Losing the big picture, and influence too

Christopher Pollitt

It isn’t just me. Many seasoned academics in the field of public administration (PA) are concerned about recent trends within our field (Del Rosso, 2015; Raadschelders and Lee, 2011; Radin, 2013; Roberts, 2014; Yang, 2015). Like them, I see a decline in the relevance, accessibility and external status of the subject. A couple of years ago a publisher asked me to write an “advanced introduction” to PA. My subsequent labors, published this month, reinforced this angst (Pollitt, 2016).

Not everyone has exactly the same story, but the main elements are reasonably clear. First, PA has lost sight of the “big picture” — the surrounding architecture of politics, economics, technology, demography and the natural environment which, however indirectly or slowly, pushes and shapes the actions of public authorities. The “large forces”, which were meat and drink to many leading PA scholars between 1920 and, say, 1970, are largely off the academic agenda. Broad-span historical studies are similarly out of fashion (Pollitt, 2008). The main focus has shifted to fashionable techniques (Lean, co-production, innovation, agile strategic management, et al.) or to big abstract concepts and models (governance; networks; transparency; trust).

Christopher Pollitt’s new book was published by Edward Elgar this month.

Second, there has been a (related) academic retreat from issues of substance. Fewer articles in the leading PA journals deal broadly with the major public services (defence, social security, health care, education, police). Fewer still address the main substantive objectives which animate these activities (such as security, inequality, justice, learning, wellbeing). PA has also been slow to pay attention to the looming “megatrends” of demographic change, climate change and technological transformation (Pollitt, 2015; 2016, chapter 6).

Third, many of the highest ranking journals have turned to types of study which tell us — however rigorously — more and more about less and less. Thus we see articles which turn powerful statistical analyses onto questions of how university scientists in one particular system respond to performance incentives, or onto a laboratory experiment relating goal clarity, task significance and performance. [Most] such topics are worthy of study but in the increasing absence of “big picture” work, they are but crumbs on the table. This type of article also alienates practitioner interest, because the foci are narrow and the methods appear abstruse.

Fourth, while this narrowing has been taking place, big changes have suffused the practitioner world. Politicians and senior officials now occupy a more pressurized, 24/7 world where they grapple with globalized, fast-moving and highly aggressive media. They face demands for rapid, joined-up action and much greater transparency. The kind of narrow-focus, technical work that leading journals now seem to favour is a long, long way from this world. One might say that a considerable slice of academia — in both North America and Europe — is travelling in the opposite direction from the practitioners. Meanwhile the private sector has come up with a major rival to academic PA. Management consultancies have established their international empire. They move quickly, present their wares vividly and pay well. Their advice carries the aura of business know-how. It is hard for PA academics to compete. Significantly, more and more of our students seem to want to join a consultancy when they graduate, rather than work at the public service coal face.

So are we all doomed? Of course not. The character and balance of our field has changed before, and will change again. The narrowing tendencies alluded to may be strong, but they are not all-conquering. The exercise of technical virtuosity is not necessarily divorced from concern for the big picture (see, e.g., Hood and Dixon, 2015; Kelman, 2005; Mungiu-Pippidi, 2015). Histories can still be made relevant to our present concerns (e.g. Hood et al, 2014). The critique of narrowness and methodological purity grows daily. A healthier balance between our internal, scientific concerns and our external concerns with “large forces” and the practitioner world may well emerge. But there is nothing inevitable about that: it will be a struggle that will require energies from many, and a re-orientation of careers for some.

Christopher Pollitt is Emeritus Professor at the Public Governance Institute, Leuven University. He is also a fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration.


Del Rosso, S.J. (2015) “Commentary: our new three Rs: rigor, relevance and readability,” Governance 28:2, pp. 127–130.

Hood, C.; Heald, D. and Himaz, R., eds (2014) When the party’s over. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Hood, C. and Dixon, R. (2015) A government that worked better and cost less? Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Kelman, S. (2005) Unleashing change: a study of organizational renewal in government. Washington DC: The Brookings Institution.

Mungiu-Pippidi, A. (2015) The quest for good governance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pollitt, C. (2008) Time, policy, management. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Pollitt, C. (2015) “Wickedness will not wait: climate change and public management research,” Public Money and Management 35:3, pp. 181–186.

Pollitt, C. (2016) Advanced introduction to public management and administration, Cheltenham and Northampton MA., Edward Elgar

Raadschelders, J.C. and Lee, K-H. (2011) “Trends in the study of public administration: empirical and qualitative observations from Public Administration Review, 2000–2009,” Public Administration Review, 71:1, pp. 19–33.

Radin, B. (2013) “Reclaiming our past: linking theory and practice,” PS: Political Science and Politics, 46:01, January, pp1–7

Roberts, A. (2014) Large forces: what’s missing in public administration. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Yang, K. (2015) “From administration to management,” in M. Guy and M. Rubin, eds., Public administration evolving: from foundations to the future, New York: Taylor and Francis, pp. 102–122.