What is Public Administration? History, Impact, and Theories

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Public administration encompasses various administrative services that help strengthen and support societies through nonprofit, local, state, and federal governmental roles. It covers labor relations and ethics, legislative relations, public policy management, financial management, and public budgetary processes.

Overall, this public service involves the management of organizations associated with social, economic, and political life. Here’s a history of public administration and how it’s grown into the vital system it is today.

History of public administration

Early Developments

Public administration has evolved throughout history as nations have established stronger relationships between their governments and people. The field’s origins date back to ancient societies like Egypt and Rome, when public affairs were organized by office.

For example, the Romans created distinct administrative hierarchies for military affairs, justice, finance and taxation, and foreign affairs, each operated by its own principal officer of the state.

Modern Systems

Our contemporary understanding of it traces back to 17th and 18th century Prussia. This is when the Prussian government started selecting and managing civil servants. These officials would administer the providences according to the rules of the sovereign kings of Prussia.

Interestingly enough, the educational path that many present-day public administrators take is similar to these civil servants. Those interested in entering Prussia’s higher civil service were required to have a university degree in cameralistics — the science of public finance. This degree included the study of police administration, administrative law, agricultural economics, and estate management. 

During the French Revolution, civil servants became instruments of public power, rather than the regime of the time, and were responsible for maintaining health, public order, and mortality.

The establishment of public administration, or specifically a merit system, in the United States dates back to the early 20th century. Yet it wasn’t until the Great Depression (and more so during World War II) that human relations, economic planning, and policymaking became essential facets of the field.

How does public administration affect my life?

Public administration refers to implementing and managing policies, programs, and services by governmental organizations at various levels. It plays a significant role in influencing and shaping aspects of society, including the lives of individuals. Ways that this field can affect your life include:

Advocacy and public awareness

Public administrators act as support to individuals in need and ensure that they have a voice in the policymaking process. They also develop strategies that encourage communities to make use of the services that policies provide. This includes interfacing directly with the public to explain regulations and policies.

Turning policy into reality

Public administrators are involved in all stages of the policy cycle to make sure that policies are efficiently implemented. These stages include planning, developing, executing, and monitoring.

Conformity and regulation of laws

These officials establish regulations of laws and standards, such as business practices, environmental regulations, public health, and consumer protection. Public administrators make sure that there are fair, safe, and ethical practices in the private and public sectors. Overall, they’re doing so to look out for community members, employees, and consumers.

Developing the economy

Public administrators in economic planning and development agencies formulate policies that foster economic growth, attract investments, and create employment opportunities. For example, these policies may focus on areas such as monetary and fiscal policies, investment promotion, and industry regulation.

Public administration agencies offer support services to businesses, providing incentives, and streamlining investment procedures. They also facilitate international trade by promoting exports, reducing trade barriers, and negotiating trade agreements.

Through public-private partnerships (PPPs), this public service collaborates with the public and private sectors. Public administrators are essentially the “middleman” in these partnerships. They leverage private sector resources and expertise and ensure public sector accountability and oversight.

Public administration theory

Public administration theory discusses the significance of government, the function of bureaucracy in supportive democratic governments, public affairs, and budgets.

After former President Woodrow Wilson wrote “The Study of Administration” in 1887, three branches of public administration theory evolved, namely:

1. Classical Public Administration Theory

This theory closely aligns with Woodrow Wilson’s public administration ideals. The Classical Public Administration Theory prioritizes efficiency in organizational work, professionalization, a pragmatic approach to bureaucracy, and merit-based promotions. The classical system includes a strict definition of responsibilities and objectives and control over all involved functions.

Since the 1980s, the classical system has been rejected by governments in favor of a market-based model of public organization.

2. New Public Management Theory

In the 1980s, the New Public Management Theory (NPM) was created to make the civil service more efficient. To do so, it utilized private-sector management models. Giving local agencies more freedom in how they delivered services to citizens, the theory experimented with using decentralized service delivery models.

Advocates of NPM look to replace the disciplinary, academic, or moral emphasis of traditional public administration with a more “businesslike” perspective.

3. Postmodern Public Administration Theory

The Postmodern Public Administration Theory alludes to the inner workings of every government entity, as it’s linked to the capitalist model of the late 20th and 21st centuries.

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Degrees to work in public administration

If you’re interested to work in this field, some degrees that you may consider earning include:


  • Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
  • Bachelor of Arts in Social Work
  • Bachelor of Arts in Sociology
  • Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning


  • Master of Public Policy
  • Master of Science in Human Services
  • Master of Science in Nonprofit Management
  • Ph.D. in Public Policy

Keep in mind that colleges and universities may offer programs tailored to a certain concentration. For example, while some programs may focus on public policy, others may teach homeland security or public health management. PLNU’s Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration program is one of the few fully-online programs that include a budgets and grants writing course.

While the focus of these degrees may vary, students in these programs are likely to take similar core courses. Overall, they will learn about legal issues, financial management, ethics, research organizational behavior, public administration theory, and analysis. 

Public administration careers

Individuals who work in this civil service typically work in governmental or nonprofit roles. The government roles involve arranging, managing, and supervising the public sectors that regulate community laws and statutes.

On the other hand, roles in nonprofit organizations focus on providing personalized services to a target audience. This is because they mediate between community members and local governments.

Common jobs in this field include:

  • Nonprofit organization executive director
  • Public administration consultant
  • Urban planner
  • City manager
  • Community health specialist

If you’re curious to learn about other career options, check out the top 10 careers in public administration.

Since you can perform diverse tasks within this field, a wide range of job opportunities are available. Public administrators can work in industries such as:

  • Government
  • Education
  • Social services
  • Communications
  • Business

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If you’re interested in making a positive impact in your community, check out PLNU’s B.A. in Public Administration program.

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