Behavioral Systems Approach to Public Administration

The behavioral approach to public administration owes its genesis to the Human Relations Movement of the 1930s. The movement started off as a protest to the traditional approaches to public administration that focused on organizations, institutionalization, rules, and code of conducts etc with absolutely no mention of people who are the center of all these activities.

The pioneering work done by Taylor and the emergence of Scientific Management created quite stir not just in the industrial sector but also in management and study of public administration. Henry Fayol worked on his Fayolism at around the same time as Taylor and came up with different set of functions and principles for the management bringing in terms like discipline, unity of command, equity and team spirit.

Herbort Sumon was one of the torch bearers of this moment and stated that administrative behavior is part of behavioral sciences and the study of public administration cannot be complete without the study of individual and collective human behavior in administrative situations. The behavioral approach has certain salient features like:

  • The literature that has been written on the topic stays away from being prescriptive. It follows a descriptive course with an exception to the studies carried out in the areas of motivation
  • Individuals were paid attention to and aspects like motivation, decision making, authority and control were brought into focus
  • The informal aspects of an organization and communication patterns amongst the members were emphasized
  • The effort was to identify operational definition of terms and a lot of empirical study like field study, laboratory study and statistical methods were conducted
  • It borrows a lot from other social sciences, social psychology and cultural anthropology

This approach made more sense and had greater relevance than earlier approaches as it took into consideration the fact that the political, social, economical and psychological environments have an effect on human motivation and which ultimately has an effect on the work output of an individual. It also helped to develop an understanding of what, how and why of the way the public administrators act. It showed that the way administration is conducted is influenced by human sentiments, presumptions biases and perception, which many of us may have experienced firsthand during our interaction with government organizations and public administrators.

Behavioral approach has contributed to the study of public administration in many ways like the scholars started studying cross-structural and cross-cultural administrative behaviors and which further paved the way for the comparative study of public administration.

Like all new things, this approach too has its fair share of criticism and the critics have ruthlessly questioned the utility of this approach in the analysis of administrative problems. They find it limited in scope and of little use. The study of public administration goes beyond small social groups and deals with large communities and therefore the behavioral approach falls short.

The modern behavioral approach is leaning towards becoming more action oriented and prescription format nevertheless. Roscoe Martin and his Craft Perspective define the shift better. It concerns itself with the decisions, outcomes and the political skill needed to perform a particular managerial job.


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