Experiments and the classical roots of public administration: Comments on the potential utility of experiments for contemporary public management

Kenneth J. Meier, Kendall D. Funk

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Scopus citations


Public management represents a science of the artificial, a design science that is concerned as much with how things might be as how they actually are (Simon 1969). The practice of public administration and management involves individuals confronted with real-world problems that need to be fixed. Although there have always been approaches to problem solving in public administration (Fayole 1949; Weber 1946) that relied on theories, logical deduction, or cumulative hunches, such approaches have always had skeptics (Simon 1946). The skeptics often charge that public administration problems are too varied to apply a ‘one size fits all’ nostrum, that more formal theories of public administration are too detached from actual problems to be of real use, or that the complexity of public problems is such that figuring out in advance what causes what is just not possible. The use of experiments either in the field or in the laboratory is a reasonable response to the concerns raised about the validity and applicability of public administration research, and a strong renaissance in experimental work in public administration and management is currently under way. This chapter seeks to set the current experimental movement within the context of classical public administration with three objectives in mind. First, through an examination of early work, this chapter demonstrates that public administration has always accepted experimental work as a central and legitimate approach to public management research. The absence of a large body of experimental work in public administration for much of the twentieth century, as a result, is highly ironic. Second, current experimental work has been greatly influenced by developments in the scientific design of experiments and its focus on randomization, control groups, precise measurement, and the examination of the psychological micro-theory behind behavioral actions. Early work might even be more accurately characterized as quasi-experiments rather than true, randomized experiments. Third, the initial quasi-experimental work of early public administration is used to provide some suggestions of fruitful areas for current empirical work. Taylor, Hawthorne, and Simon The origins of the systematic study of management are linked to the early efficiency experts’ studies and the publication of Taylor's (1911) Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor's book is one of those public administration classics that everyone cites but few actually go back and read for themselves (instead relying on brief summaries in basic texts).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationExperiments in Public Management Research
Subtitle of host publicationChallenges and Contributions
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781316676912
ISBN (Print)9781107162051
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance(all)
  • General Business, Management and Accounting


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