Thursday, August 11 2022

Colin Talbot deals with the ‘ecosystem’ of public administration that existed in the UK and has been replicated in various forms in many Commonwealth countries. He explains what has changed in recent years and insists on the role of universities, which have largely neglected the subject.

British public administration is dead. Or at the very least, on life support. So what died? I should start by pointing out that we are talking here about studying and educating about the architecture of government and the implementation of its policies. This has primarily, but not exclusively, been a pursuit in universities. Or it was.

First, the teaching of public administration as a subject in its own right is almost moribund. There are a few Masters in Public Administration (MPA) and Public Policy (MPP) in the UK, but these cater mainly to the thriving international market, which has grown significantly over the past two to three decades. There are no more undergraduate courses in public administration, as there were in the 1970s and 1980s – just a few modules here and there on other courses.

Research is still relatively strong: contributions to the many international journals on public administration by British academics continue. There are even several journals nominally based in the UK. But you are far more likely to meet UK public administration experts at one of the many international conferences than at any national event in the UK.

When I became an academic in 1990, the situation was very different. The first leg of the UK public administration stool in 1990 was still provided by the Royal Institute for Public Administration (RIPA), founded in 1922. With Public administration, the journal, founded at the same time, these were truly “world-leading” – predating most others, including the later, but ultimately much larger, American public administration community. RIPA was a mix of academic and practitioner expertise – government professors and permanent secretaries met frequently at RIPA events at their central London home, where he established a library and ran training courses.

“Sunningdale”, or the Civil Service College as it was officially called, was the second stop. Established in 1970 following the Fulton Report, in Sunningdale Park, Berkshire, the College has provided training courses to thousands of civil servants. It also provided a venue, away from London, where senior civil servants, local government officials, academic experts and others could meet at short courses, seminars and conferences.

The third leg of this public administration stool was provided by the University Joint Council Public Administration Committee. The PAC was primarily an academic body, but its annual conference—often held in Sunningdale—also attracted a significant number of senior officials.

This public administration “ecosystem” of RIPA, Sunningdale and the Public Administration Committee was replicated in various forms in many Commonwealth countries and was undoubtedly the world leader. Only the French and American systems were similar in their integration of the national expertise of academics and practitioners.

So what happened? The first step to hack was RIPA. He had made questionable business decisions in the late 1980s, but what finally did was an instruction from Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine to withdraw funding from Whitehall in 1992. Sunningdale went through a process of change, becoming the National School of Government for a short time. while before being closed down by the coalition government in 2012. The Public Administration Committee – the mainly academic body – continues to function, but in a much reduced form. And here we enter the murky world of academic fads and institutional politics.

The study of government as a set of institutions gradually fell out of fashion from the 1990s. University departments of government became “politics and international relations”. Undergraduate courses are gone. At the same time, the eruption of business schools and MBAs has consumed much of the more “public management” side of public administration. In 1990 there were virtually no business schools or MBAs in the UK; within a decade, both were more or less ubiquitous.

These changes have also contributed to the fragmentation of UK public administration scholarships. Academics based in business schools – even when they taught “public management” courses – were drawn to management and business conferences and journals. As the ‘politics and IR’ schools took over, the public administration element tended to diminish, be marginalized and pushed into ‘political’ journals and institutions.

Today, the UK public administration academic community is divided between the Public Administration Committee, the British Academy of Management’s Public Management Special Interest Group and the Public Policy and Administration Group within the Political Studies Association. There is no single focus for the professional community in the UK. More broadly, although there has been a small revival of interest in ‘public policy’ within universities, much like Whitehall, this tends to neglect the ‘implementation’ side that administration deals with. public.

So who killed British public administration? The main culprit is the government itself – the deaths of RIPA and Sunningdale were mortal blows. But academia also helped – unlike virtually every other advanced democracy. British universities and scholars have largely abandoned public administration. It’s not that there aren’t active British academics in the field – there are. But there is no institutional home and focus for these efforts, so they tend to go unnoticed. And the shift in focus in the field – from public administration to “new” public management – ​​also opened it up to absorption by new business schools in the 1990s. But that’s another story. .


About the Author

Colin Talbot is Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of Manchester and a graduate of LSE.

Featured Image: by Hope House Press – Leather Journal Studio to Unsplash

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