Public administration as a design science

Ralph F. Shangraw, Michael M. Crow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


This article examines Herbert Simon's notion of a “design” science and discusses its applicability to the field of public administration. Public administration, as a design science, exists at the nexus between the inner and outer environments of public organizations. As such, it integrates and synthesizes theories and propositions from other disciplines including the behavioral sciences, the system sciences, and the natural sciences. In addition to being concerned with descriptive aspects of the field, public administration scholars must be willing to prescribe, to design, and to redesign public sector systems. A framework for assessing design opportunities is developed, and the questions raised by this approach are addressed. As many of the participants were preparing for the first Minnowbrook Conference in the spring of 1968 in order to craft the “new” public administration, Herbert Simon was presenting a set of invited lectures, entitled “The Sciences of the Artificial,” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Simon proposed a new model of inquiry for man-made or “artificial” sciences.(1) He argued that man-made disciplines, such as engineering, medicine, architecture, and management, are inherently different from the natural sciences yet they are often forced to adhere to the same scientific norms and models of inquiry. “The genuine problem [with artificial sciences] is to show how empirical propositions can be made at all about systems that, given different circumstances, might be quite other than they are. ”(2) Public administration clearly fits Simon's definition of an artificial science, given that the issues and problems it confronts are molded by the environment in which they exist. In fact, a recurring problem with public administration theory is that changes in the practice of administration often force a reorientation of theory.(3) Public administration also can be described “in terms of functions, goals, adaptation.”(4) For example, the “new” public administration, as defined by Frederickson, includes functions (“.. to carry out legislative mandates …”), goals (“… to change those policies and structures that systematically inhibit social equity …”), and adaptation (“… change is basic to new Public Administration”).(5) Unfortunately, the tools and approaches common in the appraisal of natural systems, while certainly useful for artificial system design and assessment, are inadequate for the tasks that confront public administration. The Bielefeld Interdisciplinary Project, one of the most comprehensive compilation of writings on the public sector in this decade, concludes that “A major question that we face at this juncture in history is whether we have the rudiments of knowledge to undertake the design of human institutions and what limits apply to such design capabilities. ”(6) societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”(10) Throughout history, many scholars have been concerned with the problem of designing “good” government. The architecture of the U.S. Constitution is perhaps one of the greatest design achievements. The redesign of the U.S. Civil Service system through the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 is a familiar, recent example this challenge. In his 1885 dissertation at Johns Hopkins University, Wood-row Wilson evaluated the cost and effects of the public decision making system built around the U.S. Congress, then the principal decision making and implementation body at the federal level.(11) He argued that concentrating public sector decision making in the politically oriented unit of government weakened the administration of government. He later recommended a design for governmental systems that called for a careful separation between politics and administration.(12) Like the framers, Wilson was an organizational architect. As such, by focusing on the design of decision-making mechanisms for the public good, Wilson was an early scholar in what has come to be seen as the “design science” of public administration. He evaluated the structural and decision-making flaws inherent in the U.S. government of the late nineteenth century. Drawing from his knowledge of human behavior and the changes in society at the time, Wilson set out to design an alternative system in which the national will would be determined in the arena for political conflict (Congress) and the implementation of that will could be carried out by the executive branch. Since Wilson, much of the focus of public administration as a field has moved from governmental, system-level issues to the design, development, and analysis of decision-making institutions and mechanisms within agencies and programs. This transition, however, has not changed the fundamental purpose of public administration as the discipline charged with the design of adaptive public sector institutions and tools, particularly in terms of administering and managing public enterprises. An analysis of textbooks in public administration illustrates the evolution of design activities. Early textbooks often focused on infrastructure and public works issues, including the design of roads and sewers. In fact, civil engineering courses were an integral component of many graduate-level public administration programs. White, for example, emphasized the design and structure of institutions, especially fiscal and personnel management subsystems.(13) With Waldo's Administrative State, the focus shifted to the system level and considered topics such as “who should rule,” “the separation of powers,” and “centralization versus decentralization.”(14) More recent textbooks have retained the professional training emphasis with only slight shifts in topical coverage. For example, newer texts often include a chapter on information management. An element that is often missing in current texts, however, is the integration and synthesis of public management research into prescriptions for public managers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1059-1077
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Public Administration
Issue number6-8
StatePublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Public Administration


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