The approaches to studying public administration can be divided into normative and empirical approaches. The normative approach of public administration concentrates on what public administration should be. The empirical approach focuses on the description and analysis of actual administrative Situations.

Another classification of approaches to the study of public administration builds upon the objects of study the individual scholar seeks to emphasize, such as;

  1. Philosophical Approach
  2. Legal Approach
  3. Historical Approach
  4. Scientific Approach
  5. Case Method Approach
  6. Institutional Approach
  7. Behavioural Approach
  8. The Consensus Approach
  9. Structural Approach
  10. Systems Approach
  11. Ecological Approach

Philosophical Approach

The Philosophical approach takes within its purview all aspects of administrative activities. Its goal is to find out and enunciate the principles or ideals underlying these activities. This approach is found in John Locke’s Treatise on Civil Government, Plato’s Republic, Hobbes Leviathan etc. The philosophical approach is perhaps the oldest approach to public administration as of all other social sciences.

Legal Approach

The legal approach is systematically formulated and traces its origin in the European tradition of rooting public administration in law.

Public administration was considered to be a part of the law, concentrating on the legally prescribed structure and organization of Public authorities. This approach was formed at a time when the functions of the state were narrowly limited and simple. The legal or juristic method is mostly used in France, Germany, and Belgium. These countries have a long tradition of administrative law. Administrative law is an essential branch of Public law. It is conceived in quite broad terms to include the organization and functions of public authorities and the problem of their correlation, powers, and responsibilities. Public administration is considered to be a part of administrative law, and as such, it is studied in the legal framework.

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Historical Approach

The historical approach to the study of public administration seeks to recreate a segment of history. It studies public administration of the past with a particular period, organizing and interpreting the information in chronological order. This approach naturally commands a powerful attraction in a society having a rich history and can be valuable in identifying the uniqueness of the administrative system.

Scientific Approach

Public administration, like many other social sciences, uses the inductive method of proceeding from particular to general through observation for collecting the data, classification of data, and verification of the hypotheses. The scientific management movement gave a great fillip to the use of this method in the development of effective techniques of organization and management and budgeting and supply. Although the study of public administration has now passed off the stage of scientific management, many activities of the office management, accounting, and control of material and supply are still determined on the scientific principles. Measurement of work, time and motion studies, workflow charts, cost accounting, and opinion sampling and polls are the techniques based on the scientific and technical methods for solving administrative problems.

Case Method Approach

A case is a narration of what has actually taken place in the administration, keeping, in fact, the context and all relevant dimensions. The case method approach is a sensitive one, seeking as it does to reconstruct the administrative realities and gives students a flavour of the administrative process.

The case method for the study of public administration began to be popularized in the thirties. The case method has come to stay in public administration but cannot become the dominant approach. In public administration, the case study is essentially a historical method. It is a method in which an administrative decision on any given question or issue is made the focal point for historical exposition. It aims to point out what factors or considerations-political, economic, personal, or any other, influence the decision of the administrator and also to know the process of decision or policy-making. The case presented to the student in the file on monograph comprises every possible aspect of the situation. It is best presented as a running account embodying explanations of various procedures as they occur concerning the circumstances; it provides the student with indications concerning the legislative and institutional framework within which the problem to be solved by the administrative agencies arises.

It also, wherever possible, contains notes to help the analyst understand the psychological background, the characters of the people who took part in the case, the tensions among the staff of the administrative organization concerned, and other factors. The account as a whole is intended to reconstruct and explain the greatest number of identifiable factors, the initiation, procedure, and conclusion of the operation concerned, and more especially, the process of formalizing the administrative decision. The case histories are prepared with the help of relevant documents and files, inquiries, and interviews with officers concerned and all other sources of the case.

Public Administration and Policy Administration,’ published by the inter-university case program of the United States, was a pioneering use of this technique. Following this, several national institutes of public administration of various countries have launched their study program. Early in the sixties, the Indian Institute of Public Administration (I.I.P.A) brought out three books on case studies the I.I.P.A and the National Academy of Administration have prepared about eighty case studies in mammography form for their training use. The I.I.P.A recently published four more volumes of its case studies.

One of these limitations is that re-living another person’s life through case studies never succeeds. Secondly, the most significant part of a decision is its agony; one cannot re-live the agony of anxiety and put himself in another individual’s position.

Institutional Approach

This approach to the study of public administration is the oldest, and in terms of number, it has the largest following. But it is the least homogenous of all public administration schools as it includes its protagonists, teachers, and research workers with varied training, ranging from political scientists to specialists in scientific management techniques. Since the fifties of the last century, there has been a shift in this approach. Although the study has retained its institutional character, the policy administration dichotomy has been disqualified after being found too hasty. More attention is now being given to the normative aspects of public administration, and administration is being viewed as an element in political theory and the accepted political values, Scholars like John. M. Gaus and Paul H Appleby of this school have frankly given up the technical view of public administration, and they approach public administration from a broad political standpoint.

Behavioural Approach

This approach examines public administration by studying individual and collective human behaviour in the administrative situation. It brings to bear upon administrative problems an inter-disciplinary approach that includes sociology, individual and social psychology, and cultural anthropology.

According to Herbert Simon, decision-making is the most important activity of administration. Human beings who work in an organization have aspirations and desires. Their behaviour is conditioned by their psychology, motives, and social environment. The administrative science should study these facts of behavior without getting involved in the question of ‘values’.

In this method, a new approach is followed by comparing the behavioural pattern of public administration in different countries. This comparative method has been used in studying the contemporary system of government and administration. The behavioral science and the case study approach have impacted a distinct shift in the techniques of the comparative approach in which the normative study of comparative administration merged gradually into the empirical and explanatory writings on different administrative systems. The recent trend is towards a nomothetic approach, whereas earlier, it was towards an ideographic approach. The ideographic approach showed interest in concrete situations, case studies, area information, and particular facts, while the present emphasis is on theory or testable propositions which assert regularities of behavior and correlation between variables. The new trend involves a greater interest in environmental factors as they interact with public administration. It is now realized that these factors are conditioned by governmental behavior. Hence their study is an essential part of the study of public administration.

The Consensus Approach

The principles of public administration were developed as devices to achieve efficiency. This efficiency-oriented approach, coupled with the anti-patronage movement, was strengthened by the view that policy-making and policy implementation are two different things. Policy-determining was considered to be a field of politics, and policy implementation was the field of administration.

It is now accepted that the administration is involved in policy formulation also. It is now wrong to say that policies can be formulated without the advice or assistance of administrative staff. The whole theory of delegated legislation’ disproved the dichotomy between politics and administration.

According to Appleby,” Public administration is policy-making. It is not autonomous, exclusive, or isolated policy-making. It is policy-making in a field where mighty forces contend-forces engendered in any society. Further, public administration cannot be fruitfully studied apart from its political and social setting.

The Structural Approach

It is Concentrated on the description of the administrative structure of the government bodies. This approach emphasizes the study of POSDCORB techniques of administration. But, the administrative structure and techniques cannot be studied without proper reference to the environment in which public administration is working as well as the human factor.

According to the scientific management approach, the problems of public administration should be studied by the methods and spirit of science.

Taylor concentrated on the work methods, machines, and materials. He was concerned with the questions of mechanical efficiency. Scientific management taking efficiency as the objective, views administration as a technical problem concerned basically with the division of labor and specialization of functions. This approach is considered defective because it ignores the human elements in administration.

Systems Approach

This approach considers the organization as a social system to be studied in totality. A system is seen as an assembly of interdependent parts (sub-systems) who interact among themselves. Individuals are the basic unit of organizational systems. All human organizations are open sub-systems engaged in transactions within the larger social system, that is, society. All sub-systems receive inputs in the form of humans and materials from the larger system while giving out output in the form of products or services to its members and the larger social system.

Herbert Simon is the chief contributor to system analysis in organizational theory. Simon views the organization as a total system, a composite of all the sub-systems that produce the desired output. His basic assumption is that the elements of organizational structure and function emanate from the characteristics of human problem-solving processes and rational choice. (Simon & March 1959:169). 

Hence, the organization is viewed as a system comprising individuals making choices and behaving based on their reactions to their needs and environment.

The system approach is particularly relevant to the study of the large public organization operating in larger social, political, and economic environments. West Churchman draws attention to the following considerations concerning the system approach to management:

  • The system’s total objectives and the system’s performance measures.
  • The system’s environment acts as a constraint.
  • The system’s resources are put to use in performance.
  • The system’s components and its goals and activities.
  • The management of the system (Churchman 1968)

Many scholars have conceived the organization as a socio-technical system comprising both the social and technical variables.

Miller and Rice observe,” any enterprise may be seen as an open system which has characteristics in common with a biological organism. An open system exists and can exist only by exchanging materials with its environment. It imports materials, transforms them using conversion processes, consumes the products of conversion for internal maintenance, and exports the rest. These import-conversion-export processes are the enterprise’s work if it is to live. (Miller & Rice 1976:3)

This approach is now widely used in organizational analysis. It can take into account more variables and

interrelationships while looking at an organizational problem in the framework of a larger system.

Ecological Approach

The ecological approach assumes that administrative behavior is peculiarly moulded by the values of the administrative culture in which it functions. The administrative culture, in turn, is an outgrowth of the interaction of values and traits of the administrative system with the social system as a whole. Through Reflections of Public Administration (1945), John Gaus introduced the ecological perspective in public administration. He related government functions to the environment comprising of people, situations, scientific technology, social technology, ideas, wishes, and personality. (Gaus 1947)

Organizations, structures, procedures, and goals are created and changed as a result of the interaction between an organization and its environment. For an organization to survive must adapt itself to the changing needs and conditions of its external environment, which is continuously changing. Fred Riggs is the foremost exponent of the ecological approach in public administration.

He constructed two important models –“Agraria-transitia-industria” and “fused-prismatic-diffràcted” to explain the interactions between administration and environment. (Riggs 1964). His ecological model emphasizes an open system perspective that attempts to describe and analyze the interaction between the administrative sub-system and the wider social system.

The merit of this approach lies in the value and relevance of studying people concerning their environment, taking into consideration their peculiar characteristics and problems. Public cooperation is a vital input for the successful operation of any administrative system. Every popular, efficient, and democratic administration must be ecological in character and approach.

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