The role of public management

So, what is public administration? Put simply, public administration is the planning, organising, directing and co-ordination of operations to serve the public good. This is normally handled by those working for the government, but there are also many people working for non-profits who are involved with public administration.

In this article we’ll give an introduction to public administration, explain the meaning of public administration and detail some of the major public administration topics. We’ll also cover the types and principles of public administration, the details of what you would study in a public administration programme as well as the career options for qualified public administrators.

What is public administration?

Surprisingly, public administration does not have a universally agreed-upon definition of what it is. As the Canadian Encyclopedia puts it “The scope of the subject is so great and so debatable that it is easier to explain than define. Public administration is both a field of study, or a discipline, and a field of practice, or an occupation.”

The concept of public administration goes back into antiquity. As long as there have been rulers, there have been people that have had to administer the people and areas that are ruled over. However, it is only over the last 100 years or so that it has been studied as an academic discipline. The modern concept of public administration has its roots in the work of Max Weber and his work on the development of the bureaucracy. Although things have moved on and the term bureaucracy has come to have some negative associations attached to it, this is where the roots of public administration lie.

Many definitions of public administration define it very much in terms of government administration and define public administration as the implementation of government policy. Others have argued that this is too limiting as there is also a role for public administration outside of government, as shown by the administrative work of large non-governmental organisations like the United Nations or the World Health Organisation.

Broader definitions define public administration as a field in which leaders serve communities to advance the common good and effect positive change.

What are the types and principles of public administration?

Historically, public administration has centred around the principles of efficiency and economy. That is, good public administration was believed to be that which provided efficient public services at the lowest possible cost, in terms of both money and effort.

More recent approaches to public administration have built on this to widen what is defined as the public administration principles. They go beyond the principles of efficiency and include wider social issues such as responsiveness to social needs, public participation in decision making and issues of justice and equal treatment.

In South Africa, we have a department specifically for public administration – the Department of Public Service and Administration. The recent shift towards broader responsibilities of public administration can be seen by what is included in the department’s mandate as was set out in the Public Services Act of 1994. It goes well beyond the earlier principles of efficiency and economics and takes on broader societal functions and elements of accountability that are seen as essential to a good democracy.

The department says that its mandate “has evolved over the years from transforming and modernising the Public Service through the development and implementation of policies and frameworks, to providing implementation support to ensure compliance, improve service delivery and strengthen monitoring and evaluation”.

South Africa’s public service is involved with the following topics or areas of concern. As you can see, these concepts take the responsibility from basic efficiency to issues such as ethics and inclusivity:

  • the functions of the public service
  • organisational structures and the establishment of departments and other organisational and governance arrangements
  • labour relations, conditions of service and other employment practices for employees
  • the health and wellness of employees
  • information management
  • electronic government in the public service
  • integrity, ethics, conduct and anti-corruption
  • transformation, reform, innovation and any other intervention to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the public service and its service delivery to the public.

Now that we’ve covered just what the public administration definition is, as well as the broadening of public administration topics to their modern form, we will take a look at how to enter this field.

Public administration courses and modules

If you want to work in public administration, then you will need the correct qualifications. An online search for public administration courses will show that this is a very popular field, with a large number of public administration qualifications on offer.

The University of Pretoria offers an online Postgraduate Diploma in Public Management course. The course takes two years to complete and is made up of six separate modules that each take 16 weeks to complete.

The modules in the course are:

  • Governance, Public Management and African Leadership
  • Public Sector Transformation and Reform
  • Programme and Project Management in the Public Sector
  • Advanced Human Resource Management in the Public Sector
  • Advanced Public Financial Management and Budgeting
  • Public Sector Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation

To be admitted for study in this programme, applicants need to have either a bachelor’s degree or a diploma at NQF 7, plus at least three years of experience working in the public sector. You can view the full requirements here. You can also read a more detailed breakdown of the modules, the admission requirements as well as the course fees.

Public administration careers

Of course, the government is the most obvious employer in this field, but as a qualified public administrator, you will have a host of skills that are desirable by many large organisations.

These are some of the positions and careers that you could pursue with a public administration qualification:

  • Manager
  • Administrator
  • Financial planner.
  • Human resource manager.
  • Human resource administrator.
  • Public policy analyst.
  • Municipal manager
  • Public administration consultant
  • City manager
  • Mayor
  • Development worker

To see some of the jobs currently available in South Africa for qualified public administrators, you can look at these sites:

As you can see from the above jobs listings, there is ample work available for qualified public administrators in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

If this appeals to you, and you meet the minimum entry requirements for public administration, then please have a look at the modules and what you can learn in the University of Pretoria’s Postgraduate Diploma in Public Management.

You can also read further about public administration and learn about the skills needed by public administrators, the role of public management during a disaster, as well as explore the rest of the online programmes that the University of Pretoria offers.