in developing generalization in the form of rules, theories, thesis and laws based on analysis.

The Growth of Public Administration

The art of governance and administration have been an essential feature of human society since man emerged from the most primitive form of association and it has been growing in proportion with the increasing functions of government.

As societies evolve through the band groups, classical segmentation, primitive communalism, the slave society, the feudal society and the capitalist society, trends and patterns of the attendant public administration have continued to evolve and to change in scope and complexity at given point in time reflecting the state of social, political and economic affairs prevailing in those times.

The art of public administration in pre-modern societies like in the primitive communalism, the slave society and the feudal society was a simple and straight forward affair. There was no complex system of revenue or debt and property to manage and public or private organization to regulate.

Government then confined its activities mainly to the maintenance of law and order. Over the years, however, the scope of government activities increased and consequently the scope of public administration. This increase in governmental function is consequent upon some important factors.

First demands made upon government are growing enormously and constantly. Thus necessitating more administrative agencies, more officials and employees and more urgent demand for skills in administration

Second, and consequent upon the first, there has become shift from the initial simple function of the government maintaining law and order to that of involvement comprehensive social and economic development.

Indeed, this has become necessary in view of the increase in urbanization and industrialization, the significant advancement in science and technology, population explosion, increase in natural calamities, decline in social harmony and escalation of violence due to communal riots, ethnic wars and religious uprisings.

The result of the developments are that government administration now covers distributive, redistributive, regulatory activities and extends the manufacture and supply of goods and services, the management of national wealth and the provision of social welfare service and security.

(Ogbuene 2011) specifically notes the increase in government functions and the subsequent expansion in the scope of public administration thus:

The activities of modern government have continued to expand in the face of an increasing complex and intricate political system from the remote provision of security and maintenance of law and order to economic development and wealth creation, redistribution of wealth, development of agriculture and industries, continual improvement in health education and sports and building a respectable image in the international system.

As the society develops and become more complex and the scale of operation increases as the objectives compound. Given this, public administration becomes more dynamic and problems solving oriented.

The above factors have led to increasing specialization and as a result have led to the emergence of commissions, councils, departments, bureau, and public corporation to attend to clearly defined functions of government.

Consequently, various kind of skills and professional expertise like teachers, doctors, auditors, accountants, engineers, lawyers, economist, geographers, urban planners among other have emerged to manage public organizations and carry out these various and specialized service effectively and efficiently.

Today, the administrative process has attained such high significance that an academic discipline called public administration is widely studied in schools, universities, colleges of education and polytechnics. So also is increasing attention being given to the training of administrative personnel as government activities get more complex, expansive, sophisticated and civilized.

Public administration has become the heart of modern civilization and this means that if public administration fails the entire structure of modern society and civilization would collapse. This is seen to be so because of the vital roles of public administration in acting as a stabilizing force in the society both in times of constitutional and revolutionary changes of government and in undertaking of the task of carrying out social, economic, cultural and political changes in a planned and orderly manner.

The future of civilized world and civilization itself depends on the existence and development of public administration competent enough to discharge efficiently and effectively the required development of civilized society.


  1. In federal system of government, public administration provides the main unifying factor, since the recruitment of higher civil servants reflects federal character.
  2. The higher public servants, sometimes acts as the custodian of public conscience.
  3. Public Service has the traditional function of initiating public policy and advising government on the full implication of policy option to it.
  4. The public service is regards as the thinking arm of government.
  5. Through public administration, government activities and functions are provided to the people.


  • The Civil Service: Civil Service is made up of government ministries and departments. It is manned mainly by civil servants.
  • Autonomous Government Agencies: these agencies are established by the government but they are independent in their mode of operation, e.g. Federal Civil Service Commission, Independent Electoral Commission, National Population Commission, Police Service Commission etc.
  • Advisory Government Bodies: these are the bodies that provide information and advice to the government. Examples are National Defense Council, National Economic Council, and National Security Council etc.
  • Administrative Tribunals: these are governmental bodies with quasi judicial functions. They are commonly established to adjudicate in matters affecting individual rights and entitlements in the areas of employment, welfare provision, as well as rental accommodation.


  1. The Legislative Control: the role of legislature in controlling public administration cannot be over-emphasized. This is because of the privileged position they have occupied as the people’s representatives and also the authority they have to make laws that affect the operation of administration.
  2. The Executive Control: the executive is one of the organs of government responsible for law implementation. The main role of the executive in public administration is to issue instructions and directives which should be carried out by those in public administration. This means that they control civil servants through amendment or over-ruling their actions or decisions
  3. Judicial Control: since judiciary has its primary function as the interpretation of the laws, it has much influence in the controlling of public administration through issuing mandamus, certiorari, claims for damages and also through court injunctions to prevent workers from taking certain actions.
  4. Internal Machinery Control: public administration is controlled through internal machinery which is inherent in the service. This is done through self regulatory means within the administrative structure itself that aimed at internal co-ordination, self discipline and recognition of hierarchical structure that exists in public administration.
  5. The Clientele Control: public administration can be controlled by some groups such as the members of political parties, the members of pressure groups through criticism, radio and television announcement, Newspaper write ups, magazines, as well as through protests and demonstrations.

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