Three Paradigms of Public Administration

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005 by Stephen C. Crate

by Stephen C. Crate December 2003 University of Maine - Orono



Our founding fathers established the philosophical base of American government with the Declaration of Independence and through the creation of the United States Constitution gave its citizens an indivisible base for the governing of this great nation.  However, this was only the beginning.  While the concept of democracy was easy to rally behind, governing a new nation while staying true to liberty was a complex and challenging task.  The power to decide and facilitate the course of our nation after the American Revolution was divided among the stakeholders who created the founding documents and others, land owners, industrialists, patriots who understood the tremendous strength of democratic rule.


“While Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and other notables of the first century of the Republic have dealt with the problem of running the administrative affairs of the state it was not until 1887 that we find serious claim made that public administration should be a self conscious professional field.”[1]


In 1887 Woodrow Wilson wrote an essay titled “The Study of Administration[2].  This began a long academic train of thought that led to our 21st century consciousness regarding public administration.  This body of knowledge developed into essentially three approaches or paradigms to explain the purpose, power, structure and administrative function of public administration theory and practice in American Government.  These paradigms, Universalism, Pluralism and Participatory Democracy have become the major standards by which all other public administrative practices are measured

This paper will first address the distinct perspectives for each of the paradigms. Secondly, it will establish how each paradigm addresses administrative accountability and what critics have said about each paradigm.  Finally, I will offer my own conclusions regarding each of these views in terms of accountability and relevancy to the profession of public administration.

Comparisons of the Schools of Thought


The three paradigms, Universalism, Pluralism and Participatory Democracy have their own distinct perspective on the relationship between public administration and the political system, the nature of administrative task, an administrative decision-making model and finally, the ultimate rationale for the paradigm or the primary rule behind each administrative decision.   Each paradigm is reviewed in terms of these elements and is presented below.



Universalism is a top down administrative structure.  The executive is the ultimate authority. The relationship between public administration and the broader political system is dichotomous, one where opposing forces, the public and the elected officials, seek to equally influence executive decisions directly through administrative process and public opinion via the elective process. 

“Public opinion shall play the part of authoritative critic”[3]. (Wilson)

Universalism administrative tasks are fixed in law and science, cause and effect through the process of scientific method.  Woodrow Wilson best described the universalism view in his article The Study of Administration: “Public Administration is the detailed and systematic execution of public law.”[4]    Fredrick W. Taylor adds to this defining descriptor in his article Scientific Management[5] with clear control being directed by management as they reward initiative with incentives, which according to the theory will encourage workers to be more efficient. Again, this supports Wilson’s view with a top down system for producing efficient workers who produce a cost effective product or service. 

The Universalism model of decision-making is primary a rational process that uses the basic scientific method to reach a decision; 

·        The problem is identified and defined in terms of outcomes.

·        Measurable objectives are listed in terms of options or how the problem might be solved. 

·        Technical and professional expertise is used to identify all reasonable alternatives for each option.

·        Review and Analyze each alternative and probability of the specific options meeting the objective including a rationale for reaching objective.

·        Choose the best alternative.


The above outlined decision-making model requires a standard to judge the final alternative as the right one.  This is best determined by a value or rule.  In Universalism, efficiency is the rule.  All administrative task completion is done and measured against efficiency.  Efficiency is defined as: the quality or degree of producing a desired effect without waste of money or time.[6] This rule asks the question: What extent does this decision or administrative process not waste staff time or public money? 





Pluralism involves interest groups of varying strength participating in the administrative function as appointed officials, consultants, polemic lobbyists and representatives of various citizen, socioeconomic, ethnic or other demographically defined groups. The pluralism paradigm makes a number of assumptions according to Edward Laverty, PhD: [7]

·        Political resources are evenly distributed throughout society.

·        The political system is open and responsive.

·        When individuals perceive government action affecting a primary interest, she/he either joins as existing interest group, which represents their interest or, forms a new one.

·        The strength of an interest group is based on the size of its membership.

·        Interest groups conflict, conciliate, and compromise to formulate public policy.

·        The compromise among interest groups is in direct proportion to their strength. Therefore, each pluralist decision is ipso facto democratic.


As Dr. Laverty states above, each groups’ strength depends on the size of the group. However, I would also submit that the strength, power and effectiveness of the group also significantly depends on the amount of money supporting the group and the specific political savvy and negotiating skill of the representative agent.

The relationship between public administration and the broader political system from a pluralist perspective is best described as cooptative.  “Cooptative is the process of absorbing new elements into the leadership or policy determining structure of an organization as a means of averting threats to its stability or existence” [8].  Pluralism administrative task completion follows a negotiated course of action amongst interest groups with administrative detail left to the control of the administrator and assigned staff.  Specific administrative decisions and policy changes are made in an incremental fashion with concurrence of negotiating groups and administrative executives.  Charles Lindblom summarized six primary requirements of the pluralist model.[9]

1.      The decision-maker focuses only on those policies that differ incrementally from existing policies.

2.      Only a relatively small number of policy alternatives are considered

3.      For each policy alternative, only a restricted number of “important” consequences are considered

4.      The problem confronting the decision-maker is continually redefined:  Incrementalism allows for countless ends-means and means-ends adjustments, which in effect make the problem more manageable.

5.      Thus, there is no one decision or “right” solution but a “never ending series of attacks” on the issues at hand through serial analyses and evaluation.

6.      As such incremental decision-making is described as remedial, geared more to the alleviation of present, concrete social imperfections that to the promotion of future social goals.


The rule for decisions in pluralism is effectiveness.  If it works don’t fix it. The end justifies the means.  If citizens believe the problem is solved, then it is. If constituents and/or target groups are served well and receive the service they require then the policy is successful.

Participatory Democracy


Participatory Democracy is inclusive of anyone who desires to participate in the process.  The relationship between public administration and the broader political system is direct with common citizens, interest groups and any interested and motivated citizens being invited to participate.  The relationship is facilitated through encouraging participation by citizens in formal and informal forums designed to obtain information, personal and individual perspective and overall citizen view of a particular issue or policy.   This information is then used in policy decision making through the legislative, regulatory and administrative process. 

The administrative task in participatory democracy is one in which constant communication is maintained with the public perspective via polls, brainstorming groups, individual administrative contact, solicitation of written comment and public testimony before regulatory and administrative bodies. Planning utilizing a process that is inclusive of all participating individuals and groups is an important part of the participatory democracy paradigm.  It involves the formation of mission that includes a common vision that incorporated the values of the participating groups.   Goals are then developed with specific measurable objectives and strategies for completing those objectives.  The measures give a baseline for success and a clear indication of what changes or adjustments need to be made to reach the objective.  The mission is revisited on a regular basis to incorporated new members and or changing values of the group.

The Administrative decision model in the participatory democracy paradigm is mixed scanning.  Mixed scanning strategy “combines a detailed (“rationalistic) examination of some sectors… with a “truncated” review of other sectors.” [10]  The example given by Etzioni was weather scanning. It would take significant time to scan every possible weather system on the globe and the path each is taking in order to predict weather for a particular area. Reviewing the most prominent weather systems in detail and then scanning the remainder for “out of the ordinary” occurrences usually covers all the possibilities then a relatively accurate prediction is made.  In public policy mixed scanning involves analyzing in detail known policy positions that are representative of demographic majorities and then scanning other positions for potential areas of conflict and or significant impact.  Those areas found in the scan are then considered when deliberating the decision. A consensus is then formed from the information of the scan and a decision is made.  All positions are not included, but the probability of all or most positions being considered, and thus having a policy being equitable, is better than in the incremental and/or the rational decision-making processes.

Equity is the rule of participatory democracy.  Does the policy treat all citizens equally?  Does the policy decision give special advantage to special elite or wealthy groups?  If the straight face answer is yes then the ideal of participatory democracy is reached.

Administrative Accountability


Assuring administrative accountability is the primary reason for the discourse and study of these schools of thoughts. Many citizens, particularly libertarians, of The United States of America are continuously asking questions.

Who is watching the bottom line?

Who is in charge?

Are the wolves watching the chicken house?

Who is making whom accountable for what government does? 

Without some definition of the three major paradigms as a comparative standard for administrative function, anarchy would rule. These questions would be very difficult to answer. From an academic perspective these schools of thought seem to cover most perspectives that might arise in the process of governing and responding to public inquiry.  They give explanations for how and why one administrator, legislator or executive might approach solving a particular problem.  .

The accountable party in the universalism paradigm is the elected official and the administrative unit that carries out the requests of that official. (E.g. Governor, President, Cabinet members, commissioners, regional managers, supervisors and direct service workers)  The top down approach clearly denotes who is in charge and who decides what needs to happen.  This individual gets his/her marching orders from the public through the election process.  The elected official is given a public mandate to achieve a vision and/or solve a problem and public expects him/her to do it.  Then through the regulatory process and ultimately delegation to various departments, things get done.  If they do not get done the elected officials are ideally held accountable.  But are they always?

In pluralism it is more difficult to reach a consensus but much easier to spread the blame. No one individual can be given full responsibility. Ultimate responsibility is difficult to pinpoint and many times the strongest groups or the leaders of the majority party become the heroes and the scapegoats for what happens.  In reality the blame is with the interest group negotiation process and falls on all the parties equally at the negotiating table. Changes in policy in a pluralist environment usually are not drastic in the immediate timeframe, but over time significant policy changes can occur. Therefore it is very difficult to see if policy decisions are evolving with a changing public will or simply being adjusted to the whims of the “inside” administrative authority.  This makes accountability difficult with the administrative group “sticking together” to maintain their position and control rather than permitting true comparative analyses with the public view.  This was the premise behind the “Contract for America”[11] which in theory seemed plausible. But in reality, was more jaded then the existing policy making process because, while it professed to represent all the people under a participatory democratic ideal it was in fact a special interest pluralist attack of an existing administrative power base that represented a large segment of the American public.

Participatory Democracy for some is the ideal manifestation of democracy that stems from Abraham Lincoln “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth”[12].  If any American citizen is not being treated fairly then government is not working as well as it should.  Administrative accountability then is subject to all the people who choose and are given the opportunity to participate in the decisions of government.  Government, under a participatory democratic ideal must always have an ear to the public view for each decision and or program.  When this is not the case the administrative function is no longer operating true to this ideal.

Critics Comments


Pluralists criticize Universalism and its decision-making model rationalization significantly with an attack on the potentially unstable variable of the leaders analytical skills; they “ focus on the disparity between the requirements of the model and the capacities of the decision-makers”[13].  Essentially, while it may be true that some leaders utilizing a universalism approach have the analytical ability to look at each alternative in terms of the efficiency of the process and desired outcome, many elected leaders, while proving great ability for discourse, do not have the ability to complete the analysis in a true scientific manner.   A leader is not an effective leader by virtue of the position he or she is in.  Significant analytical skills and or abilities are required to be an effective leader in a universalism model. Some might argue that this can be delegated to subordinates. Therefore the premise of universalism is flawed because there is no assurance that elected leaders will be effective in rational decision making.

Theodore J. Lowi is perhaps the most avid critic of pluralism.  He says that pluralism is the philosophic component of special-interest liberalism. “ The corruption of modern democratic government began with the emergence of the interest-group liberalism as the public philosophy.”[14]  He charges four indictments:

[Pluralism or interest group liberalism]…

1.      … promotes popular decision-making and treats all values in the process as equivalent interests.

2.      … is copious in plans but irresolute in planning… [resulting in] plans without standards. [Thus immeasurable outcomes]

3.      …can not achieve justice because their policies lack the sine qua non [15] of justice--- that quality without which a consideration of justice cannot even be initiated. [general rule or moral principle]

4.      …weakens the capacity of government to live by democratic formalisms.


He goes on with the last paragraph of the article stating, “Interest-group Liberalism [pluralism] fights the absolutism of democracy but succeeds only in taking away its authoritativeness. Whether it is called “creative federalism” by President Johnson, “cooperation“ by the farmers, “local autonomy” by the Republicans, or “participatory democracy” by the New Left, the interest group liberal effort does not create democratic power but rather negates it.”[16]


Proponents of pluralism might say of the fervent negotiation between interest groups that it is an ugly process but it works and is effective in solving our nations problems. The negotiations can be highly emotional with strong views being expressed by opposing stands. All participating parties know that if no compromise is reached the issue does not move forward and can be killed by any group who becomes too inflexible. Therefore compromise is reached and a less than perfect policy or statutory language is formed.  This is very unfortunate, from a universalism perspective, [and for the survival of democracy] if public officials continuously settle for compromise rather than the right answer.



Writers conclusions


Universalism is an easy target. There are significant problems with a top down organization when comparing the required hierarchy with the concept of freedom and liberty of the founding fathers. However in a military setting this is the only place where this model seems totally appropriate.  The soldiers must fight the battles as ordered or battles would be lost. 

 The universalism paradigm is also problematic when weak leaders bring dysfunction to the process resulting in extreme inefficiency and ineffectiveness.  Universalism leaves the responsibility of success or failure to the leader of the particular administrative unit and ultimately the elected executive. Yet in reality many leaders take the reward for success but blame subordinates for any failure.  Certainly there still is a need for a hierarchy of Executives, Manager, Supervisors and direct line workers in order to define the division of labor, but these relationships must be built on trust if they are to work correctly.  Subordinates must trust the leaders in individual departments or morale is low and overall effectiveness is poor.  Without other perspectives that permit a way to appropriately challenge incompetent leaders those in lower positions are powerless. In public administration the human resource role clearly fills this void and permits a process for complaint and relief.  Union contracts can also serve this purpose.

            Pluralism as a single view is very troublesome.  It seems that interest groups who do not in fact represent even close to the majority sometimes seem to have more power in determining the course of a particular issue or concern.  Without other checks and balances some of these groups can overrun our government with their philosophical view.

Participatory Democracy seems ideally what the founders wanted democracy to look like.  Many in the public believe this is the reality and as it should be.  It is a goal of some in government but it seems very far from practical implementation.  Full participation of the citizens in government has been very difficult. However, with the Internet on the scene it would be possible for a sitting President or Governor to complete a citizen wide pole regarding public thoughts and feelings on any one particular issue. A difficult then would arise: Should government do what the people want? Is it the best course given all the variables? Does the general public know all the necessary variables to make informed decisions about complex social, economic development, educational, military or other concerns? Some do, but many do not.  Deciding on the use [or not] of the Internet for citizen polls would be a considerable policy discussion. Should the government conduct Internet surveys directly to determine the public will?

These three paradigms can give structure and definition to these questions and others permitting an academic analysis to take place from a broad perspective. Governmental agencies struggle with an eclectic blend of these theories. Appropriate use of these structures and philosophical approaches are a continuous topic for administrators in government.  Understanding these paradigms also gives an individual seeking to operate in and influence government, a map to view prior to pursuing a particular course of action.  Knowing which of the perspectives is most prevalent in which particular setting affords a significant advantage for the person who desires to impact government or work as a professional in the field of public administration.






Appendix 1 - Chart  of the three paradigms.










Participatory Democracy

Prescribes the relationship between

Public Admin. and Political System (e.g. elected officials)


Opposing forces

Systematic execution of public law

Intertwined based on interest group positions, values and economics.  Negotiation key factor

Inclusive – Visionary for the good of All.

Nature of administrative task

Fixed in Law and Science

Agreement reached through interest groups.   Details completed by administrative regulatory process

Goals set and carried out by administrative function with consistent input and feedback from citizens and citizen representatives

Repository of Public Will

Executive Branch – President, Governor, Congress

Interest Groups, Organizations

All citizens and interested parties or their representatives

Decision Model



Mixed Scanning


Decision Rule




Role of Citizen

Elect Representatives

Involvement through interest groups

Individual access to process as expressed and able to participate. Can be both interest groups and individuals.






[1] Classics of Public Administration, Edited by Jay M. Shafritz and Albert C. Hyde, 1997  page 1

[2], Woodrow Wilson, “The Study of Public Administration” 1887 reprinted in Classics of Public Administration, Edited by Jay M. Shafritz and Albert C. Hyde, Harcourt Brace & Company 1997

[3] Woodrow Wilson, “The Study of Public Administration”, 1987 – reprinted in

Classics of Public Administration, Edited by Jay M. Shafritz and Albert C. Hyde, page 22

[4] Woodrow Wilson, “The Study of Public Administration,  1887 – reprinted in

Classics of Public Administration, Edited by Jay M. Shafritz and Albert C. Hyde, page 21

[5] Fredrick W. Taylor, “Scientific Management”, 1912 - reprinted in Classics of Public Administration, Edited by Jay M. Shafritz and Albert C. Hyde, Harcourt Brace & Company 1997

[6] Webster New Collegiate Dictionary – combined and paraphrased from definitions for efficiency and efficient on page 362

[7] Edward Laverty, PhD, Assumptions of Pluralism, Lecture and Handout, PAA 600, The Environment of Public Administration, University of Maine, Orono, Maine, September 19, 2002

[8] Philip Selznick, “The Cooptative Mechanism” 1949 - reprinted in Classics of Public Administration, Edited by Jay M. Shafritz and Albert C. Hyde, page 22

[9] Charles E. Lindblom, “ The Science of Muddling Through,” Public Administration Review, Vol. 19 (1959), pp79-99, Robert A, Dahl and Charles E Lindblom, Politics, Economics and Welfare (New York Harper and Brothers, 1953): Strategy of Decision, op.cit; and The Intelligence of Democracy, op, cit.

[10] Amitai Etzioni, “Mixed Scanning: A “Third” Approach to Decision-Making “, Public Administration Review, December 1967

[11] The Contract with America, 1994 - Preamble  - As Republican Members of the House of Representatives and as citizens seeking to join that body we propose not just to change its policies, but even more important, to restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives. That is why, in this era of official evasion and posturing, we offer instead a detailed agenda for national renewal, a written commitment with no fine print. This year's election offers the chance, after four decades of one-party control, to bring to the House a new majority that will transform the way Congress works. That historic change would be the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money. It can be the beginning of a Congress that respects the values and shares the faith of the American family. Like Lincoln, our first Republican president, we intend to act "with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." To restore accountability to Congress. To end its cycle of scandal and disgrace. To makes us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves.

[12] Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863

[13] Amitai Etzioni, “Mixed Scanning: A “Third” Approach to Decision-Making “, Public Administration Review, December 1967 p.385

[14] Theodore J. Lowi, “The End of Liberalism: the Indictment”. Classics of Public Administration, Edited by Jay M. Shafritz and Albert C. Hyde, pp 302 - 305

[15] Webster New Collegiate Dictionary, sine qua non: an absolutely indispensable or essential thing. p. 1083

[16]   Theodore J. Lowi, “The End of Liberalism: the Indictment”. Classics of Public Administration, Edited by Jay M. Shafritz and Albert C. Hyde, pp 302 - 305