What is public administration?

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What does the term public administration refer to?[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

When we talk about public administration, very often we try to be simple and elegant, we talk about "State in action", which is one of the very first possible definitions proposed by Von Stein in 1869 in his work Die vollziehende gewalt; Chevallier speaks of "state apparatus" in Administrative Science published in 1986. These definitions are vague, unspecified and superficial. Nevertheless, they say something right, if there were no public administration, any form of public administration would be impossible.

Government activity requires public administration to support this activity. All the means found in the public administration are necessary for the accomplishment of all the tasks entrusted to the public administration.

If we look at the definition of public administration as an executive body that does not have its own autonomy and capacity for initiative, we would find ourselves faced with a boring and boring research object. Many studies have shown that it is necessary to go beyond the simplistic nature of this definition, which requires the integration of own political powers and the capacity for initiative in public administration.

Many authors insist on the fact that there is a rationality specific to public administration which is not the same as that of the political sphere. There would be empowerment of these two spheres. It is the idea that the two would not coincide, there would be no subordination of the administration to the political sphere. It's not just subordination, but something more complicated.

Political power passes while public administration lasts. There are different temporalities. A public administration will not stop. Not all public administration will leave office at the time of the change of government. There are different forms of empowerment and temporalities, namely the temporality of elections and the long-term temporality of public administration.

We must go further and highlight the political powers of public administration. It is not only in a subordinate relationship, but can also influence political power and the political process. There is not only empowerment because there is temporality and a rationality of its own, but there is also influence because the public administration will influence political decision-making.

Bezes highlights three powers exercised by the public administration in the chapter "Administration" in the Dictionary of Public Policies published in 2004:

  • Shaping power;
  • Power of implementation;
  • Power of intermediation.

For Bezes, public administration is necessarily involved in political decisions because it has the knowledge necessary for political decision-making. It has the information necessary for decision-making. Public administration has a strong interest in participating in political decision-making because it has information that can feed into the political process and it helps to determine what the decision will be. Senior officials will try to influence political arrangements to get the most resources. What is meant by the three powers proposed by Bezes?

Power to format[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Bezes refers to the issue of political decision. Public servants are not only enforcers of rules in action or policy regulations, but also participate in the drafting of those regulations. Civil servants and senior officials are involved in the drafting of regulations and even legislation. There are two ways to define the power of formatting:

  • The legislative texts will give very general and vague objectives to the people in the administration's field, leaving considerable room for manoeuvre for civil servants to know in what direction they will implement and apply these texts. The senior civil servant will proceed with the editing of these texts in order to give a more precise direction to the people in the field. By example, in the field of unemployment insurance in Switzerland, there is the law LACI which details the objectives and missions of unemployment insurance in Switzerland, one of the main objectives and the rapid and sustainable integration of unemployed people. The idea is to try to reintegrate unemployed people into the labour market. The body responsible for implementing this objective is SECO. This body has asked internal experts and people to find out how to clarify the general objectives laid down in the law. They have developed other indicators that define what constitutes good inclusion in unemployment insurance. A general objective says that the aim is to make reintegration rapid and sustainable and there is a way to translate the objective which is the power of implementation saying that the goal of speed is more important than the goal of sustainability. In other words, there are general objectives and a way of translating them. There is an integrated formatting power, executed, accomplished and used by SECO to interpret a very general rule in a given sense. The senior civil service has had a power of formalisation which has made it possible to direct unemployment insurance in one direction rather than another.
  • Bezes refers to the involvement of public servants in public policymaking. The first dimension is a power to interpret rules decided at the level of parliament or political power; they are vague rules that are interpreted in one way or another, they are put into form. In this dimension, through the productivity of translating a technical dossier into political terms, the senior civil servants will mobilize the knowledge of the field they have to translate it into political issues in order to tell the political actors which elements must be taken into account. The administrative reality is translated into political reality to tell what reality needs to be taken into account in the political decision. The high office must also translate the political process into administrative terms that are relevant to the actions of those concerned. Technical terms must be translated into understandable terms.

The administration is not simply receptive to a law, but is an actor of this regulatory content. It may be an actor in the legislative process or as a body that will interpret the content of a law in a certain sense.

Pouvoir de mise en œuvre[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Énormément de textes ont été rédigés pour décrire le pouvoir de mise en œuvre. Il y a toujours une forme d’autonomie de l’administration publique, il y a toujours un espace discrétionnaire de l‘administration publique pour mettre en œuvre les règles édictées. Il y a toujours une autonomie, un pouvoir discrétionnaire qui est un pouvoir de mise en œuvre. Lorsqu’on met en œuvre, on ne fait pas qu’appliquer la règle édictée par le pouvoir politique, mais on doit essayer de l’ajuster. Il y a là un pouvoir qui peut avoir une influence très forte sur le contenu de la politique publique.

La complexité de la réalité est telle qu’on n’arrive pas à trouver les règles qui encerclent la complexité et qu’il faut avoir une marge de manœuvre. Il est impossible de contrôler complètement le travail des acteurs de terrain. La manière dont les acteurs vont interpréter les lois existantes parfois, même de ne pas les appliquer, laisse un espace d’autonomie qui est quasi inévitable.

  • asymétrie d’information : une personne sur le terrain a beaucoup plus d’informations pour prendre une décision que son chef ou le gouvernement qui a pris la décision d’édicter la loi. Il y a une relation avec la proximité du terrain donnant une position de pouvoir aux gens sur le terrain qui détiennent un pouvoir de mise en œuvre. Ils connaissent les circonstances, les problèmes, les relations de forme. En tenant compte de tout cela, ils vont prendre une décision.
  • qualification et expertise : les gens de terrain acquièrent une qualification et une expertise que leur chef ou les décisionnaires politiques n’ont pas nécessairement.

L’asymétrie d’information et la complexité des cas, les connaissances, les qualifications des personnes, la neutralité de l’administration qui n’est pas au service d’intérêt partisan, mais de l’intérêt public. Il y a un espace qui se met en place de pouvoir de mise en œuvre. Un fonctionnaire de terrain a toujours un pouvoir de mise en œuvre dans la manière d’exécuter cette mission.

Certains auteurs comme Lipsky mettent en avant que les streets levels bureaucrats sont les vrais policy-makers faisant vraiment la politique. La politique ne se fait pas dans les parlements ou les officines de l’administration publique, mais par les gens de terrain parce qu’ils ont un pourvoir de mise en œuvre qui peut infléchir le politique.

Power of intermediation[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Bezes sees public administration as an interface between different actors involved in public policy. The public administration will be in contact with the different groups. For Bezes, the administration plays with the different groups.

At Bezes, there are three elements that complicate the simplistic and naive definition of Von Stein and Chevalier. The administration is not simply the armed arm of political power, since it has autonomy, implementation and intermediation powers.

The public administration is a specific social entity which cannot be assimilated to other types of organisations because of four particular characteristics:

  1. the relationship with its target audience: a company's target audience is its clientele, it is a customer who is not captive. The target audience of the public administration is not a customer, but an audience of subject persons or beneficiaries and used public administration who is not in a customer relationship that it would be a matter of attracting and convincing to buy a product. The report to the target audience emphasises the concept of equal treatment. In the report to the target audience of the public administration, equal treatment is central.
  2. its means of action[and internal structure]: this refers to the Weberian definition of the State, which states that the State has a monopoly of legitimate coercion that can exercise means to compel citizens to comply with certain standards that companies do not have. The company can persuade, the state can compel.
  3. goods and services distributed: the public service is the set of goods and services that will contribute to a country's social, economic and territorial cohesion. When we talk about public service, there are four principles that must be respected in opposition to a private good and service: accessibility to a geographical service[1], everyone has the right of access to a public service; affordability in terms of price[2], no one must be excluded from the public service for reasons of price or cost; quality of services[3], access must be given to services of acceptable quality; adaptability of these services[4], the public service must be in line with citizens' needs. These principles are not found in the case of private companies.
  4. the objectives pursued: the objective pursued is the general interest, which is a complex objective since it can combine different interests that are difficult to reconcile.

These four characteristics distinguish a public administration from another type of organization.

How is public administration different from private administration?[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The new public management believes that the distinction between these two forms of organization can be removed, but traditionally, we distinguish between them.

Private firm Public administration
Clear objective
Multiple objectives and vague objectives
may differ depending on public policies such as budgetary or health objectives.
Control "automatic" performance
performance can be monitored according to accounting criteria.
Ambiguous definition and complex performance monitoring and evaluation
outputs vs policy outcomes. The link is complex to establish.
Congruence between managers' and owners' interests
careers, stock options, etc.
Difficulties in the control of public managers by political power
information asymmetries, non-congruence possibilities.
Direct market sanctions
bank, stock exchange
No public bankruptcy

What is the concrete definition of public administration?[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The definition of public administration will revolve around three dimensions:

  • Organizational dimension [1,2,3];
  • The link with the public arena [4,5];
  • Public administration services are services provided to all citizens and not just privileged citizens [6,7].
  1. An organization involving the cooperation of several people to achieve one or more objectives.
  2. This coordination is guaranteed by the existence of a hierarchy, as well as by the existence of impersonal written rules governing the functioning of the public administration, but also the recruitment and promotion of civil servants within it.
  3. Cooperation involves specialisation or division of labour, which requires some coordination.
  4. This cooperative effort takes place in a public arena (administration plays an important role in the formulation and implementation of public policies and is therefore an integral part of the political process).
  5. Its role in the public arena subjects it to formal and informal controls by politicians and public opinion (cf. notion of accountability and its various forms)
  6. The administration is public in the sense that:
    1. it carries out, on behalf of the entity holding the monopoly of lawful coercion, activities that affect the choice of purposes and the allocation of resources within a given company;
    2. it provides services to the community and serves the general interest (vs. special interests);
    3. it has overall competence (it pursues a large number of objectives) that it implements in order to satisfy the public interest.
  7. The public administration is fundamentally different from a private administration: public goods and services are not sold on a market, the administration operates in continuity and throughout the national territory.

References[modifier | modifier le wikicode]