Historical and Legal Approach to the Study of Public Administration

The study of History is often cited as important to understand the present as well as the future. The study of public administration also cannot be complete without understanding the evolution and progress of civilizations.

The Historical approach to public administration focuses on the administrative systems, process and policies practiced in the past and then try to interpret them relevantly in the context of present times. There are two sides of the coin which the scholars have argued, while this approach may provide rich details regarding what worked and what not in the past but authors like John Pierre and B Guy Peters say that the study of history cannot provide any usable information which can be used now and the students of public administration should not have such misconceived notions. The important point to note is that scholars should know when to revisit the past and when to disassociate from it to draw pertinent theories and conclusions.

The study of history of administration does not become any lesser important even in the light of above contrasting argument. It remains important because developments in society over time and ages have a lasting effect on the quality and quantity of public services delivered.

This approach helps the scholars and students to understand that how the Government adjusted its administration and functioning with changing times and what ramifications it had. The study of the past also provides crucial information regarding why some methods, policies, systems etc were adopted and which needs did they address.

With the importance of historical approach established in studies of public administration, we shall now see what the legal approach to public administration was. Taking the legal route to public administration would venture into the formidable legal structure and organization of public bodies. As the name suggests, this approach associated itself with laws, rules, regulations, codes, official duties etc. It also described the power, limitations and discretionary powers of the authority and judicial decisions. Many countries especially in Europe like Germany, France, Belgium and others have adopted the legal route to study public administration.

It works well for these countries as they have two distinct divisions of laws, the constitutional and the other administrative. The constitutional law mainly dealt with the interrelation of power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the Government while the administrative part concerns itself with the functioning of the public organizations.

The legal approach throws light on the legal framework in which the public administration operates but excludes other important and informal aspects like sociological and psychological dynamics at play and therefore is considered an incomplete approach by many scholars. However there were many other takers for it and in USA, Frank J Goodnow, was an important advocate of this legal approach. In his book Politics and Administration he challenges Montesquieu’s theory of separation of power in the book Esprit De Lois which proposed three branches of power; legislative, executive and judiciary but highlighted the independence of judiciary from administrative as the sole recognition of judicial power. According to Goodnow, this in itself was not sufficient and that extreme form of this theory was incapable of application to any concrete political organization. Goodnow and his further work have greatly influenced the way the American Public Administration shaped up in the later years.


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