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Philosophies of Modern Political Thinkers in the Field of Public Administration

Philosophies of Modern Political Thinkers in the Field of Public Administration

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


October 23, 2020

Thanks to Taiwo Olanrewaju-Lasisi, a 2020 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

The thoughts and writings of many modern political thinkers have rallied around the mechanistic and humanistic view of the field of public administration. Diverse approaches have been applied to the theoretical and practical views of modern administration. Considering the mechanistic and humanistic views of these scholars and philosophers, different ideologies, concepts and opinions have welled up in the field, and have influenced and impacted upon the theories and praxis in various academic institutions, business organizations, governmental agencies and the general public. The peculiarities of diverse countries’ political systems have also determined the adoption of certain ideologies in the field.

Many nations, such as the United States and Nigeria, who practice representative democracies and bureaucracies have mixed applications of these ideologies and concepts such as egalitarianism, expertise, pluralism, and republicanism, all coming together to make the nations what they are today. Although some of these concepts are old and can be epistemologically traced back to the writings of ancient philosophers, modern public administration scholars have built upon these concepts, and some even developed new concepts from them, which are relevant in the field today.

Frederick Winslow Taylor
The first modern philosopher of focus is Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor’s principles of the Scientific Management considers “workers as machines”, and lay emphases on the close monitoring and controlling of workers as an important factor to attaining efficiency (Taylor, 1915). He also promotes the concept of hierarchical control in modern humanities and public administration. In the context of public administration, this stresses the need for lower level bureaucrats to receive instructions from higher level bureaucrats in order to attain efficiency. In this regard, Taylor’s scientific management theory emphasized following rules and principles, which implies the strict adherence to procedures and guidelines in governmental bureaucracies. In the bid of attaining efficiency and effectiveness, bureaucratic organizations have to develop rigid structures, formal rules and procedures which government workers adhere to in the discharge of their responsibilities.

Considering the adherence to formal rules, which makes a responsible public administrator, there has been a huge debate in the post-modernist views of public administration on whether the bureaucrat responsibilities of following the due processes and the strict adherence to procedures in the discharge of their administrative duties is the only measure for effectiveness and efficiency in the public domain. Although, responsibility is often lauded to be the very essence of bureaucratic professionalism, studies have shown that practicing responsiveness through the development of skillful listening amplifies the humane aspects of the bureaucrats because through listening, bureaucrats are exposed to and are able to comprehend better the needs of the citizens, and with the use of their discretion, integrate these needs in their policies and further implement them. This attribute of listening further increases public approval and reduces the tension between administrative effectiveness and democratic accountability since they are responsible for and to the public. These humanities concepts, by implication, show that bureaucratic organizations have to be less rigid and more open in order to effect amendments in their policies and procedures. However, they must also apply the use of discretion in ensuring that such flexibility does not distort their professionalism in the discharge of their responsibilities, which are embedded in their administrative rules and procedures.

Robert Dahl
Another political thinker whose philosophies have impacted the humanities field very broadly is Robert Dahl. He suggests that citizens have “unhindered opportunities” and are considered as “political equals”, which he considered as important to any democratic government. This can be likened to the theory of democratic administration in the social science field today. Waldo, a proponent of democratic administration in social sciences, views democratic administration theory as a system of government that “promotes ethical and moral values such as, fairness, justice, liberty, civil rights, universal suffrage, equality before the law in the discharge of their administrative responsibilities with an ideology of “continuing responsiveness.” This corroborates well to Dahl’s propositions.

In his works, Dahl coined “polyarchy or pluralism”, which describes a form of government where power is concentrated in the hands of many elites. This suggests what is described as citizen governance in contemporary public administration, where there is continuing participation of the citizens not only in political activities such as voting (citizen’s activities), but also in governmental decision making. This idea in the post-modern movement of public administration accounts for flexibility, with an argument that increased access should be given by the government to the citizens in the participation of actual political service-forums. These intermediations between the government and the citizens have, in the current day humanities and political sphere, increased citizens’ satisfaction and trust in their government.

Nonetheless, citizens’ socioeconomic status has a great impact on their level of participation both in citizen activities and citizen governance. One article titled “Can citizen governance redress the representative bias of political participation?”, found that measures of political participation such as voting, active form of involvement citizen contracting and group membership, are skewed towards those with high income, those who are employed and those with more years of education, which creates a form of representation bias and side lining in political participation. There are also informal networks that determine and influence who asks who to join and engage in civic participation, and those with high socio-economic status tend to recruit individuals similar to themselves, which facilitates socioeconomic bias. Deductively, Dahl’s explanation of the “polyarchy” seems to be evident in the participation of many elites in governmental service-based forums in the praxis and practicalities of public administration today. Equal participation implies a more even representation and would incorporate diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Such diversity can be achieved through the recruitment of members by professionals and bureaucrats who can be rather neutral in their selection and ask diverse citizens to get involved.

Dahl, R. (1971). A.(1989): Democracy and its Critics. New Haven.
Dahl, R. (1989). A. 1971. Polyarchy: Participation and opposition.
John, P. (2009). “Can citizen governance redress the representative bias of political
participation?” Public Administration Review, 69(3), 494-503.
Mohr, L. B. (1994). “Authority in organizations: On the reconciliation of democracy and
expertise.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 4(1), 49-66.
Papesh, M.E. (1998). “Frederick Winslow Taylor”. University of St. Francis. Archived from
the original on April 9, 2008. Retrieved May 4, 2008.
Stivers, C. (1994). “The listening bureaucrat: Responsiveness in public administration.”
Public Administration Review, 364-369.

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