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Philosophy and Public Administration: An unlikely marriage with a happy-ending?

November 24, 2020

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by Edoardo Ongaro.

There is a sense in which ‘Public Administration’ – and its key variations on the theme, namely ‘Public Management’ or ‘Public Governance’ –  are seen as a ‘technical field’, an area of study and professional practice which should have grown into a purely scientific endeavour, but for some weird reason has not yet fully achieved that status. Akin to other fields like environmental studies or labour psychology, also Public Administration would be amenable – this line of reasoning goes – to being studied as a technical-scientific subject. Certain ‘solutions’ would then be found, and any reasonable government in the world would then adopt them – or be held to account by its citizens if it failed to do so.

But is this narrative convincing? The answer looks a bit like a sophism: both yes and no; indeed, surely ‘yes’ and definitely ‘no’ at the same time. ‘Yes’, because Public Administration can be studied with scientific means, and there is a strong technical component to it – after all, it is about addressing ‘how to’ problems, like: how to deliver better public services at lesser costs? And yet the answer is also a round ‘No’, because Public Administration is a human-made world, a social world fraught with value-laden decisions, a system of interacting human beings trying to incorporate the others’ behaviours, decisions and even thoughts into their own decision-making (‘reflexivity’). Public administration belongs to the ‘sciences of the spirit’ (copyright of the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey) as much as it also partakes of the ‘socio-technical sciences’ insofar as it can be seen as an area of interdisciplinary quasi-technical investigation.

Talking about public administration, public governance, public leadership or public services management is to some extent entering a technical area, but at the same time it demands to engage with key issues that are ultimately philosophical in nature; questions like: how can the ‘welfare’ of the people be improved? How can we organise ourselves so that we can live together in better ways than we currently do? These are inherently philosophical questions, inextricably intermingled with socio-technical questions. And the importance of the topic can hardly be overestimated, as shown so clearly by the crucial role performed by public administrative systems in enabling (or not) countries and regions of the world to cope with terrible challenges like the one posed by the covid-19 pandemic.

It is for this reason that the book “Philosophy and Public Administration: An Introduction” – published by Edward Elgar and whose second edition in open access format has been supported by the Open University – can provide, I hope, a much-needed bridge to connect two worlds that are deeply linked, but rarely seen so: philosophical wisdom and public administration. The former is deemed ‘lofty’ and ‘abstract’, but it is not. The latter is deemed technical, even a bit arid, and not that fashionable since an ill-conceived rhetoric starting in the 1980s belittled the standing of the public sector and public services under the derogatory label of ‘bureaucracy’; but this is not the case. Indeed, philosophical wisdom, far from being ‘lofty’ and ‘abstract’, is about very concrete and the most important things of life. And public administration is both very important for attempting to improve at least some of the things that matter in life – for example: how to live together well – and a very exciting topic. The challenge is how to bridge the two, as these two fields have over the recent decades grown in almost complete isolation from one another (though this was not the case in the past, when indeed scholars and practitioners of public administration used to be trained in philosophy and the humanities). A book is not enough to remedy this lack of interconnections – unless it can be the sparkle that kindles a re-engagement of public administration people with philosophy and the humanities, and vice versa, by also getting philosophers into seeing social problems also as public services problems, and constitutively so. My hope is this book may contribute its small bit to help re-activate these connections and elicit a much-needed dialogue.

The publication open access of this book has been made possible by a collaboration between the Open University and Edward Elgar Publishing. It is the mission and in the best tradition of an innovative university like the Open University to support the diffusion of knowledge that may change lives, and in the best tradition of a leading publisher as Elgar to courageously publish challenging books on innovative topics. I am grateful to both, and I hope you may find this book great reading.


Edoardo Ongaro, Professor of Public Management, The Open University, UK

Philosophy and Public Administration is out now. The book has been published under our Open Access programme and is freely available to read on Elgaronline.

Find out more about our Open Access publishing

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