Organizational theory in public administration

Organizational theory in public administration

The thematic evolution of organizational theory is yet another way one might capture the development of the field. Modern public sector organizational theory can be thought of as the product of two fields of study: management and government. Each of these disciplines stand upon a foundation built by the theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Abraham Maslow, and Robert Golembiewski.

Foundational scholars do not precede the entire discipline and have emerged by contributing to transformations of the field. The discipline has undergone at least two major transformations: from classic, rational managers and political scientists to a humanistic model of management and increasingly distinct public administration scholars. Indeed, some argue that the third and possibly fourth thematic developments are currently under way. That is, new public management that was popular with the Clinton Administration (1992-2000) may soon yield to new public service.


Management and government academic work

In much the same way “pre-generation” scholars provide a foundation for future governors and administrators, many seemingly unrelated scholars are important to the developing organizational theory. Though their respective connections with and relevance to organizational theory vary, Marx, Weber, Freud, Maslow, and Golembiewski (Denhardt 104-108)[1] form the foundation for much of what has become public sector organizational theory.

  • Karl Marx-”The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (The Communist Manifesto 1848, 10)
  • Max Weber-Government merely monopolizes the legitimate use of force in a given area. Weber’s most famous work was The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930).
  • Sigmund Freud-Subconscious needs and desires are manifest in everyday human activities; The Interpretation of Dreams (1900).
  • Abraham Maslow theorized that there is a hierarchy of human needs, each level of which must be fulfilled before one can effectively ascend to the next level. Toward a Psychology of Being (1968).
    • The five categories of needs are, in hierarchical order: physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, self esteem, and self actualization needs.
  • Robert Golembiewski- Golembiewski wrote two books of particular relevance to public administration: Men Management and Morality (1967 in Denhardt 2001, 104) and Renewing Organizations (1972 in Denhardt 2001, 106). In the first, he argues for what has come to be known as moral management, a “moral sensitivity…associated with satisfactory output and employee satisfaction” (Denhardt 104). In the second, Golembiewski takes a “laboratory approach to organizational change” (Denhardt 106). The author identifies five metavalues that guide this approach to organizational change
    1. “acceptance of inquiry based on mutual accessibility and open communication
    2. expanded consciousness and recognition of choice, especially the willingness to experiment with new behaviors and choose those that seem most effective
    3. a collaborative concept of authority, emphasizing cooperation and responsibility for others
    4. authenticity in interpersonal relationships“ (Denhardt 106-107).

Golembiewski’s moral management and meta values are highly compatible with subsequently discussed Theory Y management, Type-Z Organizations, and a humanist approach to workplace organization.

Given its interdisciplinary nature, one might visualize public sector organization theory as a helix of management and government scholars. Management theory began as a strictly rational, positivist dogma through a humanist revolution, and includes a modern reinterpretations and explorations. Similarly, government scholars in the United States first delineated a border between politics and administration that has been re-evaluated and re-interpreted throughout the history of the discipline. Today, public sector management incorporates developments in private management theory with a renegotiation of the policy analyst’s role in the political process.

Early management theory

Due in part to the historic context in which the field of public administration emerged, early management and government scholars attempted to be comprehensive rationalists. This required that they also ascribe to a positivist reality. That is, scholars seek a factual basis for drawing conclusions based upon observations and logical deduction. Positivists believe these methods yield factual, solid, unwavering truths, similar to the laboratory sciences. The early theorists sometimes lost sight of the unpredictable nature of social science.

Early management theorists were almost exclusively private sector scholars. The concept of an employee as a manipulable tool was another feature of early theorists. By creating the proper conditions, management could better shape employees to fit the needs of the organization; the company was primary in early management theory. Though somewhat naive from a modern perspective, early management scholars set a precedent for systematic, unbiased decision-making. Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henri Fayol were two of the many seminal management theorists of particular importance to public sector management.

Fredrick W. Taylor is probably most remembered for "scientific management." This is commonly described as the method by which the "one best way" to complete a task is discovered. In a 1915 address, Taylor outlined the mutual advantages of labor saving technology and processes, implicitly touting the significance of his model. Taylor argued that objective empirical observation would eventually yield an optimally efficient process by which a labor task could be completed. (Taylor in Shafritz and Ott 2001, 61)[2]

Much like Taylor, Henri Fayol was originally a private sector theorist. In General and Industrial Management (1916), Fayol outlined what he called the “General Principles of Management.” The author acknowledges, from a positivist perspective, the flexibility of management studies. However, his fourteen principles use in much the same matter-of-fact tone as Taylor’s. Fayol’s 14 principles included the division of work, authority and responsibility, discipline, unity of command, unity of direction, subordination of individual interest to the general interest, remuneration of personnel, centralization, scalar chain, order, equity, stability of tenure of personnel, initiative, and espirit de corps.

His elaboration upon each principle can be summarized as an argument for a logically structured organization with an efficient (non-duplicative) management chain. The author highlighted tension between individual and organizational interests, a theme that would be taken up again by subsequent humanists. Finally, his principles advocated a management style and structure intended to foster a healthy, spirited workforce, with a sense of loyalty to the company. Taylor and Fayol represent early, private sector, management scholars whose work would be succeeded by humanist managers from both the public and private sectors.

Early political administration theory

Government or political science scholars dominated what would become the public side of organizational theory. Woodrow Wilson, PhD. and 28th president, is remembered as one such political scientist who first distinguished public administrators from politicians. In an 1887 article, “The Study of Administration” Wilson called a professional workforce of public sector employees. He further argued for efficiency and responsibility to the public as key criteria by which this workforce would operate.

His work marks the beginning of an era, at least in the United States, during which public administration has been thought of as a distinct field of study and practice. Since Wilson, public administration has been a discipline separate from politics, worthy of academic study and independent discussion. The idea that business-like administrators should separate themselves from politics in daily operations remains Wilson’s chief, most enduring contribution.

Subsequent interpretations and the eventual development of rival dichotomies are perhaps a tribute to the importance of Wilson’s first distinction. The politics administration survived the mid-twentieth century in the works of Leonard D. White, Frank Goodnow, and W.F. Willoughby, but these scholars did not leave the original dichotomy as they had found it. In 1926, Leonard White authored The Study of Public Administration. A standard in the field, it was revised three times, with the last edition appearing in 1955.[3] In it, the author argued that “the study of public administration…needs to be related to the broad generalizations of political theory concerned with such matters as justice, liberty, obedience, and the role of the state in human affairs “ (cited in Denhardt 2000, 44). The desire to restore a degree of reliability, merit, and workability to modernizing democracy was a major impetus for the continued division of politics and administration.

In a related work, Frank Goodnow, Policy and Administration (1900), takes a local government perspective to comment on the separation of powers in government. He argues that the strict interpretation of the separation of powers in the constitution has been violated many times for good reason (Denhardt 2000, 46). “Therefore, it is appropriate to rethink the formal theory of separation of powers so that our theory might more closely match our practice” (46). The unique perspective offers valuable insight into other trade-offs, including that between legislative versus administrative centralization at the state level (Denhardt 47).

W.F. Willoughby, ‘The Government of Modern States (1936), also contributed to the dialogue. Early in his career, Wolloughby argued for a somewhat strict separation of government powers. The executive branch was to enforce laws as they were created by the legislature and interpreted by the courts (Denhardt 47). However, he later recognized difficulties in this hard-line position. Consequently, Willoughby suggested there are five classes of governmental powers: legislative, judicial, executive, electorate, and administrative. These classes existed in addition to the three traditional branches of government. The theories of White, Goodnow, and Willougby represent nuanced elaborations of a dichotomy much like that of Wilson. However, this dichotomy would be more directly challenged with suggested alternatives by the next generation of public administration scholars.

Emergence as a distinct field

Luther Gulick and Paul Appleby were among those who argued for dichotomies that were wholly different from Wilson's. Gulick has been called a strong personification of public administration in the United States (Fry 1989, 73). Gulick ascribes to many of Wilson’s themes, including a “science of administration,” increased efficiency, structural reform of the bureaucracy, and augmented executive authority. The chief executive coordinates the otherwise disaggregate activities of a large, complex organization such as a government. However, Gulick challenged Wilson’s strict dichotomy by suggesting every action of a public administrator represents a “seamless web of discretion and interaction.” “The administrator’s role is to understand and coordinate public policy and interpret policy directives to the operating services, but with unquestioned loyalty to the decision of elected officials” (Fry 1989, 81).

Paul Appleby argued against the increasingly dominant theory that administrators were somehow neutral policy actors. He argued that “administrators are significant policy actors who influence the policy-making process in several different ways” (Denhadt 49). Administrators are charged with the execution of public programs, the analysis of data for decision recommendations, and interpreting the law as it is carried out on a regular basis. Consequently, administrators influence and even produce policy on a daily basis. Despite their break with Wilson on the issue of completely separating administration from politics, these divergent scholars agreed that a professional workforce remain educated, skilled, and exist in meritous competition for public sector employment. Thus, Gulick and Appleby are major theorists whose theories truly break with Wilson's original public administration theories.

A consolidated discipline

In addition to Gulick and Appleby, Herbert Simon, Chester Barnard, and Charles Lindblom are among the first of those recognized as early American public administrators. These men ushered in an era during which the field gained recognition as independent and unique, despite its multidisciplinary nature. In Simon’s Administrative Behavior (1948), the argument is made that decision-making is the essence of management. The premises with which decisions are made are therefore integral to management. Simon also contributed a fact-value dichotomy, a theoretical separation to discern management, decisions based upon fact versus those made based on values. Since one cannot make completely responsible decisions with public resources based solely on personal values, one must attempt to upon objectively determined facts.

Simon developed other relevant theories as well. Similar to Lindblom’s subsequently discussed critique of comprehensive rationality, Simon also taught that a strictly economic man, one who maximizes returns or values by making decisions based upon complete information in unlimited time, is unrealistic. Instead, most public administrators use a sufficient amount of information to make a satisfactory decision:, they “satisfice.”

Charles Lindblom also expressed disaffection with the comprehensive rational model in a 1959 article, “The Science of Muddling Through.” He argued for “successive limited comparison" (81). [4]” Though the result of this process was not as rational or ultimately as reliable as decisions truly rational methods, incremental decision-making is undoubtedly preferable to making a decision “off-the-cuff” or those that consume extensive resources. Incrementalism's value lies in the realistic expectation that practitioners will be able to use it.

Chester Barnard was also one of the watershed scholars. That is, his theories would bridge what would become a gap between managers like F.W. Taylor and Henri Fayol with subsequent humanists: Mary Follett, Elton Mayo, and Chris Argyris. Barnard published “The Economy of Incentives” (1938), in an attempt to explain individual participation in an organization. Barnard explained organizations as systems of exchange. Low-level employees must have more incentive to remain with the organization for which they exchange their labor and loyalty. The organization (and higher level employees) must derive sufficient benefit from its employees to keep them. The net pull of the organization is determined by material rewards, environmental conditions, and other intangibles like recognition.

Scholars including Gulick, Appleby, Simon, Lindblom, and Barnard are among the early, independent public administrators. We will see, however, that many of their ideas and justifications for a positive, pro-active government are indebted, in fact, to the contributions of numerous female philanthropists (Acker 1992; [5] Stivers 2002[6]).

Public management

Several theorists bridged the gap between strictly private and public sector management. Luther Gulick negotiated a generic theory of organization. Max Weber exploring sociologist, explored the ideal bureaucracy in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism(Denhardt 2000, 27). He claimed that bureaucracies are organizations that manage resources for citizens (Weber in Shafritz and Ott, 2001, 73). The "physical" characteristics the organization and the position of public officials were essential to its structure. Weber held that graduated authority and equitable, formalized procedures guard against the subjective abuse of power by bureaucrats.

Weber admired bureaucracy for its trustworthiness. The bureaucracy was constituted by a group of professional, ethical public officials. These servants dedicate themselves to the public in return for security of job tenure among the many advantages of public employment. By rationalizing the organization of individuals and recognizing the professional nature of the field, Weber implicitly supports Wilson's politics-administration dichotomy.

Humanist era

Humanists embrace a dynamic concept of an employee and management techniques. This requires a theoretical shift away from the idea that an employee is a cog in the industrial machine. Rather, employees are unique individuals with goals, needs, desires, etc. Mary Parker Follett, Elton Mayo, Chris Argyris are among the most prominent humanists. Mary Parker Follett claims that conflict is neither good nor bad, it is simply inevitable (Fry 1989, 98).[7] Elton teaches that humans are social beings whose individualism is defined in part by participation in the group.

Chris Argyris, a writer commonly associated with business management authored Personality and Organization in 1957. He argues that “formal organizational structures and traditional management practices tend to be at odds with certain basic trends toward individual growth and development”[8]. Argyris continues,Executives must therefore fuse basic human tendencies for growth and development with demands of the organization’s task.

Rethinking power and management

The humanist era ushered in other possible interpretations of such topics as power and management. One of the most significant was Douglas McGregor’s “Theory X and Theory Y.” McGregor's work provided a basis for a management framework, a structure upon whose rungs the classic and new-aged management might be hung (Denhardt 99-100). First, commonly held by early management theorists, Theory X begins with the assumption that humans possess an inherent aversion to work. Employees must therefore be coerced and controlled if management expects to see results. Further, lazy humans prefer direction bordering micromanagement whenever possible (Denhardt 99).

Theory Y is much more compatible with the humanist tradition. This begins with the assumption that work is as natural for humans as rest or play. Further, employees will direct and control themselves as they complete objectives. Humans learn naturally and seek responsibility (Denhardt 100). Consequently, managers need only to steer employees in a cooperative manner toward goals that serve the organization. There is room for many to create and share power.

The Z-Organization can be thought of as a complimentary third element to McGregor's dichotomy. Z-organizations are a Japanese organizational model.[9] Similar to Theory-Y management, Z organizations place a large degree of responsibility upon the employees. Further, relatively low-level employees are entrusted with the freedom to be creative, “wander around the organization” and become truly unique, company-specific employees. However, employees achieve only after “agreeing on a central set of objectives and ways of doing business” (Oichi 435).

In Z Organizations, decision-making (Simon’s ostensible basis of management) is democratic and participatory. Despite the many advantages of this organizational model, there are several draw-backs. These include the depredation of a large professional distance--de-personalization is impossible in Z-organizations. A high level of self-discipline is also necessary. Z-organizations tend to be homogeneous and In Japan where this organizational form is popular, management is dominated by males and foreigners are a rarity.

Organizational power

An organization has an array of options for delegating power to its lower level employees. Bown and Lawlwer (2006)identify a spectrum of empowerment possible for service workers in private sector employment.[10] Low-level workers can either be thought of as belonging to a production line and given little individual decision-making freedom (power). These workers can be thought of as individual actors, given discretion to interpret a situation as it arises, and make reasonably independent decisions themselves. Most organizations allow their employees to operate somewhere between these extremes depending on several criteria the organization has as a whole.

Henry Mintzburg contributes to the power discussion with his article, “The Power Game and its Players.[11]" He writes that organizations consist of many individuals, each drawing a source of power from their position within the organization, knowledge skills and abilities, and relative role in that organization. Each also works to increase or maximize his or her power.

Moss Kanter published “Power Failure in Management Circuits” to address symptoms of unhealthy organizational power struggles. The reader learns that many symptoms of dysfunctional organizations can, in fact, be traced to power problems.

New public management

New public administration theories have emerged over the latter half of the twentieth century. New frameworks increasingly acknowledge that government is seen by citizens through administrators, front line, service deliverers. These are the employees that execute decisions by elected officials.

There has been a rigorous critique and emphasis upon implicit problems with new public management. First, a reliance upon competition and market forces assumes that individual self interest will effectively bring about an equitable social and economic reality for citizens. Henry Mintzberg’s protests,“I am not a mere customer of my government, thank you.” (cited by Dendhardt 2001, 77). “I expect something more than arm’s length trading and something less than the encouragement to consume.” (Denhardt 152 citing Mintzberg 1992, 77). “Do we really want our governments…hawking products?” While greater government efficiency, an individual emphasis, and lower cost operations of new public management may be initially attractive, Mintzberg and Denhardt highlight many incompatibilities of such values with justice, equity, security, and other important government values.

Further, encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit in administrators carries the benefits of innovation and productivity. These benefits are balanced by necessary costs. An entrepreneurial attitude tends to be accompanied by a willingness to bend the rules, reduced level of accountability, and a motivation to take risk with public resources are potentially costly (Denhardt 152-153). Despite what might appear to be a destructive criticism of a new model for public service delivery, Denhardt advocates new public service, one that carefully navigates the intricate differences between public and private organizations.

Feminist interpretations

Specifically, feminists uncover and challenge the assumption that a heritage of male-dominated public administration has yielded anything other than a "masculine interpretation" of the field. The simple adjective, feminist, asks the public administrator to evaluate his or her premises in a search for masculine interpretations, buried beneath a century of academic dialogue and practice (Stivers, 2002).

Many of the responsibilities public employees currently carry are rooted in nineteenth and twentieth century female philanthropists. Women volunteered their time to contribute to the communal welfare, innovating the rationale and justifications subsequently borrowed by paid male advocates of positive government. Government employees that advocated a public responsibility to assist the poor and underprivileged with material aid and necessary services. Due in part to women's role as pioneers, such activities were (and in actuality still are) perceived to be feminine.

This and other traditional features are used to make the argument that males have a persistent advantage in professional organizations. Subtle, gendered processes perpetuate the advantage, vehemently denied by men and women alike.(Acker 1992). These may be overt, sexual jokes or discrimination in promotion, or covert, organizational processes and decisions apparently independent of gender considerations on their face.

Processes fall into four categories:

  1. Production of gender divisions-hierarchies are gendered
  2. Creating "symbols, images, and forms of consciousness that explicate, justify, and, more rarely, oppose gender divisions” (Shafritz and Ott, 393).
  3. Interactions between individuals that “enact dominance and subordination and create alliances and exclusions.”
  4. “Internal mental work of individuals as they consciously construct their understandings of the organization’s gendered structure”

Comparable Worth is another, related topic [12]. Difficult, unpopular questions, like whether women are paid less because they ware women, are explored by contributing scholars. Women might be victims of discrimination because of societal expectations of their biological and psychological state of mind. That is, women bear children and are most often the primary care-taker of children. If a young, newly-wed women is pitted against a similarly qualified, young, newly-wed male for a promotion or position, do expectations of gender roles influence management decisions? Further, to what degree do women possess sufficient power of self-determination?

While feminists are often attacked as radical an unfounded in their claims, the group provides valuable food for thought. That is, questioning premises and assumptions that have led administrators to truths is important for judging the value of these truths.

New public service

Among the many new trends in government administration, the “government scholar” is being rapidly replaced by the “policy analyst.” The change in specialty reflects a shift in focus toward policy outputs and outcomes. Government rhetoric would be expected to yield to measurable impacts of public action. Government professionals are shifting from a focus upon government actors to observation and quantification at all steps of the policy process. For example, domestic social programming and support like senior center activities, welfare, Medicare, and youth groups have measurable inputs and outputs that can be quantified and examined. Effectiveness and efficiency can be estimated with dollars, opinion surveys, confidence indexes, and the like, to quantify the output, impact, and value of such programming.

New concepts of administrative roles challenge both the politics-administration and fact-value dichotomies. In the former case,administrators serving as policy analysts inevitably influence the information they generate, thereby impacting policy. In the case of the former, a newly constructed bureaucracy, representative of the populace it serves, personal values of administrators my reflect the values of the citizenry. In such a case, the necessity of a distinction between fact and value is compromised. A degree of subjectivity, interjection of personal values into factual decision-making may be preferred by the population. In place of alternate theoretical dichotomies, policy analysts and workplace diversity essentially compromise the value of the dichotomy mentality.

In the new public service, citizens are expected to develop a sense of community in addition to personal interests, pushing the threshold past simple self-interest of the new public management. Further, public employees draw heavily upon the variety of humanist management theories that have developed in the private and public sectors. John Gardner writes that healthy communities consisting of good community members “deal with each other humanely, respect individual differences and value the integrity of each person” (cited by Denhardt 2000, 183). Similarly, Robert Bellah, The Good Society , argues that the relationships, the space between these communities and the government, ought to then be relevant.

Smaller, intermediary institutions like churches, families, work groups, and civic associations, are also participants in the negotiation of the newly recognized space for public activity. Such commitment carries tangible benefits. Robert Putnam empirically demonstrates that communities whose citizens are civically engaged live in communities of reduced poverty, crime, better health and improved educational systems. Organization thereby represents a form of “social capital.” Capital being the aspects of social life, like the aforementioned networks, that “facilitate the coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (Denhardt 185 citing Putnam 1995, 67).

After Wilson’s initial distinction between a professional workforce and elected officials, nuanced variations maintained his theoretical trajectory. Taylor and Fayol, Theory-X managers, initially dominated the management circuit until humanists like Mayo, Follett, and Argyris hung new concepts of organization and management on McGregor’s Theory-X/Theory-Y framework. During this time, truly independent administrators including Gulick, Simon, Barnard, and Lindblom forged a significant new field.

A fact-value dichotomy challenged Wilson’s politics-administration dichotomy for dominance, management science was defocused on a revolutionary new unit of analysis: decision premises. Organizations, viewed as systems of exchange, had to recognize employees, even low-level line workers, as partners brokering for adequate compensation and fulfillment. Even the comprehensive rational model, the most scientific of all possible decision-making methods, was challenged as highly impractical. If managers instead make “successive limited comparisons,” they can make informed decisions in a timely, affordable manner.

This dynamic evolution, indeed a changing system of intellectual exchange, continues today as the popular new public management dominates the field. Public administration should arguably be a field dedicated to service of its owners, not mere customers. Indeed, citizens ought to take an active role in their government as an owner would in a business. A government that is administered by a meritocracy, professionals with powerful analytic and literary abilities. Managers might soon find themselves operating with an ethical commitment to values, serve the public, an empowerment attitude with a concept of shared power, pragmatic incrementalism, and a dedication to the public. “Unlike the new public management, which is built on economic concepts such as the maximization of self-interest, the new public service is built on the idea of the public interest, the idea of public administrators serving citizens and indeed becoming fully engaged with those they serve. (Denhardt 2001, 190).


  1. ^ Denhard, Robert B. 2000. Theories of Public Organizations. Orlando Florida: Harcourt Brace & Co.
  2. ^ Shafritz, Jay M. and J. Steven Ott. 2001. The Classics of Organization Theory. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  3. ^ Roberts, Alasdair. "The Path Not Taken: Leonard White and the Macrodynamics of Administrative Development." Public Administration Review.69.4. (July/August 2009). 764-775
  4. ^ Lindblom, Charles 1959. “The Science of Muddling Through.” Public Administration Review. Spring 19.
  5. ^ Acker, Joan. 1992. "Gendering Organizational Theory." in The Classics of Organization Theory. Jay M. Shafritz and J. Steven Ott eds. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 391-399
  6. ^ Stivers, Camilla.1992 From the Ground(s) Up: Women Reformers and the Rise of the Administrative State”in Gender Images in Public Administration. Camilla Stivers ed. Sage.
  7. ^ Fry, Brian R. 1989. Mastering Public Administration; from Max Weber to Dwight Waldo. Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House Publishers, Inc.
  8. ^ cited in Denhardt 2001, 100-101
  9. ^ William Ouichi. 1981. “The Z Organization." in Classics of Organization Theory. Shafritz and Ott eds. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  10. ^ Bowen, David and Edward Lawler. 2006. “The Empowerment of service Workers; What, Why, How and When.” in Managing Innovation and Change David Mayle. Sage.
  11. ^ Mintzburg, Henry. 2001. "The Power Game and its Players." in The Classics of Organization Theory. Jay M. Shafritz and J. Steven Ott Eds. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth 353-360.
  12. ^ Acker, Joan. 1989. Doing Comparable Worth: Gender, Class and Pay Equity . Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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