What is public administration?

March 14, 2018

Public administration is a profession focused on serving citizens and communities via local, state, and federal government.

Public administrators must have skills in planning, budgeting, management, reporting, and communication, and they have to navigate complex political, economic and legal environments with skill and ease. “Public administrators have to be masters of civil public discourse,” says Matthew Collins, PhD, faculty member in Capella University’s School of Public Service and Education.

Here are five other things you should know about public administration.

1. Public administration centers on service.

           From regulating food safety to building bridges to investigating crimes, public administrators manage projects and provide services that keep society running smoothly.

Public administrators work with members of the public and they initiate, manage, and complete projects that improve, strengthen, and protect communities. “Public servants are motivated by more than just a paycheck. To them, building and improving their communities is what really matters and they’re willing to forgo a bigger paycheck in the private sector to contribute to the public good.” Collins says.

Public administration positions at the city, state, and federal levels may include:
  • City manager
  • Public works manager
  • Economic development manager
  • Fundraising and development manager
  • Analyst

2. Public administration is NOT politics.

           No matter what political party controls the government, public administrators must carry out their duties without bias or favoritism. They strive to treat everyone fairly regardless of race, gender, and economic status, and they must adhere to high standards of ethical behavior.

Administrators dealing with public bids, for example, must be familiar with the rules that limit their communication with contractors, Collins says. “What information can you provide about the bidding process? How much contact can you have with the contractor? Public administrators can’t let their personal feelings get involved. This role requires discipline.”

3. Public administration requires a broad set of skills.

           On any given day, public officials must be able to communicate across the spectrum—with everyone from grass-roots advocates to high-ranking officials. They must be able to grasp the complexities of subjects ranging from public financing to public health, road construction to digital security.

They manage elections, trash collection, traffic management, business licensing, and building inspections. “It’s a lot of work to keep things moving in all these areas,” Collins says.

4. Public administration involves innovation.

           Advances in public works, community services, transportation, and even law enforcement require focused forward-thinking work and planning by public administrators. Getting things done within the constraints of public budgets and scrutiny requires creativity and careful communication.

“Public administrators may have to deliver news that not everyone wants to hear,” Collins says. “But leadership involves being honest with the public and then pointing the way to solving problems.”

5. Public administration is a stable field.

           Despite what people think of government, society cannot function without it. For example, public administrators are key players in communities that are not served by private businesses (e.g., rural areas that require public utilities to get electricity or broadband Internet access).

The profession also has the support of professional organizations, like the International City County Managers Association (ICMA), Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL), and the National Forum for Black Public Administrators (NFBPA).

Capella offers online Master of Public Administration and Doctor of Public Administration programs.

You may also like

Exploring 5 careers in public administration

September 10, 2018

How to recruit and retain millennials in public service

August 7, 2017

Exploring 3 public administration career areas

March 21, 2017

Start learning today

Get started on your journey now by connecting with an enrollment counselor. See how Capella may be a good fit for you, and start the application process.