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.


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