Between Public Policy and Public Administration: The Relationship Matters More Than the Differences

Between Public Policy and Public Administration: The Relationship Matters More Than the Differences

As a young adult with a budding interest in political science and public issues, I was astounded to hear about people whose entire careers were dedicated to studying public management and administration, otherwise known as bureaucracy.  Wasn’t bureaucracy where creative problem-solving went to die?  How could anyone stand to read, let alone write, book after book and article after article about people languishing in cubicles

In the midst of my own Master of Public Policy (MPP) program, I wondered about my fellow students who were pursuing a Master of Public Administration (MPA).  Surely, they must need that specific degree for career advancement, I thought.  Otherwise, why wouldn’t they choose to focus on solving important dilemmas like climate change, food deserts, rising health care costs, failed states, terrorist threats, etc., etc., rather than studying red tape?  Even during the early phases of my PhD work, I worked hard to avoid courses and content associated with public management and administration.

Eventually, this stupendously ignorant aversion to Public Administration withered in the hot sun of reality.  The more I learned about government and public affairs, the more I came to understand that many different policy choices can be made to work effectively, but only if they are designed with reality in mind and administered intelligently.  In other words, public administration really matters.  Public policy successes and failures cannot be understood apart from the management processes that convert them into action.

Take the U.S. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.  By canceling the entitlement status of federal public assistance for families with children and converting the program into a block grant in 1996, TANF’s authorizing legislation essentially deregulated this area of state services.  Predictably, 50 distinct variations on the TANF theme emerged over time as states made myriad policy design choices, some of which resulted in dramatic differences between states (for example, in the degree of discretion granted to counties and in the use of state-only funds to extend benefits beyond federal time limits).  Research to date suggests that the federal TANF reform – a major policy shift – generated huge disparities between states in the adequacy of their safety nets.  These state-to-state variations result from differences not only in state policy design details and administrative sophistication, but also in local management practices. 

It is tempting to hypothesize, based on this and similar examples, that high-level policy choices may not always warrant the fuss that they receive.  More regulation vs. less regulation and small government vs. big government:  Are those the real questions?  Surely not.  Regulation, for example, can be smart or stupid, depending on its design and administration. 

I have come to believe that the path to better, smarter government starts with getting the details right, from the bottom up.  And those details often reside at the fuzzy border between public policy and public administration, where policy designers and program administrators work together to solve real problems.  MPAPs, please take note.  This is your niche.

About the Author
Professor Baehler brings ten years of experience teaching courses in policy analysis and the policy process at the doctoral, master’s, executive-training, and undergraduate levels in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand.
She has served on the faculties of the School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand, and the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), Melbourne, Australia. Professor Baehler has an active scholarly research agenda and is currently working on several papers on topics that include welfare implementation and environmental justice. Her publication record includes three books, 12 refereed journal articles, and three book chapters.. Her professional experience includes ten years of work in Washington, D.C. think tanks. Professor Karen Baehler holds a PhD in Policy Sciences from the University of Maryland (1999), where she also earned a Master of Public Policy (1991).


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