n Journal of Public Administration - Deconstructing the discourse on the theory of public administration : prospects for reconstruction

Volume 48, Issue 3
  • ISSN : 0036-0767



Would the question about the theory of public administration ever be settled? It is now more than a century that a search for the theory of public administration has been continuing with no settlement in sight. Does this presuppose that the search for such theory is an exercise in futility? Where did the discourse in the field get it so wrong that it failed to evolve into a consensus on the universally-acceptable theory of public administration? This article examines these questions, which undergird the historiography of the discipline. They are not new. However, the fact that they remain unanswered makes their continued consideration necessary. In this article the discourse on the theory of public administration is deconstructed. Its thesis is that much of the discourse on the theory of public administration is embedded in Wilsonian scholarship and the New Public Management (NPM) paradigm, which their epistemological character is barren for any theorisation undertaking to flourish. Situated within Wilsonian scholarship and the NPM paradigm, scholarly efforts to construct a theory of public administration are destined to naught. This conclusion is based on the results of a critical review of the existing body of literature on the theoretical questions of the discipline, with a particular bias to Woodrow Wilson's work and the body of literature on the NPM. This is because Wilson's work "has pervaded... public administrative thought" to the point of assuming the status of a dominant paradigm during the early stages of the evolution of the discipline (Rosenbloom, 1993: 504).

The NPM achieved the same destiny in the 1980s and 1990s. The Wilsonian scholarship and NPM failed to spawn a universally-acceptable theory of public administration because of the binary logic of the structure of their discourses, which evolved on the basis of "a dream of the abolition of politics" (Torgerson, 1986: 34). Alongside the founding perspectives of the discipline as ingrained in the Hamiltonian scholarship, the contributions critiquing and criticising the Wilsonian and NPM scholarship are analysed. The results of this analysis are used to draw important insights in reconstructing the discourse on the theory of public administration. This article is therefore not about constructing a theory of public administration. Its focus is on deconstructing and deconstructing the discourse on the theory of the discipline. It is a discourse analysis. Its purpose is to show the way in which the Wilsonian and NPM paradigms constructed the versions of their realities in terms of the epistemological basis of the discipline, and to "uncover [their] ideological assumptions" concealed in their "persuasive rhetoric" (Niewenhuis, 2012:102, 113). The logic that frames the contention of this article is that a theoretical question could only be answered if the discourse that should evolve into its settlement is structured in a coherent and systematic way.

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