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).


4 thoughts on “Public Administration as a Joyful Science

  1. The ability of administrators to develop a well stocked, diverse toolbox is essential for successful management. The use of Taylor’s scientific approach may be equivalent to a rusty old screwdriver, but may be critical to repairing a very specific challenge within an agency.

    There often seems to be a “new” theory on how to best practice public administration, but I would agree that it is wise to utilize a variety of modern and historic theories as each seems to have a valuable component to contribute.

  2. This is great Shea, will you be addressing your own tool box of theories or how to have one that is best for the changing world of public administration. I will looking forward to reading about this Joyful science.

  3. rperotto says:

    I like the idea of differing ontologies as a tool kit from which to pick and use as needed. It helps me to better understand the importance of learning about different theories and how they have developed and how others have interpreted them. I think about how there are so many different perspectives to choose from that represent the world in differing and varying ways. The use of modernism and postmodernism as well as other theories can be helpful in understanding the world in greater depth.

    An individual may not be able to fully comprehend another’s view or walk a mile in their shoes but it doesn’t hurt to attempt to see the world as others do. In the process of seeing the world as others do and attempting to address pertinent issues as others might it expands a person’s knowledge base. It doesn’t mean they have to whole-heartedly accept everything that they hear or learn but to figure out underlying values in the decision making and implementation process. To deconstruct theories or ontologies does not suggest that you throw the baby out with the bath water but it allow you to see how things such as institutions and individuals function and why they function the way they do and if there might be ways in which to improve something that has not or is not functioning the way it should.
    I enjoyed reading your prospectus. Very thought provoking for me.

  4. Hi Shea-
    I really like your take on the study of public administration. I agree with the statement you quoted from Nietzsche “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” and “the gradual filling of the toolbox.”

    I think that by making these 2 points, it reminded me of the ontological values and thoughts each of us have, and how we each see and react to a different version of reality or rationality. This would be a very important area of research, so people can be aware that they do not need to constantly try to discredit or disprove other research necessarily, but would instead be allowed to pick and choose those areas of that particular research which was meaningful to them.

    Really great start, Shea, very interesting topic and I like the flow of your paper. I will be interested to read your completed paper!


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