Public Administration as a Joyful Science


Shea Robison

Idaho State University

Public administration is ultimately a means to impose order on a world that defies ordering.  The institution of government is an attempt to establish order and control over the world at large, and public administration is one of the primary means through which government attempts to exert this control.  This control is generally assumed as given in most theories and models of public administration – as manifest primarily in the relative lack of questioning or testing of this assumption of control.  However, that the history of the field of public administration has been wave after wave of different ‘solutions’ to this problem of control without consolidation is evidence enough that this assumption of consistent control is unfounded.

Acknowledging this lack of control would seem to call into serious doubt the utility or necessity of public administration as a field or a practice, which is why it is so assiduously avoided within the field.  I propose, though, that finally accepting this actual lack of control actually strengthens the field of public administration.  From this acceptance emerges a much stronger practical justification for the study and practice of public administration based on ideas elaborated by Friedrich Nietzsche in his book Die Froliche Wissenschaft, or The Joyful Science (1887),[1] in which Nietzsche recommends the constant search for an uneasy balance between an inherently subjective but life-affirming artistry versus the demythologizing systematization of science which can become life-denying if taken too far.  This new justification, though, requires a fundamental reconceptualization of both the role and the purpose of public administrators, as well as a revaluation of the field of public administration.

As mentioned before, owing to currents both within and outside the academic study of public administration, different approaches to public administration have been en vogue at different times, only to be surpassed by the next movement.  Some of these movements in roughly chronological order have been: Wilsonian calls for a depoliticized and efficient public administration (Wilson, 1887), the reductionism of scientific management (Taylor, 1911) and the POSDCORB approach to administration (Gulick, 1937; Lindblom, 1959, 1979), the formalistic of theories of organizational behavior, as typified by the work of Herbert Simon (1947),the emergence of New Public Administration premised upon recognition of the value-ladenness of public administration (Waldo, 1948),the free market-inspired New Public Management movement with its return to an emphasis on formalized efficiency combined with – at least in theory – an enhanced provision of services (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992), and the recent emergence of postmodern and post-structural critiques and recommendations (Fox and Miller, 1995), and other orientations which emphasize the historicity of institutions, the decentralization of power (Peters and Pierre, 1998; Frissen, 1999), networks of interconnectedness, and the multiplicity of perspectives.

The development of these different approaches is not as segregated as this timeline suggests, as there is significant conceptual and chronological overlap between all of these different ‘movements’ in public administration.  Still, the majority of these approaches have been the search for generalizable and objective solutions to this problem of insufficient or ineffective administrative control; even many of the postmodernist approaches often presuppose an ordering which privileges their methods as better than traditional or conventional approaches.  That this history continues, then, demonstrates that – except for the trivial or tautological details – administrative phenomena are not adequately described by any one approach, but rather are unique, irreducible, dynamic, contingent, nonlinear, and so on, except for those transient instances when they are not; otherwise, the search for solutions would have ended and the field of public administration would have moved on to consolidation.  This also means that well-prepared public administrators are those capable of recognizing and responding to the multiplicity of unique, irreducible, dynamic, contingent and nonlinear situations they will encounter.

Thus, if there are indeed a multiplicity of perspectives and no objective means to ultimately adjudicate between them, as proposed by the postmodernists (Miller, 2002; Miller and King, 1989; Wamsley and Wolf, 1996), then these modernist perspectives and methods (i.e., objectivity, top-down hierarchy, etc.)  have just as much a place in the toolkit of the well-prepared public administrator as any other.  The art of this new ‘Joyful Science’ of public administration, then, would be in recognizing the circumstances in which different tools are applicable, and in properly applying these different approaches.

Another aspect of this new Joyful public administration, as suggested by Nietzsche, is also that each administrator learn to recognize and develop his or her own unique artistic style as an administrator.  Instead of trying to remove all traces of oneself from one’s work so as to achieve an appropriately objective scientific detachment, the goal is to acknowledge and harness our individuality and inevitable subjectivity in concert with the available tools and unique administrative circumstances to create our own joyful music or art of public administration.

In this new Joyful Science, then, the history of public administration becomes neither a progressive march nor a dialectical synthesis, but rather the gradual filling of the toolbox in which the benefits and drawbacks of each new tool are elucidated through experience, and the future is open to the discovery of still other tools for an increasing number of unique circumstances.  This pragmatic perspective is not new (McSwite, 1997; Follett, 1924), but the explicit openness to all modes of knowing – especially in the acceptance of both postmodernist and modernist approaches as called for by the circumstances – may be a relatively unique addition to public administration from this Joyful Science approach to public administration.  Likewise, the explicit emphasis on the self-realization of the public administrator as an individual via his or her inevitable subjectivity balanced against the circumstances of administration as an occupation may also be a new and welcome wrinkle.

These are just a couple of the implications of this approach that remain to be worked out, but the potential for this project is quite promising.


Follett, M. P. (1924) Creative Experience. New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

Fox, C. J. & Miller, H. T. (1995) Postmodern Public Administration: Towards Discourse. London: Sage Publications.

Frissen, P. H. A. (1999) Politics, Governance and Technology: A Postmodern Narrrative on the Virtual State, New Horizons in Public Policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Gulick, L. (1937) Notes on the Theory of Organization.

Taylor, F. (1911) The Principles of Scientific Management.

Lindblom, C. (1959) The Science of “Muddling Through.” Public Administration Review 19(2.), pp. 79-88

Lindblom, C. (1979)Still Muddling, Not Yet Through.” Public Administration Review 39(6.), pp. 517-526.

McSwite, O. C. (1997) Legitimacy in Public Administration. A Discourse Analysis. London: Sage.

Miller, H. T. (2002) Postmodern Public Policy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press

Miller, H. T. & King, C. S. (1998) Practical Theory. American Review of Public Administration, 28(1), 43-60

Nietzsche, F. (1887) The Gay Science. Translated by J. Nauckhoff (2001). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Osborne, D., & Gaebler, T. (1992). Reinventing government: how the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Persky, J. (1990) Retrospectives: A Dismal Romantic. Journal of Economic Perspectives 4(4): 165-172.

Peters, B. and J. Pierre (1998) Governance Without Government Rethinking: Public Administration. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 8(2): 223-243.

Simon, H. (1947) Administrative Behavior; A study of decision-making processes in administrative organization. New York: Macmillan Co., 1947.

Snider, K. (1998) Living pragmatism: The case of Mary Parker Follett. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 20(3), 274-86

Waldo, D. (1948) The Administrative State. New York: Ronald, 1948.

Wamsley, G. L. & Wolf, J. F. (1996) Introduction: Can a high-modern project find happiness in a postmodern era? In Refounding Democratic Public Administration. Modern Paradoxes, Postmodern Challenges, ed. G. L. Wamsley & J. F. Wolf, pp. 1-37. London: SAGE.

Wilson, Woodrow. June, 1887. The Study of Administration, Political Science Quarterly 2.

[1] Following Walter Kaufmann’s influential translation, this title is usually translated as The Gay Science; but before then it was translated as Joyful Wisdom.  I have chosen to translate Froliche as “Joyful” and Wissenschaft as “Science” as this seems to more adequately capture in contemporary vernacular the sentiment Nietzsche was trying to communicate, especially as juxtaposed against Thomas Carlyle’s famous reference to economics as the “dismal science” (Persky, 1990).


Knowledge, action and democracy

For most practicing non-MPA administrators, as well as the vast majority of regular citizens, the connection between knowledge and action in contemporary administration of democratic government involves an assumption of practical knowledge about the relevant administrative duties – including knowledge of the relevant laws – which inform the appropriate administrative actions.  For these same groups of people, a knowledge of democratic principles of decisionmaking which inform democratic actions by administrators is also assumed, but more on an implicit level; democratic action is the sine qua non for acceptable public administration, and the standard according to which actions are going be judged – but typically only when these administrative actions fall under scrutiny; otherwise, efficiency and legality are the main concerns.

This expectation of practical knowledge and action in public administration is a reflection of what Cheryl Simrell King identifies as the uniquely Western fixation on rationality, or ‘means-ends’ reasoning (King, 274).  As King details, this obsession with rationality dates back to at least Descartes and the Enlightenment.  This Cartesian rationality is constituted by belief in three things: instrumental action, objectivism, and analytical means, and is manifest as the dichotomizations of self-other, mind-body, and rationality-irrationality (generally as the juxtaposition of cool reason versus hot emotion).  This rationality is preferred because of its supposed contribution to control, with the rational mind controlling that which is irrational such as “matter, nature, animals, body, emotions, and so forth” (274).  King also invokes the dichotomization of male-female as central to this rationality, with ‘male’ representing the mind and all that is prioritized as rational, and ‘female’ as being associated with all that is irrational and therefore less valued.  

As such, King recommends a feminist ethics as the proper grounding for a more valid perspective for public administration because it emphasizes a “fundamental relational aspect of the world and the self…that is nonoppositional, nonhierarchical, and nondualistic” (279), points of view which are more reflective of the actual world in which public administrators exist.  However, the insistence by King on an exclusively feminist perspective is imperialistic and unnecessary as there is nothing inherently feminist about non-conventional viewpoints which do not dichotomize the world and which propose a more relational view of the world – there are any number of perspectives which are not premised on this fundamentally gendered feminist perspective but which can likewise produce many of these same critiques as well as similar and substantially different counter-recommendations.

King identifies many of the ontological and epistemological issues from this conception of rationality, noting that the “myths” of objectivism and analytical means have been thoroughly exposed, but that the emphasis on instrumental action remains as a practically unquestioned assumption in public administration that “good means ensure good ends,” or that good decisions emerge from “reasoned and reasonable” decisionmaking processes (273).  However, as King notes, on both neurological and political levels, it is often the case that people are moved to action by the nonrational or the passionate or emotional, and so more valid theories of public administration will incorporate this inherent nonrationality.

For example, Cunningham and Weschler suggest that modern public administration theory premised upon this linear means-ends reasoning meets the needs of staff-oriented practitioners, but not the needs of line managers who operate in fluid, complex, often chaotic and emotionally charged situations.  While staff workers “enjoy working with abstract systems [and] prefer learning the necessary technical information” so they can “coast along familiar roads,” line managers “prefer working with people [and] deal with unstable environments” (106).  Thus, according to Cunningham and Weschler, for public administration theory to provide the appropriate knowledge which will lead to better decisions, more post-modern theories like those espoused above by King, which speak to the messier reality of line managers, should be taught in MPA classes.  However, this recommendation prompts questions as to the validity of this distinction between line and staff administrators, whether they are as distinct in their preferences and whether their working environments are as different as Cunningham and Weschler suggest.

Likewise, in the end it is not clear how or why the narrative-based “associational public spaces” approach advocated for by King would produce any different or better outcomes than the modernist approaches she critiques.  King suggests that because narratives are a “fundamental human activity” (285), space for agonistic deliberation needs to be created  in public administration in which proponents of all the different aspects of a public problem can come together to tell their stories.  In this space, the ‘goodness’ of these competing accounts will be determined not by their adherence to rational principles but by their coherence, or the degree to which the stories make sense, and their fidelity, or whether the story “rings true” (286).  In such a space, according to King, “competition and gamesmanship will drop away, along with hierarchy and oppositional stances… Data and facts will be recognized as only part of the story [and] power relationships will be exposed and deconstructed” (288). 

However, this approach assumes and requires that participants will come to this space with a willingness to be transparent, to not have ulterior motives, and to be understanding of the position of others.  The main issue is that if people exhibited these characteristics in the first place these associational public spaces would naturally result, but King seems to overlook the influence of the emotionality and nonrationality in these situations which invalidate the rationalistic approaches she critiques.  It is thus not clear how King’s prescription is ultimately any different from the modernist instrumental action, or how her prescription is not also just another instance of ‘good’ means ensuring ‘good’ ends.

Works Cited

King, C.S. “Talking Beyond the Rational.” American Review of Public Administration 30.3 (2000): 271-291.

Weschler, R.Cunningham and L. “Theory and the Public Administration Student/Practitioner.” Public Administration Review 62.1 (2002): 104-110.


Knowledge, power and democracy

There are a couple of ways that knowledge is related to power.  In one very basic sense, knowledge is a means to anticipate or predict outcomes so as to beneficially control those outcomes.  Knowledge comes as a result of learning; learning practically by definition assumes that comprehension is enhanced so as to allow improved performance (e.g., it would be practically nonsensical to speak of someone learning a skill in a positive sense who then performs that skill worse than before – a  person can learn bad habits but this would be learning in a negative sense, and not something to be sought after).  Ideally, knowledge as enhanced comprehension from learning leads to enhanced control over outcomes – therefore knowledge equals power.

Another way that knowledge is related to power is in the determination about what is worthwhile or valid to learn and what is not.  As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, in perhaps one of the most seemingly obvious observations in the history of philosophy, “the world is everything that is the case.”  But Wittgenstein then immediately followed this observation with the more nuanced declaration that “the world is the totality of facts, not of things.”  By this Wittgenstein indicated that as we can have no unmediated or pure experience of the world, any experience we do have of the world is not of the things in this world themselves but rather of our filtered representations of those things, which we organize into constructs we call facts.  Unless one is positing a transcendental spiritual faculty of pure perception, this mediation is the case in purely physical terms (i.e., our brains only experience the world as electrical impulses from our sensory organs), and intellectually (if our brains experience the world through secondhand representations, any subsequent theorizing about this world is necessarily built on these representations).  Because we have no unmediated perception of the world, all we have to work with in explaining this world are ‘clouds’ of facts.  These clouds of facts can be arranged into any number of possible patterns.  Which patterns of facts are accepted as being more representative of the world, and therefore worthy of learning for the reasons cited above, depends on many factors beyond alleged correspondence with the unmediated world.  As pure correspondence of facts with things can never be known with certainty, authoritative facts are determined by power relations between different actors; these power relations will be premised upon different factors in different contexts.

This is where theories of ontology become so important, as different ontological beliefs will interpret a given pattern of facts in significantly different ways.  Margaret Stout (2012) provides a primer of different ontologies, arranged in a 2×2 matrix categorized by what is the source of being and whether the expression of that source is static or dynamic.  From this matrix, Stout identifies four major ontological positions: Undifferentiated Individual, Differentiated Individual, Undifferentiated Relational, and Differentiated Relational.  Stout first links each of these ontological positions to distinct political forms (Classical Conservatism, Modern Liberalism, Socialism, and Postmodernism, respectively), and then to different theories of public administration based on these different ontological commitments.

In the context of public administration, Robert Denhardt (1981) proposes a critical theory of public organization, as distinct from the conventional rationalistic and positivistic instrumentalist theories which dominate the field.  These traditional theories, in both the natural and social sciences, describe the world through sets of propositions linked together by logical necessity.  These conventional theories are premised primarily upon the Differentiated Individual ontology identified by Stout, which holds that individual identities (i.e., people, instances, cases, etc.) are fixed with static properties which can be measured.  The identification and measurement of these static differences and similarities between instances constitutes scientific knowledge, and the application of this knowledge constitutes learning.

Through reference to Max Horkheimer and Jurgen Habermas in particular, Denhardt identifies how this scientific method serves specific interests and needs, “first in the control of nature, but later in the control of human beings” (629).  Habermas identifies this “purposive-rational” method of creating knowledge as intrinsically instrumental, specifically for the solution of means-ends problems.  Politically, this instrumental scientific rationality results in a narrowing of the public sphere – or the arena in which society establishes its normative agendas – to those problems which are amenable to scientific measurement.  Administratively, public management becomes a technical field premised upon the securing of predictable outcomes through scientific measurement, which in turn results in the “depoliticization of the citizenship” (631) which may not have problems which are measureable in this way.

According to Denhardt, by limiting ourselves to these measurable facts and manifest behaviors, “we implicitly endorse the social conditions which have created those facts and those behaviors,” and, in the process, “the supposedly objective analyst becomes a political actor, working in behalf of the status quo” (633).  Hence the need for critical theories of public administration which instead of controlling people “seeks to assist people in determining their true needs” through open communication (634).  For Denhardt, per Habermas, the outcomes of this decentralized critical public administration will be more democratic, and therefore better, than conventional scientific public administration.

These conclusions, however admirable, rest upon the assumption that more democracy is inherently better.  However, unless this assumption is simply accepted by fiat, it is unclear how or why democratization is either a natural outcome of openness or inherently good.  For example, Denhardt equates the democratization of social relationships – which occurs at the collective level – with the realization of “the true needs of the individual” (634), though without providing explanations for why this connection between levels necessarily holds.  As likely as the full realization of the individual is to result from this democratization, it also seems just as likely that different majorities would coalesce which would stifle individual expressions which do not coincide with the inclinations of these new majorities.  This concern for the tyranny of the majority was one of the main concerns of the Framers of the Constitution, and is not as easily resolved as assumed by Denhardt, Habermas, and so many others.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, and C. K. Ogden. Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. Mineola, N Y.: Dover Publications, 1999.

Denhardt, Robert B. “Toward a Critical Theory of Public Organization.” Public Administration Review 41.6 (1981): 628.

Stout, Margaret. “Competing Ontologies: A Primer for Public Administration.” Public Administration Review 72.3 (2012): 388-98.