The Proverbs of Administration by Herbert Simon — A Summary

Simon, Herbert A. 1946. “The Proverbs of Administration.” Public Administration Review 6 (1). [American Society for Public Administration, Wiley]: 53–67.

Such a badass title!

Proverbs are useful for persuasion especially when used retrospectively. One can always find a proverb to prove one’s point — or the opposite point for that matter. But when they are used in scientific theories, they are less useful and more harmful. Given their very nature they can both prove or disprove anything. If Newton had announced that all matter both attract and repulse each other, he would not have contributed anything useful. But sadly, most of the propositions of administrative theory today possess that property of proverbs. The paper will substantiate this sweeping criticism.

Some Accepted Administrative Principles

Among the common accepted “principles” of administration are:


Administrative efficiency is increased by a specialization of the task among the group.

But does any increase in specialisation lead to increase in efficiency?

Consider two plans of nursing the first of which requires nurses to specialise by place — nurses are assigned to districts and do all the work in that district — and the second of which requires nurses to specialise by function — nurses are assigned to specific functions, TB nursing for example, which they perform in multiple districts.

The proverb of specialisation is useless in helping decide which of these alternatives should be chosen. As it turns out, specialisation is not a condition of efficiency but is the inevitable result of all group activity for the simple reason that a person cannot be doing two different things at the same time.

Unity of Command

Administrative efficiency is increased by arranging the members of the group in a determinate hierarchy of authority.

This proverb requires that a subordinate should not have multiple superiors from whom he receives orders. This is clear enough.

However, if unity of command is observed strictly, there will be inefficiency in situations that require multiple forms of specialised expertise. For example, should the accountant in a school department who is subordinate to an educator never listen to the orders of the finance department regarding the technical aspects of his work? Of course, some irresponsibility and confusion will ensue if unity of command is not followed. What is needed is a principle that helps weigh the advantages and disadvantages of both courses of action.

Span of Control

Administrative efficiency is increased by limiting the span of control, at any point in the hierarchy to a small number.

But administrative efficiency is also enhanced by keeping at a minimum the number of organizational levels through which a matter must pass before it is acted upon. This equally plausible proverb contradicts the other proverb.

In large organisations, restricting the span of control inevitably creates excessive red tape as more levels are added to the organisational structure. But increasing the span of control beyond a certain point will weaken the authority of the supervisor. Where then lies the appropriate span of control lie? The proverbs are useless again in providing an answer to this critical question.

Organization by Purpose, Process, Clientele, Place

Administrative efficiency is increased by grouping the workers, for purposes of control, according to (a) purpose, (b) process, (c) clientele, or (d) place.

As is clear from the discussion on specialisation, these purposes of control are contradictory and the achievement of the first kind of specialisation can come only at the cost of the other three. It is also naïve to see the kinds of specialisation as separable. On examination, it will be found that the difference between “process” and “purpose” is only one of degree. Purposes are generally arranged in a hierarchy and the purpose of one process may be the process for another higher purpose and so on. Consider a typist who moves his fingers in order to type; types in order to reproduce a letter; reproduces a letter in order that an inquiry may be answered. “Clientele” and “place” are part of purpose, not apart from it. Any complete statement of purpose will have to specify “place” which integrates “clientele” with it. The purpose of a fire department, for instance, would have to include the area (the place) served by it which would necessarily include the people living in the area (the clientele).

It is therefore not legitimate to speak of a “purpose” organization, a “process” organization, a “clientele” organization, or an “area” organization. The same unit may be any of these depending on the nature of the larger organisational unit where it is located. It is correct only to say a certain bureau is a process bureau within a certain department. Even when the ambiguities with the usage of the terms are clarified, the “principles” of administration, needless to say, give no guide as to determining which of the competing bases of specialisation is applicable.

The Impasse of Administrative Theory

The problem with the “principles” is that they are treated as such when they are actually only criteria for describing and diagnosing administrative situations. Closet space is an important criteria for the design of a house but a design made on the principle of having maximum closet space will be quite unbalanced.

In administration, it is necessary that “all the relevant diagnostic criteria be identified; that each administrative situation be analysed in terms of the entire set of criteria; and that research be instituted to determine how weights can be assigned to the several criteria when they are, as they usually will be, mutually incompatible”.

The Description of Administrative Situations

Just as the concepts of “acceleration” and “weight” were developed before a law of gravitation could be intelligibly formulated, administrative theory needs to develop operational concepts — that is, terms whose meanings correspond to empirically observable facts or situations — before it can recommend sweeping principles.

Most descriptions of organisations in administrative theory fall short of scientific standards by confining themselves to “allocation of functions and the formal structure of authority”. A description of the functions — generally, that a bureau performs this function while another performs that function — provides little to no information about the manner in which the organisations work.

“Administrative description suffers currently from superficiality, oversimplification, lack of realism.” Until it undertakes the tiresome task of studying actual allocation of decision-making functions, there is little hope for rapid progress towards identifying and verifying valid administrative principles.

A purely formal description of administrative organisation might be impossible for the simple reason that real-world content plays a greater role in the application of administrative principles than formal precepts.

The Diagnosis of Administrative Situation

Propositions of administrative theory are concerned with the “principle of efficiency” — that is, the greatest accomplishment of administrative objectives for a given level of expenditure or the minimum expenditure of resources for achieving a given objective.

But the “principle” of efficiency should be considered not as such but only as a definition because it does not tell how the accomplishments are to be achieved but only that maximisation is the aim of administrative activity.

How to attain the level of efficiency or maximise the attainment of administrative objectives? Consider a single member of the organisation and see what the qualitative and quantitative limits to his output are. He may be limited by skills, habits, and reflexes that are not in his consciousness — for instance, manual dexterity, strength or reaction time. He may further be limited in his decisions by his values and his conceptions of what the purpose of the organisation is — his greater loyalty to the bureau may compel him to make decisions that are inimical to the larger organisation. He may also be limited by the extent of his knowledge of things relevant to his job. The first is a limit on his ability to perform and the other two are limits on his ability to make rational decisions. There may be other limits too but the point is that administrative theory must consider such limits as are present and come up with valid and non-contradictory principles. Only the first, thanks to the Scientific Management of Frederick Taylor, has been satisfactorily examined.

The limits of rationality are variable and may be influenced by consciousness of that very limitation. Rationality makes sense only when seen in terms of the larger objectives of the organisation and not the specific objectives of the individual administrator. Also, administrative theory is concerned with the non-rational limits to rationality. The greater the rationality, the lesser the importance of the exact form of organisation.

Assigning Weights to the Criteria

First, an operational (see under The Description of Administrative Situations) vocabulary for describing administrative organisations must be developed. Second, the limits of rationality in making decisions must be studied to understand the criteria that have to be weighed in evaluating an administrative organization.

It is not enough to identify the criteria (that the span of control must be decreased). But it is more important to weigh its benefits with the possible adverse effects it might bring about (how adversely will reducing the span of control affect the culture of contact between higher and lower ranks of the hierarchy?). This can only be possible through empirical research and experimentation.

How may this research proceed? First, administrative objectives must be concretely defined. Second, sufficient experimental control must be exercised to isolate the problem are from disturbing factors. These two requirements have rarely been fulfilled in so called “administrative experiments”.

“Perhaps the program outlined here will appear an ambitious or even a quixotic one. There should certainly be no illusions, in undertaking it, as to the length and deviousness of the path. It is hard to see, however, what alternative remains open. …

It may be objected that administration cannot aspire to be a “science”; that by the nature of its subject it cannot be more than an “art”. … [But] even an “art” cannot be founded on proverbs.”






Decision Making and Problem Solving by Herbert A. Simon et al. — A Summary

Topic: Decision Making and Problem Solving
Authors: Herbert A. Simon et al.
Publication: Research Briefings 1986: Report of the Research Briefing Panel
on Decision Making and Problem Solving (1986) 


What lies at the heart of everything that gets done is decision-making and problem-solving. Problem-solving includes fixing agendas, setting goals and designing actions and decision-making is evaluating and choosing the options thrown up by problem-solving actions. Both of these processes should happen effectively to address general and local problems.

In this age, it is not just humans but machines that hold the abilities and skills which make problem-solving and decision-making possible. How humans can use computers for enhancing how they make decisions and solve problems is one fertile avenue for further research and advances. In fact, much research has already been done and findings have been put to good use.

Subjective expected utility (SEU), a sophisticated mathematical model of choice, has informed much of our prescriptive knowledge on decision-making (not problem-solving). It is based on conditions of perfect utility-maximising rationality in a world of certainty. Empirical research, however, demonstrates that problem-solving is a selective and heuristic process given the limits on rationality and information. This is extremely crucial.

The real world of human-decisions is not a world of ideal-gases, frictionless planes, or vacuums. To bring it (decision-making) within the scope of human thinking powers, we must simplify our problem formulations drastically, even leaving out much or most of what is potentially relevant.

The growing relevance of descriptive theories is forcing prescriptive theories (SEU, for example) to amend their methods and assumptions. The elements of “unrealism” are being replaced by what is actually “attainable”. This alteration has strong implications for research in decision-making and problem-solving.

“Outline of current knowledge about decisison making and problem-solving”

Decision Making

SEU Theory

SEU theory assumes a consistent utility function (a subjective ordering of preferences) and knowledge of the consequences of all the choices on that utility function. Based on these assumptions, it then seeks to determine how an actor would behave. This enables the marriage of subjective preferences and objective data.

The assumptions are very strong and they correspondingly lead to strong inferences. Most tools of modern operations research use SEU theory to determine the maximum that can be attained under certain given conditions.

The Limits of Rationality

SEU is extremely limitated when it comes to handling complex problems because complexity introduces uncertainty. It also makes enormous demands on information which is not forthcoming under most real world situations. The result is that study of actual decision-making processes have to substantially depart from the SEU framework.

Limited Rationality in Economic Theory

Predictions of economic behaviour based on the assumptions of perfect rationality and complete information give extremely different answers from those that assume limited rationality and incomplete information. The latter accounts for a bigger range of the behaviours that are seen in the economic arena. As such, while the assumption of profit maximisation is still acknowledged, what has changed is the understanding that profit maximisation is sought within the limits posed by incomplete and uncertain information.

The Theory of Games

SEU theory fails in situations where are conflicts of interests. Game theory is the most ambitious attempt to answers questions that are thrown up by conflicts of interests. The terms of the Prisoner’s Dilemma[1] closely resemble those between organisations (nations, for example).  And just as the game predicts, opposing parties tend to “satisfice” rather than to “optimise”.

Empirical Studies of Choice Under Uncertainty

  • “When people are given information about the probabilities of certain  events, and then are given some additional information as to which of the events has occurred, they tend to ignore the prior probabilities in favour of incomplete or even quite irrelevant information about the individual events.”
  • “When asked to estimate the probability that 60 percent or more of the babies born in a hospital during a given week are male, people ignore information about the total number of births.”
  • “There are instances in which people assess the frequency of a class by the ease with which instances can be brought to mind.”
  • “When asked whether they would choose surgery in a hypothetical medical emergency, many more said they would when the chance of survival was given as 80 percent than when the chance of death was given as 20 percent.”

Methods of Empirical Research

All of these point to a need to improve research methodology. Some useful developments include the insistence on specific rather than general questions while keeping in mind the fact that how the question is phrased will have a significant bearing on the answer. Data obtained from the field is being supplemented by data obtained in the laboratory. Choice behaviour is studied as it happens not when it happens. Putting all these findings and techniques together in an empirically founded theory of decision making is what lies next.

Problem Solving

Contemporary Problem-Solving Theory

Data gained from laboratories settings have been supplemented by field studies of professionals solving real-world problems in developing a problem-solving theory. The problem-solving process that has been understood from empirical studies can be described in the following manner.

Problem-solving involves a selective search through a wide range of possibilities using heuristics (or “rules of thumb”). This search is helped by procedures like “hill climbing” and “means-ends analysis”[2] that allow the problem solver where to look next or what options to adopt as appropriate for the problem at hand. Problem-solving also depends on a large amount of information that the person doing it possesses.

Contemporary problem-solving theory thus accounts for “intuition and judgment” by locating them in the information and the inferential power that the researcher has. If they do not work, the researcher falls back to the processes of analysis.

Expert Systems in Artificial Intelligence

Research in artificial intelligence (AI) has benefited from and contributed to human problem solving. AI programs called expert systems have been built that resemble the typical human expert in terms of the information that they hold. While the computer programs are more analytic, the human experts will be more intuitive. The difference, however, is of quantity and not of kind.

Dealing with Ill-Structured problems

Complex ill-defined problems that have the capacity to be successively transformed in the course of the investigation are called ill-structured problems. An example is the problem facing an architect. Expert systems, in this area, have to not only know the design criteria but also know about them methods that will satisfy those criteria.

Setting the Agenda and Representing a Problem

Setting the agenda is important because resources are limited and not all problems can receive equal and sufficient attention. This first step in the problem-solving process remains poorly understood. The way a problem is represented depends a lot on the quality of solutions to be found. This is even less well understood.

Computation as Problem Solving

The use of computers for problem-solving has so far been substantial the domains of science and engineering.  In fact, computation has become an object of explicit analysis itself along with the science it does. Computing power augmented by AI has successfully been deployed to chew through the incredible mass of data that is being produced by scientific instruments.

“A brief review of current research directions.”

Extensions of Theory

Decision Making Over Time

Tastes and priorities change over time. This makes the time dimension of decision extremely problematic.


The reality of varying societies or organisations makes it impossible to apply insights on problem solving and decision making across the board. How can this problem be resolved?


How does the behaviour of a person in his capacity as an individual differ from his behaviour as a member of an organisation? Also, while organisations tend to display a sophistication far beyond those of individuals, novelty situations lead to rather inappropriate responses.


From understanding how intelligent systems work, attention is now turning to how systems become intelligent. Learning is important for successful adaptation to an environment that is changing rapidly.

Current Research Programs

[This section outlines basic funding patterns as was current during the time of writing which is not germane to the current situation and, importantly, has little serious theoretical value.]

“Some of the principal research opportunities.”

Research Opportunities: Summary

  • Empirical studies
  • Decision making in organizational settings
  • The resolution of conflicts of values (individual and group) and of inconsistencies in belief.
  • Setting agendas and framing problems


[1] “In this game between two players, each has a choice between two actions, one trustful of the other player, the other mistrustful or exploitative. If both players choose the trustful alternative, both receive small rewards. If both choose the exploitative alternative, both are punished. If one chooses the trustful alternative and the other the exploitative alternative, the former is punished much more severely than in the previous case, while the latter receives a substantial reward. If the other player’s choice is fixed but unknown, it is advantageous for a player to choose the exploitative alternative, for this will give him the best outcome in either case. But if both adopt this reasoning, they will both be punished, whereas they could both receive rewards if they agreed upon the trustful choice (and did not welch on the agreement).”

[2] Hill-climbing and means-end problem solving are heuristic problem-solving strategies. In the hill-climbing heuristic, you simply choose the alternative that seem to lead most directly towards your goal state. In means-ends analysis, you divide the problem into a number of sub-problems (or sub-goals), and then you try to reduce the difference between the initial state and the goal state for each of the sub-problems. (For more:

Path Towards Change by Camilla Stivers — A Summary

Title: Path Toward Change   
Author: Camilla Stivers
Publication: Camilla Stivers (2002) Gender Images in Public Administration: Legitimacy and the Administrative State

The problems with public administrative theory from a feminist perspective are:
a) the match between widespread ideas about masculinity and the norms of professionalism, leadership and management;
b) the extent to which bureaucratic structures and procedures, administrative career patterns, and the dynamics of public organisational life depend upon women’s disproportionate responsibility for domestic work;
c) the administrative state’s part in sustaining gender roles that limit women’s life choices:
d) the suppressed femininity of important administrative canons alike responsiveness, service, and benevolence.
e) heedless universalisation of male practices and experiences which are made to stand for humanity as a whole; and
f) the reinforcement of material realities — e.g., double burden of housework and paid employment that working women bear — that oppress women.

Toward a Feminist Theory of Public Administration

Feminist theorising doesn’t have language yet and this limitation which makes setting forth full theories difficult. The project is, for now, a matter of “catching glimpses” of what might be, knowing that it is something that “must be” even though it “cannot yet be”. It begins by exploiting the chinks that considerations of gender have made in the armour of existing theory. An example is the paradox of public administration which at once depends on and denies the existence of womanhood.

What is the path toward change? A fresh look at Mary Parker Follett reveals her relational view of reality, her experience bound idea of knowledge and her ethical idea of integration as well as her implicit rejection of organisational hierarchy, all of which can be extremely useful for the feminist agenda.

The reified place of rationality in public administration could be re-examined from a feminist perspective. Instead of expecting women to behave “like men” in line with conventional practice, women should be treated as “persons of self-definition and on their own terms”, or in other words, “as women”. The emphasis on efficiency and means–ends calculations, or instrumental rationality, must be relaxed.

The Man of Reason who, in a state of rational boundedness or submission to the objective reality, juggles science and ethics in order to get nearest to the truth can be either male or female in practice. The idea however is still gendered because of its reliance on boundedness. Women are a classic example of the undefined and unbounded.[1] Importantly, so long as it continues to rely on boundedness, more rationality is not going to help public administration move beyond gender. The need is to build relationships and engage in collaborative work that will transcend the rules for bounding concepts.

There exist less overt feminist interventions too. The recognition of the “situated self” involved in ground level political dialogue as a determinant of what is governmental authority, as opposed to a set of rules imposed from above, is consistent with feminist ideas if not labelled as such. Also, a recognition and adoption of responsiveness as a positive skill, notwithstanding its alleged femininity, that facilitates prudent action in trying times will create a more gender-balanced image of the administrator.

New Images in Public Administration


The bureaucratic obsession with the idea of neutral objectivity and autonomy and the implicit claims of expertise and competence not only separates and depoliticises the citizen clients, it raises the administrator to a rarefied status above the field.

[Consider the agency perspective introduced by the Blacksburg Manifesto.[2]  By talking about agency without taking into account the context of gender, racial, and class diversity, the Manifesto is asserting that the agency perspective takes shape in a cultural vacuum which, from a feminist standpoint, is untenable.   No wonder then that efforts to diversify the workplace has seen considerable opposition from the establishment.]

The requirement is for a form of competence that is non-hierarchical and receptive to the perspectives of all parties at hand. The goal is to attain a midway between scientific objectivity and untrammelled bias through a form of science that is not divorced from or disinterested in but is immersed in life. Experts should not be raised above the people but should work as collaborators and achieve their expertise through lived experiences. The processes of government should be humanised.

The continued insistence on efficiency and science in administrative matters will negatively impact democracy. By insisting on the correct answer or the one best way, the political dimensions are forcibly stifled. Competence is not about the most scientific answers; it is about the collaborative process.

Competence is also not to be defined in terms of the “heroic” male professional who sacrifices his family life for work. This notion relegates the family life and by extension women to a “lesser” form of existence. The proper professional should be a whole person who is understood to have developed in and is an integral member of a family.


For feminists, images of leadership are questionable. The leader objectifies, controls, and leads. Apart from the suggestion that everyone has to be “led”, another pertinent issue is that of the masculinity of leadership whether it is the imagery or even the simple fact that most leaders are indeed men. When women become leaders, they are forced to, unlike men, manage their gender (be ‘inappropriately’ masculine or ‘indecisively’ feminine?).

One solution is to move more women into leadership positions. But that fails to work in conventional organisations structured around masculinity. A more penetrating perspective is to question the “perceived” need of leadership itself.[3] What about leaderless groups or groups that rotate their leadership among members?

Existing norms of efficiency and hierarchy even in the new entrepreneurial organisations will not allow for leaderless groups. But if we cease assuming the needs for leaders even for a little while or in a limited area, fresher perspectives might emerge.


The perspective on virtue is about “resuscitating” the notion of “public virtue” which has been suppressed by masculinity. So long as the realms of domestic virtue (caring, benevolent, submissive) and public virtue (controlling, ambitious, assertive) remain exclusive even as the public sphere depends on the domestic sphere, virtue will remain problematic. Public virtue has to unite femininity with masculinity.

The image of administrator-as-citizen comes closest to this perspective. But going further, this administrator should not only be for the citizens but should also be with the citizens. Administrators in this view are to be respected because they serve and not because they know. They are to facilitate inclusive governance.

Like mothers, they [the administrators] must foster growth under conditions of complexity; like mothers, they must perform both routine and rewarding work in the interest of others who are in a sense their responsibility; like mothers, they must hold close (conserve administrative resources and capacities) and welcome change; just as mothers see their children as agents of their own lives, so must public administrators see citizens in the same light.

The feminist perspective stresses horizontal relations. In this regard, it sees the public and the private spheres as mutually supportive and existing on the same horizontal plane. Awareness about this mutuality would lead to equality.


The tension in public administration between values and techniques is pervaded with gender implications. The field today appears to be sacrificing values in order to gain efficiency bu tweaking its techniques.

Gender, race, and class are and have always been just as fundamental as the economic and political contexts to the understanding of public administration. It is only that they have never been recognised as such. The feminist perspective is thus essential to a full understanding of the field of public administration itself whether in its present form or in its historical development.

Also, integrating gender into thinking about public administration should be geared towards making it useful for administrative interests and not simply towards “including” it. Diversity is a resource that should be tapped.

The Administrative State

The feminist perspective on the administrative state develops from lower administrative positions where the emphasis is on the “material realities” which have historically been neglected. Firstly, it must be recognised that there is more than one sex with different experiences in organisations. Secondly, this diversity must be thought of as a promising new capacity. Thirdly, the endemic racism and sexism in organisations should be acknowledged. Any theorisation on the administrative state should account for these vital issues.

A feminist perspective on the administrative state would question the infatuation, as has been noted before, with the Man of Reason because of his (it’s almost always “his”) “technical, managerial and moral expertise” and instead encourage the acceptance of depersonalised power.

Feminist Practical Wisdom

The idea of discretionary judgment or practical wisdom enables feminist theory to integrate the themes of competence, leadership, and virtue and link them to the exercise of power.

As a start, the Aristotelian idea of phorensis[4]or practical wisdom has to be examined from a feminist perspective. There is on, close examination, considerable tension about the idea and Aristotle’s views on women which has important consequences even today.

Phorensis blends intellectual and moral capacities and brings into action the faculties of experience and emotion. As a public quality, it is practiced by rulers and citizens. The problem is that women were not counted as citizens let alone as rulers in Aristotle’s time and he subscribed to women’s exclusion from public life and their relegation to the private.

To associate this idea with women, then, requires a reconfiguration of what the good polity and the good life means. It will, first of all, entail a demolition of the artificial wall separating the public from the private so as to include the private sphere into the conception of the good life. But it will also require a rejection of the subordination of the private to the public life so that the value of the private sphere — at whose expense is constructed the public sphere of the polity — is recognised.

However, despite many misgivings, many aspects of phorensis are consistent with feminist ideas: the inclusion of emotions, the importance of context in understanding practical knowledge, and the impossibility of relying solely on rules. These aspects would have to be preserved and promoted.

Feminist phorensis in public administration would argue for connection with and acknowledgement of the material conditions of life rather than distance from them. It would undermine claims for universalisation of social relations. It would require the administrator to critically reflect upon the institutional context in which s/he practices. It would seek to give voice to the silences and examine that which is supressed, ignored, or taken for granted. In sum, it envisions a public administration that is “concrete, situational, experience-based, interactive and collaborative and grounded in perception and feeling as well as in rational analysis”.


The ideas suggested are yet to achieve widespread acceptance and they are indeed only piecemeal. In any case, a holistic feminist construction of public administration would be a “contradiction in terms”. But gender questions will have to be constantly asked. The general discomfort that people have with issues of gender seems to vindicate just how fundamental those issues are.

“Transformation will happen not as the result of selecting the future on a grand scale but will evolve out of countless conversations and situations that bring together around particular problems.”


[1] “Woman” stands for what cannot be brought within the boundaries of language… “Woman” stands for what remains outside naming and ideologies.

[2] The depiction of public administration as an agency. The Manifesto attributes to the agency a constitutionally legitimated, subordinate-but-independent status. (Marshall, Gary S. and White, Orion F., “The Blacksburg Manifesto and the Postmodern Debate: Public Administration in a Time Without a Name” (1990). Public Administration Faculty Publications. 67.)

[3] Leadership in the sense of someone who defines the meaning of situations, shows others the right way to approach problems, and makes them want what the leader wants (i.e. motivates them).

[4] The ability to deliberate rightly about what is conducive to the good life generally.

Reinventing Government from a Feminist Perspective: Feminist Theory and Administrative Reality by DeLysa Burnier — A Summary

Title: Reinventing Government from a Feminist Perspective: Feminist Theory and Administrative Reality
Author: DeLysa Burnier
Publication: The Forum Magazine (Fall, 1995)


The idea of ‘reinventing’ government has gripped the imagination of practitioners in administration and within academia. The reinvention project is “multi-faceted and open-ended” but takes the market as its ideal. The idea is to transform the traditional government marked by its regulation and inertia into an entrepreneurial one with an emphasis on performance and flexibility.

This is a very powerful idea. Not only did David Osborne and Ted Gaebler’s Reinventing Government become a national best-seller in 1992, President Bill Clinton appointed the National Performance Review (NPR) headed by Vice-President Al Gore with Osborne as adviser. NPR’s 1993 report recommended entrepreneurial principles and practices.

The concept of reinvention questions the fixity of the old bureaucratic model arguing that it is not unalterable and that it remains “open to redefinition and reconstruction”. In the light of this argument, the entrepreneurial government is a compelling alternative.

Women’s scholarship and experiences have traditionally remained at the periphery of the discipline of public administration with discussions narrowly limited to “equal opportunity, affirmative action, comparable worth and numerical representation”.

Even in this new debate, feminist perspectives are conspicuously absent. It is the article’s argument that feminist knowledge and women’s experiences can and should be incorporated in any project to reinvent government. The reinvention project has to be gender-inclusive.

Feminist Theory

Feminism is the political movement that believes in the equality of women and men, and is committed towards the elimination of gender-based injustice. Barring this basic commitment, feminism incorporates a diversity of often contradictory theoretical perspectives. Many embrace plural theories and champion situated analysis, expressing disdain for essentialist and universal theory.

Feminist Approaches to the Problem of Equality

The first approach, associated with liberal feminists, denies or dismisses the importance of sex-based differences. There, then, remains no ground upon which to discriminate between men and women.

The second approach recognises the importance of equality while embracing the differences between men and women. The problem is only that women’s experiences and ‘ways of knowing’ have been devalued by society.

Th third approach, associated with postmodernists, attempts to alter the terms based on which gender issues have been conceptualised. The push is towards understanding the diversity of contexts in which women live their multiple lives and not to confine gender-related discussions to differences between men and women.

Developing a Feminist Perspective in Public Administration

The Interpretive Turn

Interpretive inquiry assumes individuals as acting subjects performing meaningful (for them) actions and also assumes that explanations of meanings must be based on the “concepts of action, intention and convention”.

The interpretative turn enables scholars to examine the actions of administrators. It enables analysis of concrete experiences without recourse to abstract categories. This perspective easily accommodates the diverse aims of feminist theory by enabling the accounting of everyday practices of public administration whether it’s daily instances of discrimination (of interest to the first feminist approach), investigating how ways of knowing figure in administrative settings (the second approach) or even generating grounded and contextual knowledge of women (the third approach).

The Critical Turn

The critical turn “shifts” the study of gender from the level of the individual to that of the collective arguing that the problem is not merely of individual roles but of institutionalised practices enjoying social sanction. This helps examine the extent to which public organisations are gendered hierarchies.

The scant research in this perspective has revealed the institutional denial of positions of power to women which simultaneously “reflect and perpetuate” the traditional understanding of the male and the female.

Leadership Styles

Women have pioneered an alternative to the traditional command-and-control leadership in the form of interactive leadership. This collaborative and consensual form of leadership encourages participation and sharing. Such a style need not supplant but should definitely complement traditional leadership forms.

Research strongly suggests that women are less likely to “compete and control” while seeking efficacy; they are more likely to be “unique practical, and descriptive” in management roles; they adopt interactive and indirect leadership styles; and they display more interest in people and create more open work settings.

Despite success, women continue to be side-lined even when in high administrative posts, underscoring the need for emphasising gender as an analytic category in leadership studies. Future research should not turn differences into reified categories, should pay attention to the structural limits and opportunities provided by organisations, should emphasis actual experiences of women in senior positions and should keep in mind that women’s experiences will me more suited in non-traditional organisations.

Organisation Theory

Feminist research raises questions pertinent to organisation theory. Interactive style of leadership has resulted in practical changes including a flattening of hierarchy and the development of circular, as opposed to pyramidal, organisation. How effective these innovations are when applied to public organisations remains to be seen.

There has been an emphasis on the organisational values of the women’s movement. The rational–legal outlook that undermines other values and concerns has been attacked and dissatisfaction with the gendered nature of organisations has been expressed.


Feminist ethics centres on an ethic of care based on their historical experiences as child-bearers and -rearers. While men are more likely to rely on abstract principles of justice, women are more likely to be influenced by immediate concerns about harm. This ethic of care (or concern about harm) should be recognised as a legitimate moral orientation.

This insight is important for public administrators because of the dual ethical contexts in which they work. The value conflicts between professional rules and personal discretion could benefit from feminist ethics analysis.

Organisational Behaviour

Women and their bodies continue to be problematic for men who actively resist the principles of equality forcing women to act like men if they are to expect workplace equality. But all the while, women are subjected to harassment. Also, women are compelled to negotiate what it means to me a female in top positions.

Women experience the workplace differently from men. This anomaly should be addressed if reinvention is to succeed.


Women are left to the margins both in the practice and discipline of public administration. The traditional notions about bureaucracy and its emphasis on gender-neutrality (indeed, value-neutrality) are, given the scholarship available, “no longer acceptable or realistic”. If government is to be truly reinvented, it cannot proceed without considering the role of gender.

The Two Futures of Governance: Decentering and Recentering the Processes in Governing by B. Guy Peters — A Summary

Title: The Two Futures of Governance: Decentering and Recentering the Processes in Government
Author: B. Guy Peters
Publication: NISPAcee Journal of Public Administration and Policy. Vol. 2, No. 1 (2009)


Public sector reform in recent decades has been directed towards efficiency and effectiveness through the application of the market model. This process, loosely understood as New Public Management (NPM), involved increasing the autonomy of managers and their organisations.

More recently, the increased emphasis on the participatory dimension of reform has given rise to what may be called ‘governance’ styles of reform which underscore the role of social actors in networks making and implementing policy.

While both of these two directions have made significant contributions, they have also introduced significant problems as well. Issues of incoherence, poor coordination and accountability have proved to be major stumbling blocks.

Given this situation, which direction of reform should the public sector take? The article argues for making the two processes — that of NPM and governance style reforms — fit together through ‘meta-governance’.

One Future — Continuing the Current Patterns of Reform

DECONCENTRATION Creating new autonomous or quasi-autonomous agencies to handle specific  goals.

DECENTRALISATION Devolving some functions of the central government to sub-national governments.

DELEGATION Moving public authority and functions to other actors — non-profit organisations, contractors.

This pattern of ‘decentering’ the governing process assumes that the governance will work better if the political centre is devalued and private sector actors are made more responsible.

From Reform to New Problems Created by Reform

The justification for decentering is that governments are better at ‘steering’ than at ‘rowing’ — that governments are better at setting policy directions than at delivering upon policies. The result however has been the reduction in the steering capacity of governments leading to several governance problems.

POLITICS AND STEERING Decentering has left the governments impotent to adequately determine, direct and regulate the course of their own policies.

COORDINATION The increase in the number of autonomous organisations has led to a crisis of coordination and coherence.

COMPLEXITY The proliferation of organisations involved in governing creates more veto points. This is highly inefficient.

CAPTURE Decentering creates a large number of organisations vulnerable to capture by special interests.

ACCOUNTABILITY The decentering process creates variable alternative relations between politicians and service providers making responsibility difficult to identify.

These are significant problems. Some change in the public sector is definitely necessary but that change cannot be a simple return to the traditional Weberian style of governance.

The Centre Strikes Back

Given the difficulty in exercising control over the public sector, attempts to reimpose control have taken the form of politicising appointments, that is to appoint one’s own people to top posts within reform programs.

In addition, decentering has led to the politics of scapegoating and denial of responsibility. In the US and the UK, the use of ‘czars’ — high level officials tasked with specific administrative roles — has helped to deflect attention and accountability away from political leaders.

Positively, the loss of political control has created attempts to integrate governance structurally and holistically so as to enable governments to provide a seamless web of services.

The Gap

The discussion thus far reveals two approaches towards governance: NPM and ‘governance’ which i) emphasise quality of service delivery, management and democratisation and whose inadequacies have necessitated a second form of governance that ii) emphasises coherence, coordination and the primacy of politics. The major task in governing is to ‘knit’ together these two strands.

Besides the practical governance problems, there are important theoretical concerns. It could be argued that governance theory isn’t exactly new but in fact old wine in a new bottle given the history of corporatism and corporate pluralism, especially in Europe. Even the direction-setting role of the state, given the robustness of networks binding the different actors, and their autonomous self-organisation, can be called into question.

At the same time, the assumption that principal actors agree on the means and goals that underpins governance theory is demonstrably wrong. Pre-determined decision rules are lacking. The lack of agreement and rules lead to sub-optimal decisions made in accordance with the lowest common denominator or, often, no decisions at all. There, then, is no place for innovation and major policy change.

Decentering has created major problems for democracy — problems of accountability and representation. Unorganised groups without access to networks might be left out.

These challenges question the capacity of governance models to adequately address the selection and delivery of services in a democratic framework.

Bridging the Gap: Meta-Governance

The response to these challenges has been the development of ‘meta-governance’ which in essence is the governance of governance with a view to building control while retaining a level of autonomy. Both control and autonomy must be made to co-exist.

The Instruments of Meta-Governance

The tools of meta-governance are different from the authoritative ones found in traditional command and control styles of intervention. This is because meta-governance seeks to rein in actors that have some political legitimacy on their own.

PRIORITY SETTING Priorities have to established politically so that there is clear focus. This can be accomplished by enhancing the capacities of presidents, prime ministers and central agencies.

SOFT LAW Soft law envisages the use of regulatory methods such as benchmarks, guidelines, frameworks and other mechanisms which establish ranges of compliance rather than specific points of compliance arrived at through negotiations rather than compliance. Soft law reflects the need of steering from a distance so that networks and local governments retain some latitude.

Maintaining the Golden Thread

Decentering need not mean completely abandoning control. Public organisations involve three substantive dimensions — financial, human resources and policy. Governments could, and they often do, control the financial purse and use that control to enforce compliance regarding other dimensions of activity. The point is that autonomy and control are not as incompatible in practice as they man appear conceptually. And the task for the academic analyst and the practitioner is to identify mixtures that can deliver effective control while maintain efficiency.

Performance Management

This is the use of measurable targets for the results of public programs to monitor the performance of public organisations. This shifts the mantra of NPM from ‘let the managers manage’ to ‘make the managers manage’. Performance management relies on negotiations and contracts as well as flexible and progressive (‘soft’) targets.



“Governance has been and continues to be a scarce commodity in most countries. …(T)he ideas of both New Public Management and the ideas of Governance … enhance(d) the autonomy of lower level components of the governing system (but created) … problems of accountability and control. …The perceived negative consequences of reforms have produced some new types of governing, discussed here as ‘meta-governance’.”