Public Administration with a Comparative Focus: Comparison for the Purpose of Identifying Public Purpose

Nancy E. Wright • Long Island University – Brooklyn

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s December 2006 edition.

 American university students typically have two paths by which to take courses in public administration—through a department or school awarding degrees in public administration or through a political science department. The former offers the student a template of theories, concepts, and terms used in the public sector. The latter also offers these; however, public administration courses offered through political science departments also connect public administration to the political scientist’s most succinct description of public policy as “who gets what, where, when and how.” While most public policy comparisons are addressed in advanced comparative policy seminars, introductory courses in public administration also lend themselves to comparative analysis, though instructors tend not to adopt this approach as often as they might.

This article describes two public administration courses which I taught using a comparative approach in the Spring and Fall 2005 semesters at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. For both I used a combination of public administration and political science texts. The first was an undergraduate course entitled “Introduction to Public Administration with a Comparative Focus on Kansas City, Missouri, and Nunavut, Canada,” and the second was a graduate seminar entitled “Decision-Making for the Public Purpose.” This essay describe the origin and structure of each course, the assignments given, student response, and conclusions about the effectiveness of teaching public administration comparatively, both at introductory and at more advanced levels.

Introduction to Public Administration

The introductory course in public administration combined a presentation of case studies in management with an introduction to Kansas City as a bi-state city and Nunavut as Canada’s newest territory. I assigned two basic public administration texts: Jay M. Shafritz and E. W. Russell (2005) Introducing Public Administration (Fourth Edition; Pearson-Longman) and Robert Watson (2002) Public Administration: Cases in Managerial Role-Playing (New York: Longman). The former text introduced students to basic public administration concepts, and the latter presented a compendium of case studies designed for simulation and discussion. The midterm focused exclusively on these texts, including a closed-book portion of 15 questions requiring short answers ( .g., definitions or brief explanations), and an open-book portion based on the Watson text, which asked the students to choose three cases and explain key facts, principal actors, major and secondary problems, and their recommendations. I replicated the open-book portion for the take-home final exam, using case studies not covered before the midterm.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

The semester also included a trip to Kansas City, Missouri, during which time the students visited the Truman Presidential Museum and Library in Independence, Missouri; saw key examples of Kansas City boulevards, parks, and other open space; and attended a worship service at a bi-racial church deeply involved in community outreach and development. Several native and long-time residents provided overviews of Kansas City governance and civic life and served as guides for the weekend.

To my students, many of whom were second-generation immigrants to New York City, the mention of Kansas City had conjured visions of cattle and cornfields, as well as remnants of antebellum Southern segregation and other discrimination against people of color. Our brief but intense sojourn revised their perspective entirely, as they discovered a Midwestern city rich in performing and visual arts, community outreach and development, and African-American history, as well as the home region of one of the United States’ most celebrated and controversial presidents, Harry S. Truman. The visit to the Truman Presidential Museum and Library expanded the students’ perspective to encompass public administration and public service at the national level in a pivotal chapter in United States history. Furthermore, Truman’s self-education and motivation by personal conviction stood in sharp contrast to the dominance of public opinion polls and other media involvement in contemporary presidential campaigns and in policy initiatives. This juxtaposition prompted discussion on the role of conscience in public service and in political campaigns, including how it can serve for the good, as in Truman’s integration of the American military, or for ill, as in his decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From the discussion that followed emerged the question of whether or not a true public purpose actually exists. A comment had been made regarding the notion of public purpose as primarily a smokescreen for exploiting the public through taxation. While extreme, this foreshadowed a null hypothesis that launched rich discussions for the remainder of the semester and in the course taught subsequently, namely, perhaps there is no such thing as a true public purpose. The students readily refuted this hypothesis; nevertheless, explaining “public purpose” is much more difficult than one might have surmised.

The subsequent focus on Nunavut placed discussion of public policy and public administration into sharp relief due to the fact that this fledgling territory cannot exercise self-determination without the institutions that comprise the essence of governance and public life—namely, the products of public purpose. The section of the course devoted to examining Nunavut centered primarily on descriptive information about the territory’s governing institutions. In addition to completing their reading assignments, the students participated in a conference call conducted with Letia Cousins, Director of Aboriginal and Circumpolar Affairs for the Government of Nunavut, as well as her colleague Guy D’Argencourt, also of the Government of Nunavut. Again, the benefits to the students were twofold: their introduction to a part of the world previously unfamiliar to them, yet geographically and politically closer than they may have imagined such a different culture could be; and an introduction to the challenges of creating a civic infrastructure in a newly independent territory that is also part of a federal system of government. The combination of basic public administration concepts, role-playing in public management cases, the Kansas City experience, and the examination of Nunavut gave students a foundation in public administration from the political science vantage point and a comparative perspective from which to enhance their comprehension of the complexities of public purpose and public administration as responsible for carrying out that purpose.

Graduate Seminar on Public Administration

I augmented this comparative approach in the subsequent course. Entitled “Decision-Making for the Public Purpose,” this course for advanced undergraduates and entering graduate students afforded the opportunity to reintroduce as a null hypothesis the absence of public purpose, then examine its affirmation or negation by analyzing examples of public administration in several different regions with different forms of government, as well as international development assistance and military and humanitarian intervention. The first time this class convened, I opened discussion by asking if something called a public purpose in fact existed. Most of the students responded in the affirmative but also expressed the belief that the definition was obfuscated by political interest. How, then, could public purpose and public interest be separated, if at all? The relationship between the two continued to be a leitmotif throughout the semester.

Required course texts were:

  • Randall Baker (1994) Summer in the Balkans: Laughter and Tears After Communism (West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press); Martha Finnemore (2004)
  • The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs About the Use of Force (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press);
  • Bun Woong Kim and Pan Suk Kim (1997, 1999) Korean Public Administration: Managing the Uneven Development in Laura Roper, Jethro Pettit, and Deborah Eade, eds (2003) Development and the Learning Organization (Oxford, UK; Oxfam, GB);
  • and Ogwo J. Umeh and Greg Andranovich, (2005) Culture, Development, and Public Administration in Africa (West Hartford: CT: Kumarian Press).

Beginning the course with Baker’s book gave the students a humorous anecdotal look at the Balkan region following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transition from communism to market society. Including chapters entitled “Slovenia: Socialism with BMWs” and “Zagreb: You Can Take a Bus to the Front from Here,” Baker’s narrative recounts his experiences as a visiting professor invited to assist the administrators of the New Bulgarian University to establish a program for the teaching of public administration. Finnemore examines the history and changing nature of the beliefs that drive states’ decisions to intervene militarily. Roper, Pettit, and Eade present an analytical compendium of learning by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in international development. Kim and Kim provide a detailed account of public bureaucracy in Korea, including the cultural context in which the bureaucracy has evolved and the present and future challenges it faces. Umeh and Andranovich present examples of public administration in the countries of the Southern African Development Conference to illustrate the vital need to incorporate local cultural elements into international development and public administration in areas where Western models dominate, even to the point of defining public administration and superimposing that definition on very different cultures.

Regarding the last book, the students had the opportunity to interview co-authors Umeh and Andranovich in a video conference. Besides raising substantive questions and comments about the text, the students asked about the authors’ collaboration in researching and writing the book, as well as on their career paths, with both aspects enhancing the students’ comprehension of the social sciences as a profession.

The midterm assignment consisted of a six-part essay involving three countries, two of each student’s choosing from those covered in the texts, plus the Republic of Korea.2 The perspective was that of a public administration educator who had been invited to establish a one-year certificate program in public administration. How did they propose to proceed? What would be their priorities? They were permitted to focus either on one public sector topic, e.g., health care or elementary education, or to adopt a more general approach. The students unanimously stressed the importance of observing and to the greatest extent possible, experiencing the local cultures of their selected countries prior to developing proposed curricula.

The final assignment consisted of analysis of a selection of essays from each section of Development and the Learning Organization, including to what extent they believed that each organization addressed had engaged in learning that contributed to a public purpose in their respective host countries. From Finnemore’s book the students were asked to cite one example from each chapter and explain whether or not they believed intervention was connected to the public purpose. They were also asked to present and explain three things learned from the course. Many of the students stated that prior to taking the course, they had not understood the way in which some development organizations operated as much to sustain themselves and further their own organizational goals as to assist those in their host countries. As part of this realization, however, they also acknowledged the tensions between the need of such organizations to survive in order to fulfill the purposes for which they were created and the need to be responsive and responsible toward their intended beneficiaries. The students also noted the value of Finnemore’s book on intervention as introducing them to the multiple and shifting purposes of intervention. They were divided on the question of whether or not intervention serves a public purpose in the recipient countries, with some students considering intervention strictly in the national interest, and others seeing a blurring of this national interest with a larger public purpose.

In summary, both courses had traditionally been taught as courses in domestic public administration and public policy decision-making, respectively. Incorporating a comparative dimension introduced the students to parts of the United States, Canada, and other regions of the world with which many had little familiarity. In the introductory public administration course, students were able to understand more clearly the distinct challenges of public administration in Kansas City and in Nunavut, while also identifying broader similarities, namely the need for institutions that establish and maintain jurisdiction over societal functions. In Nunavut such institutions were fledgling, and in Kansas City they encompassed two states; nevertheless, the fundamental need was the same. The course entitled “Decision-Making for the Public Purpose” enabled students to reappraise certain assumptions about the definition and characteristics of public purpose through analysis of development assistance in the war-torn Balkan region, the largely impoverished countries of the Southern African Development Conference, and in the Republic of Korea.

One note of caution is in order. The exposure to the other cities, countries, and regions the students received in both courses was by practical necessity rudimentary and somewhat superficial. Nevertheless, this exposure both augmented their understanding of public administration, public purpose, and other parts of the world and whetted their intellectual appetites to use a comparative approach to learn even more. Those whom I have taught and otherwise encountered in subsequent courses have demonstrated this persistent intellectual curiosity that inspires and drives scholars and enlightened citizens.


1 These were: Judith Brougham, native resident well-versed in Kansas City housing and real estate; Ann McFerrin, Archivist for the Kansas City, Missouri Department of Parks, Recreation, and Boulevards; and Douglas Shafer, owner of a real estate company dedicated to fair and integrated housing in Kansas City and former Deputy Director of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s Brooklyn Planning Division, where he was instrumental in establishing Nehemiah Homes, one of the largest community-based homeownership programs in the United States. Other resource persons joining the group for the luncheon discussion were Kansas City economist Brad Furnish and Jack Nesbitt, former mayor of Raytown, Missouri.

2 From the Balkan region, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia. From the Southern African Development Community (SADC): Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Angola.

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