Proverbs and the Evolution of Public Administration

Date01 January 2015
Published date01 January 2015
75th Anniversary
Kenneth J. Meier is Charles H. Gregory
Chair in Liberal Arts and Distinguished
Professor of Political Science at Texas
A&M University. He is also professor of
public management in the Cardiff School
of Business, Cardiff University, Wales. His
current research includes studies of public
management (in the United States, United
Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, and
Africa), race and public policy, methods
in public administration, democracy and
bureaucracy, and theories of decision mak-
ing and public management context.
Proverbs and the Evolution of Public Administration 15
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 1, pp. 15–24. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12288.
Kenneth J. Meier
Texas A&M University
Cardiff University, United Kingdom
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of essays
we will publish in 2015 to commemorate PAR’s
75th anniversary. This essay, by Kenneth J.
Meier, focuses on Herbert Simons “Proverbs of
Administration.” Meier reviews Simons original
critique of the field, the article’s import, and
offers his ideas about steps important for the
next wave of progress for the field.
Abstract: Herbert Simon, in his 1946 essay “ e
Proverbs of Administration,” indicted public adminis-
tration as having conf‌l icting and contradictory theories
and an absence of a knowledge base that could provide a
guide to practice. Simon proposed that public administra-
tion def‌i ne concepts, adopt ef‌f‌i ciency as its objective, focus
on the study of decision making, and construct models
that could predict ef‌f‌i cient results.  is 75th-anniversary
article revisits Simon’s essay in light of contemporary
public administration. It examines the progress that has
been made and what still needs to be accomplished, and
it ends with a list of barriers to further progress.
Public administration is a science of the artif‌i cial,
concerned as much with how things might
be as with how things are (Simon 1969).  is
concern with how things might be, with improving
on the state of administration, has always meant that
public administration as a f‌i eld of study seeks two
ends—scientif‌i c quality and practical relevance (Perry
2012, 479). To be useful, to be relevant, means that
the prescriptions of public administration must have
empirical validity, that they must be supported by
strong scientif‌i c evidence. Scientif‌i c validity is a neces-
sary condition for practical relevance.
In “ e Proverbs of
Administration,” Herbert
Simon (1946) lodged two criti-
cisms of existing scholarship in
public administration—that
the theories of administration
were inconsistent and often contradictory and that the
body of empirical knowledge was completely lack-
ing.  eory was viewed as a logical and coherent set
of principles that generated testable hypotheses. Such
theory is a guide to both research and practice. Simon
then proposed a preliminary road map to a solution
with four parts: creating clear concepts, establishing
ef‌f‌i ciency as the guiding principle for public admin-
istration research, focusing on decision making as
the essential element of public administration, and
weighting how various criteria or actions might lead
to ef‌f‌i ciency. His essay was more in the tone of nailing
95 theses to the door of a church than a systematic
empirical critique of the literature; it was as much an
invitation to debate as it was the f‌i nal word on the
status of public administration at that time.
is essay revisits Simon’s criticism in light of the
evolution of public administration. It asks what
progress we have made in terms of Simon’s arguments.
e task of evaluating progress on Simon’s prescrip-
tion is more dif‌f‌i cult for f‌i ve reasons. First, Simon’s
objective of a general theory of public administra-
tion was highly ambitious, even by today’s standards.
Whether such a theory is attainable in public admin-
istration or any other design science is debatable.
Second, Simon himself moved on to focus on the
cognitive process of decision making and a variety
of other intellectual enterprises. Although much of
his work remained relevant to public administration
(Augier and March 2001), public administration was
not the focus of his later work, and his insight was
directed elsewhere.  ird, many of the contributions
to the scientif‌i c study of organizations, including
public organizations, have occurred outside the f‌i eld
of public administration in sociology, psychology,
economics, business, and other
disciplines.  is situation leaves
public administration in the
unenviable position of respond-
ing to developments in a wide
range of other disciplines but,
at the same time, having little
Proverbs and the Evolution of Public Administration
Simon’s objective of a general
theory of public administration
was highly ambitious, even by
today’s standards.

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