What is the right thing to do? Listen.

by Shea Robison

Idaho State University

As an administrator, and as a person, what is the source for good action in this world?  On the surface, this appears to be a sophistic or obtuse philosophical question, but it is a question that actually lies at the heart of not just public administration, but of living in the world itself: Not only how are we to administrate well, but also how are we to live well in this world?

Both acting and living well in this world are reasonably premised upon our actions coinciding with the true operation of the world as it actually is, or that our knowledge of the world accurately guides our actions.  The problem with such an approach in public administration is that, as evidenced by the long and ongoing history of the academic study of public administration, we do not have any such access to the Truth about the world of administration as it actually is – other than at best we only partially or contingently understand the world of administration.  The same state of affairs holds equally for the world at large, especially in ethical terms; for all the scientific knowledge we may have gained about our world through physics or genetics, for example, even these areas have unanswered questions and significant theoretical blindspots, and the tentative knowledge we do have does not of itself provide any clear-cut ethical prescriptions.  In the end, we are still left with the question of how are we to know to act and to live well in this world.

According to Michel Foucault’s close reading of the Western canon, there are two primary modalities in Western thought for living truthfully, what Foucault refers to as “Platonism” and “Cynicism,” or belief in an ideal world upon which our present world is derived versus belief that the world we are in is the only world there is.  In “The Courage to Listen: Government, Truth-Telling, and Care of the Self,” the authors rely on Michel Foucault’s rendering of these two primary modalities to suggest the latter as the proper orientation for both ethical (or ‘right’) administration and ethical living.  The authors contrast the otherworldly Platonic ‘care of the soul’ with the Cynical or Socratic ‘care of the self’ as distinguished by their emphases on the source of knowledge – Platonic knowledge is exclusive and timeless and apart from existence, while Cynical knowledge “focuses on the unique contours of material existence and sees truth as manifested through that very existence.”

The authors identify the application of this care of the self as applied to public administration through the practice of parresia, or truth-telling, first through the “questioning and testing of one’s way of life and relationship to oneself,” and second through the social practice of speaking freely in public.  In both cases, the key practice as identified by the authors is that of listening.  In the first case, the administrator listens to himself or herself in the context of his or her surroundings as the means for determining right action; in the second, through listening the administrator fosters free dialog among the parties involved in their area of administration as the means for discovering right administrative action.

This combination of personal and public listening is similar to the concept of public administration as a Nietzschean Joyful Science I have written about in a previous post.  In both approaches, the vocation of public administration is not separated from one’s actual life but rather both are intertwined in a process of personal and public realization.  The objective in both is not to divine the fundamental principles of administration, but rather to discover those principles which apply best in the perpetual process of becoming that is public administration.  Also, in both the Foucauldian and Nietzschean approaches the social and the personal depend upon one another, as personal listening and realization depends as much upon the social context for guidance as the ethical development of the public sphere depends upon persons who are engaged in this active process of personal listening.


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).