What is Public Administration and What is its Scope?

Many will argue that it is hard to define public administration due to its broad scope making it difficult to answer the question, “what is public administration?” For instance, the way in which public administration is implemented will generally be vastly different on the federal level than it will be on the state or local level. Even from state to state and from city to city, differences are evident. That being said, Rabin & Hildreth (2007) described public administration as being a discipline that, “involves the activities of government including implementing policies, overseeing distribution of benefits, collecting taxes, and overseeing programs” (p.698). Most will likely agree that public administration involves the government and it deals with the formulation of policies. Other than that, the sheer size of this discipline makes it easier to explain in broad terms rather than assign a single definition to it.

What is Public Administration? – The Scope of Public Administration

What is Public AdministrationPolicies developed and implemented through the application of public administration impact virtually every facet of our lives. Whether it’s the cleanliness of our water supply or the condition of our roadways, the principles of public administration were applied. Basu (2004) shared that currently there is “hardly any aspect of a citizen’s life which does not involve public administration or increased public regulation over private concerns” (p. 2). Considering the impact that the resulting policies have on private citizens, public servants have a great deal of responsibility and are also accountable to those individuals they serve. Public servants have a tremendous influence on how citizens answer the question, “what is public administration?”

Public Administration vs. Business Administration

Public administration is often mentioned as being similar to business administration. Denhardt & Denhardt (2011) stated that, “Even though work in public and nonprofit organizations is guided by commitments to democratic ideals, it is also involved with management, and, for that reason, public administration is often confused with business management” (p. 4-5). In comparing curriculums, leadership development, for example, is one of the cornerstones of each of these disciplines. Another similarity is the financial aspects of management, such as budgeting, forecasting, and so forth. However, there are also significant differences between the two. Khan (2008) shared that the “primary purpose of a private administrator is to make profit for the organization he/she serves. But the primary purpose of a public administrator is not to make profit but to implement policy set by the Congress, state legislature or the city councils (p. 7). Clearly, working in the public sector, or even for a nonprofit entity, is much different than working at a corporation and public servants have to be prepared for the challenges that they will face.


Basu, R. (2004). Public Administration: Concepts and Theories (5th ed.). New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Limited.

Denhardt, R.B. & Denhardt, J.V. (2009). Public Administration: An Action Orientation (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Rabin, J. & Hildreth, B. (2007). Handbook of Public Administration in American (3rd ed). Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis Group.

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