By Laurence E. Lynn, Jr.

Sydney Stein, Jr. Professor of Public Management

The University of Chicago

November 15, 2001

Prepared for the forthcoming Handbook of Public Administration, to be published by Sage Publications, Inc.



By Laurence E. Lynn, Jr.

The University of Chicago

[H]e liked to organize, to contend, to administer; he could make people work his will, believe in him, march before him and justify him. This was the art, as they said, of managing . . . .

Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady

[P]ublic management . . . is a world of settled institutions designed to allow imperfect people to use flawed procedures to cope with insoluble problems.

James Q. Wilson

Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It


Public management is the subject of a rapidly growing literature that is international in scope and multifarious in content.1 The common sense of public management is relatively straightforward. Good public managers, whatever their particular positions or responsibilities, are men and women with the temperament and skills to organize, motivate, and direct the actions of others in and out of government toward the creation and achievement of goals that warrant the use of public authority. Few public laws and policies are self-executing, and, in their formulation, all might benefit from managerial insight and experience. Under virtually any political philosophy or regime, then, the achievement of good government requires the responsible and competent use of public authority by a government’s managers.

Common sense obscures issues that have been at the heart of public management from its inception as a field of study and practice, however. What if the goals to be achieved and their possible costs and consequences are unclear or in conflict? What if public managers are given insufficient authority, resources, and tools to organize, motivate, and monitor the efforts needed to accomplish those purposes for which they are responsible? How does effective management compare in importance to good policy design, rational organization, adequate resources, effective monitoring, and the approbation of affected publics? What is effective managerial practice and how does it vary across the many contexts in which public management is practiced? How might effective public management be enabled by legislators, executives, and judicial authorities, and how might particular managerial reforms or strategies affect governmental performance?

The objective of public management scholarship is to provide theoretical and empirical foundations for addressing both the above questions and the myriad specific questions that arise in organizing and carrying out managerial responsibilities in government departments, bureaus, and offices: means-ends rationality; the role of political-legal constraints; appropriate levels of discretion and resources; ex ante versus ex post controls over administration; accountability to the public; criteria for evaluating administration; and administrative reform. The purpose of this chapter is to provide an overview of the field that is concerned with these issues.

It will be useful at the outset to introduce distinctions that are fundamental to the perspective of this chapter. Public administration’s classic American literature understood management to be the responsible and lawful exercise of discretion by public administrators. In this view, public management is a structure of governance (Scott 1998), that is, a constitutionally appropriate formalization of managerial discretion intended to enable government to effect the will of the people. In contrast, recent literature has tended to view public management as a craft, that is, as skilled practice by individuals performing managerial roles. To the extent that public managers practice their craft responsibly, that is, that they respect constitutional restraints and routinely evince values that are widely held to be legitimate and appropriate (rather than narrowly partisan or self regarding), then public management becomes even more: an institution of constitutional governance (Weimer 1995). Public management as an institution observes "rules of practice", that is, de facto restraints on or guides to behavior, that ensure their PUBLIC MANAGEMENT

By Laurence E. Lynn, Jr.

The University of Chicago





How alike or unalike are managing in the public and private sectors? Can and should government be more business-like? Is management generic. To the extent that public and private management involve similar temperaments, skills, and techniques, then the extensive body of ideas and practices relating to corporate success can be applied to the problems of public management, and the public sector can in principle draw on the large pool of private sector managers to meet its own managerial needs. To the extent that, from structural or craft perspectives, they are different, then the public sector must have access to sources of knowledge, techniques, and skills suited to its unique character.

This issue was addressed with authority at the dawn of public administration as a profession. Argued Frank J. Goodnow in 1893, ‘[i]n transacting its business [the government’s] object is not usually the acquisition of gain but the furtherance of the welfare of the community. This is the great distinction between public and private business’ (1893, 1902, p. 10). At a more subtle level, Goodnow argued that ‘the grant to the administration of . . . enormous discretionary powers’ means that ‘[t]here has . . . been a continuous attempt on the part of the people to control the discretion of the administration in the exercise of the sovereign powers of the state’ (1893, 1902, p. 10, 11). In 1926, Leonard D. White added the consideration that the principle of consistency — today, we say equity — governs public administration to an extent not observed in business administration (White 1926; cf. Stamp 1923).


The basic elements of the argument that public and private management are fundamentally unalike in all important respects are: (1) that the public interest differs from private interests, (2) that public officials, because they exercise the sovereign power of the state, are necessarily accountable to democratic values rather than to any particular group or material interest, and (3) that the constitution requires equal treatment of persons and rules out the kind of selectivity that is essential to sustaining profitability. Moreover, the extent of the differences between the two sectors has been well documented empirically (Rainey 1997).


Some will argue nonetheless that an enumeration of such differences is misleading because it obscures important similarities. ‘All organizations are public,’ argues Barry Bozeman (1987), by which he means that all organizations, whether governmental, for-profit, or non-profit, are affected to at least some degree by political authority. Thus, he argues, ‘[p]ublic managers can be found in most every type of organization’ because public managers are not limited to government employees but encompass ‘persons who manage publicness’ (p. 146) in any sector. However, one might also argue the converse, that all organizations are ‘private’ to the extent that they are responsible for tasks that are performed by experts who are governed by professional or technocratic authority rather than by stakeholder interests. These tasks were first recognized by Goodnow (1900, p. 85) as ‘the semi-scientific, quasi-judicial, and quasi-business or commercial’ functions of administration, although as Don Price later warned, ‘the expert may come to believe that his science justifies exceeding his authority’ (1959, p. 492), a pervasive danger in all organizations requiring specialized expertise.


The distinction between public and private management, then, is arguably definitive from structural, craft, and institutional perspectives. The two sectors are constituted to serve different kinds of societal interests, and distinctive kinds of skills and values are appropriate to serving these different interests. The distinctions may be blurred or absent, however, when analyzing particular managerial responsibilities, functions, and tasks in particular organizations. The implication of this argument is that lesson drawing and knowledge transfer across sectors is likely to be useful and should never be rejected on ideological grounds.