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Comparative Analysis - Accountability of Public Administration

In 1947 John Gaus wrote perceptively of the "ecology of public administration.” He presented basic ideas concerning the integration of the study of "ecology" into the overall study and practice of public administration. The locus of his arguments all revolved around the basic theme that public administration (or government bureaucracy) is necessary in order to facilitate a better life for citizens of an advanced, democratic society, like the United States'. Gaus (1947) uses this theme as the basis for formulating his own theory on ecology and public administration: "An ecological approach to public administration builds, then, quite literally, from the ground up..." (pg. 84). The study of public administration, according to Gaus' theory, should be based on factors that are useful in explaining the "ebb and flow of the functions of government" (pg. 84). Those factors are: people, place, physical technology, social technology, wishes & ideas, catastrophe, and personality. The balance of his work is devoted to a discussion of these principles and why they are important to both students of and practitioners of public administration.

Gaus uses the automobile as an example. He notes that the original inventions and innovations (vulcanization of rubber and the internal combustion engine) get lost in the "disputes over taxation ... or defects of the system..." (pg. 85). The citizen then blames the bureaucrats and politicians for the problems, yet their real failure was neglecting to "clarify the basic ecological causes" of the problems (pg. 85). Along with technical change comes societal change in how it interacts with and demands new technologies.

The conflict between ecology and public administration had not been contained in Gaus’ (1947) theory alone but rather, it had been the root cause of several tragedies in US. In Aron’s (2000) Dumping $2.6 Million on Bakersfield public administration of funds for a health clinic fails to take into account much of what Gaus stated was necessary for effective management of the public good. The case begins with the passage of the Migrant Health Act of 1970. This piece of US Federal legislation provided local communities, with high numbers of migrant farm workers, funding to establish health clinics for migrants. But it also included an amendment from Senator Walter Mondale that required that funds be administered by boards that had representation from the communities that these health clinics were to serve.

This meant that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) would have to spend all the funds or return them to the Department of the Treasury; something they did not want to do. So the funds were sent out to the regional offices for disbursement to projects in their regions. And this is where the public administration systems begin to fail. The regional office in an attempt to guarantee the funding got out the door, awards a $2.6 Million dollar grant to an organization that has a primary interest in poor black citizen issues; an issue that was not even remotely connected to the legislation. This in and of itself was not of major concern; it was the fact that HEW made the award in a shroud of secrecy that got the Bakersfield and Kern County communities in an uproar. HEW's failure to consider, or even consult with, current local migrant health care programs as potential recipients created a storm of controversy.

The author points out that main problem with this whole mess was the "ease with which political considerations were able to obscure the stated objective" (Aron, 2000; 96). That problem is exactly what Gaus had addressed in his piece: "The original causes ... get obscured in the ultimate disputes over taxation, jurisdiction ... or over the merits or defects of the system..." (pg.85). The similarity between the theoretical statement of what could happen and the reporter's statement of what actually occurred is uncanny.

In a similar case, Charles’s (2000) The Last Flight of Space Shuttle Challenger showed the failure of the administration of the materials used in the Challenger causing it to explode. The explosion arose from a political pressure exerted by Clinton-Gore administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) led by Carol Browner to demand that NASA help to front for environmentalism. Because of this, NASA had stopped using Freon, a fluorocarbon that greens claim damages the ozone layer, in its thermal-insulating foam.  NASA found in 1997 after the first launch with the politically correct substitute that the Freon-free foam had destroyed nearly 11 times as many of the shuttle's ceramic tiles as had the foam containing Freon.  The politicized foam was less sticky and more brittle under extreme temperatures.  But apparently little or nothing was done to resist the environmentalist politicians.

In a 1997 ''Field Journal'' report of the first shuttle launches to use the new foam, NASA mechanical-systems engineer Greg Katnik noted that 'there had been significant damage to the [ceramic] tiles' and 'the extent of damage at the conclusion of this mission was not 'normal.' Katnik fingered the new foam as a cause of the damage. The bottom line is that in this case NASA made or was forced to make design changes based on claims that are not scientifically established.

In the case of Bakerfield, had the HEW Regional administrators involved people from the beginning and installed appropriate administrators from the beginning, they would not have seen the project blow up in their faces. On the same note, had the government did not pressure NASA to use a different foam, the explosion could not have taken place. It also seems that they were the victims of what Gaus warns against: a failing to educate the populace as to the reasons for the administrator's course of action. Had the community been sufficiently educated as to what the law prescribed and thus why they chose the group they did, they may not have run into all the opposition and infighting that occurred.

An analysis of the situation points out to the validity of Gaus’ (1947) arguments. Applying John Gaus' analytical framework to assess the ecology of public management as the twenty-first century approaches has suggested three things. First, the third wave pressures driving politicians toward the neoadministrative state appear formidable and enduring. Pressures to downsize the overt size of the national government by shifting federal responsibilities downward and outward in the neoadministrative state will not soon abate. Second, ideological debates over service delivery framed as markets versus governments mischaracterize the dilemmas raised by the neoadministrative state. (Agranoff and McGuire 1998).

From this point, it is imperative to stress the accountability of the public officials who had made such decisions. Mozek and Dubnick (1987) identified ways that responsibility-accountability occur in democratic governments particularly in cases such as the tragedy of the Challenger where seven people died. These include hierarchical, legal, professional, and political (Romzek and Dubnick 1987). The hierarchical mechanism focuses on organizationally imposed rules and sanctions. The legal method focuses on court actions, review of administrative actions by courts, and the imposition of judicially defined sanctions on administrators. The professional mechanism focuses on a deference to expertise emphasis on professional knowledge. Romzek and Dubnick (p. 229) posit a definition of political mechanisms associated with accountability-responsibility that includes potentially the "general public, elected officials, agency heads, agency clientele, other special interest groups, and future generations."

The ultimate purpose of methods that impose accountability and provide definition of responsibility is to achieve responsiveness. This means acting in accordance with the preferences and expectations of the person or entity to which one is accountable or responsible. Accountability and responsibility contribute to the goal of responsiveness in several ways. Accountability at its most basic means answerability for one's actions or behavior (Dwivedi and Jabbra 1988, 5; Harmon 1995, 25-26; Kernaghan and Langford 1990, 157). Accountability is the obligation owed by all public officials to the public, the ultimate sovereign in a democracy, for explanation and justification of their use of public office and the delegated powers conferred on the government through constitutional processes.

In the two cases mentioned, the accountability of the government officials had been put into question. However, no sufficient cases were filed nor there were admittance of guilt. Obviously, the primary problem lies in the reconciliation of ecology policies and that of administrative orders and laws. While, we acknowledge that in most cases, they may be conflicting, there are various ways in order to minimize the damaging effects such as the integration of policies and education or information drive of policies and consultation from experts.



Agranoff, R. and McGuire, M. (1998) Multinetwork Management: Collaboration and the Hollow State in Local Economic Policy. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 8:1:67-91.

Aron, M. (2000) 'Dumping $2.6 Million on Bakersfield' Case Study in Richard J Stillman II, Public Administration: Concepts and Cases, Seventh Edition.

Charles, M. (2000) 'The Last Flight of Space Shuttle Challenger' in Richard J Stillman II, Public Administration: Concepts and Cases, Seventh Edition.

Dwivedi, O.P., and Jabbra, J.G. (1988) “Public Service Responsibility and Accountability. In Jabbra and Dwivedi”, eds. Public Service Accountability: A Comparative Perspective. West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian.

Gaus, J. (1947) Reflections on Public Administration. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press.

Harmon, M.M. (1995) Responsibility As Paradox. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.

Kernaghan, K. and Langford, J.W. (1990) The Responsible Public Servant. Halifax, Canada: Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Long, NE. (1996) Public policy and administration: the goals of rationality and responsibility. Public Administration Review, Vol. 56.

Romzek, B. and Dubnik, M. (May-June 1987) Accountability in the Public Sector: Lessons from the Challenger Tragedy. Public Administration Review, pgs 227-238.






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