Deanna Malatesta is associate
professor of public affairs in the School of
Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana
University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
Her research addresses contracting, public
management and governance, and public
Julia L. Carboni is assistant professor
of public affairs in the School of Public and
Environmental Affairs at Indiana University–
Purdue University Indianapolis. Her research
focuses on governance, organizational
networks, and cross-sector collaboration.
The Public–Private Distinction: Insights for Public Administration from the State Action Doctrine 63
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 1, pp. 63–74. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
Julia L. Carboni
Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis
The public–private distinction is an enduring
theme in public administration (PA). While
scholars debate the concept for their purposes,
so do the courts, which must distinguish private
actors from state actors to rule on constitutional
claims. Specifi cally, the Fourteenth Amendment to
the U.S. Constitution prohibits government from
depriving persons of life, liberty, or property without
due process. Because due process protections only
apply to the coercive force of the state, courts must
decide when conduct is attributable to government
and not to a private entity. is is the essence of the
legal principle known as the state action doctrine
(42 U.S.C. § 1983, 2000).
We compare public–private distinctions discussed by
PA scholars to the dichotomy applied by the judiciary.
In revealing similarities and diff erences in the two
domains, we add to the body of research attempting
to capture the complexities of the public–private dis-
tinction. ere are several steps to our application. We
survey the public administration literature, law review
articles, and case law to summarize and compare the
most frequently noted characteristics that diff erenti-
ate “public” from “private” as used in the diff erent
domains. We code the text of seminal court cases and
use qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) to uncover
necessary and/or suffi cient factors for fi nding state
action. We derive a minimum and maximum defi ni-
tion (ideal type) of “public” as used in the social sci-
ences and the judiciary. We conclude with suggestions
for applying our fi ndings to the outsourcing of public
services with the aim of preserving public norms and
constitutional protections when designing contracts.
Do public and private organizations diff er in any
meaningful way? Social scientists, including scholars of
public administration and management, have grap-
pled with the question for decades (see, e.g., Bozeman
1987; Moulton 2009; Perry and Rainey 1988; Rainey,
Backoff , and Levine 1976). e inquiry has important
implications for those who debate the limits of privatiza-
tion and outsourcing as well as for understanding what
makes some organizations more eff ective than others.
Scholars take varied positions on this issue: some down-
play that there is any distinction at all, while others
emphasize the attributes that diff erentiate public organi-
zations from private organizations. A third group, which
we call the “reformers,” have taken both positions.
Reformers are on record claiming the virtues of the
market, yet they have also contributed to the perception
e Public–Private Distinction: Insights for Public
Administration from the State Action Doctrine
Abstract: Public administration scholars continue to grapple with how and why public organizations diff er from
private organizations. e judiciary deals with similar questions in ruling on constitutional claims that apply
exclusively to state actors. e authors consider similarities and diff erences between scholarly and judicial approaches,
adding to the body of research attempting to capture the complexities of the public–private distinction. e application
in this article includes the coding of seminal court decisions and qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) to fi nd
combinations of causal conditions that lead to state action rulings. e specifi cs revealed through QCA provide
valuable lessons for extending public norms and preserving constitutional protections when outsourcing public services.
• Public managers continue to grapple with distinguishing “public” from “private.” Meanwhile the courts
apply the State Action Doctrine to distinguish state actors from private actors in order to determine the
boundaries for constitutional protections.
• Public administrators should be knowledgable about the State Action Doctrine; its application has critical
implications for contracting and the extension of constitutional protections.
• When public managers outsource services to private actors they can craft contract language to guarantee consti-
tutional protections, thereby fi lling any constitutional voids that may result from defi ning an actor as “private.”