Public administration is a broad discipline that covers a variety of issues which touches on maximizing the use of scarce resources to satisfy human needs. The various issues that will be examined in this unit include; introduce to you the studies of public administration; the history of public administration; the distinction between public administration and private administration, similarities between public and private administrations, and qualities of a public administrator.


At the end of this unit students are required to:

  1. Discuss the history of public administration 
  2.  State the differences between private and public administration 
  3.  Mention the similarities between private and public administration 
  4.  List the qualities of a public administrator 


3.1 The History of Public Administration

Public administration is not a creation of modern times. It has its roots in history and dates back to the times of the ancient
civilizations. It is on record that:

  1.  Dating back to 462 B. C. Pericles, a renowned leader in ancient Greece, introduced a scheme for the compensation of officials, thus facilitating the continued participation in public administration by citizens who had to work daily for their living (Bury, n d). 
  2.  The ancient Chinese Empire during the Han Dynasty, 202 BC, recognized the need to have a permanent body of officials to implement government decisions. 
  3.  Again about the year 120BC, the Chinese Prime Minister, Kung – sun Hung, in a memorandum addressed to the throne, observed that the edicts and laws which were written in elegant classical style were often not understood by the officers whose duty it was to explain and interpret them to the people. He therefore recommended that examinations be held for the selection of men and that those who had shown the best knowledge should have the first preference in appointments to office requiring the use of the written language. His recommendation was adopted and marked the beginning of the civil service examination. 
  4.  It is also of interest to note that in AD 219 the ancient Chinese had worked out a system of classifying men into nine grades according to their ability, knowledge, experience, and character. This system was called Chung Cheng, that is, Impartial Judge, a forerunner of our present day civil service commission (Shih, 1941) 

Self Assessment Exercise 3.1

Discuss the history of public administration in the world

3.2 Differences between Public and Private Administrations

In order to clearly discuss and understand the subject matter of public administration and the basic issues involved in it, it is important to identify the differences between public administration and business or private administration. Thus public and private administrations differ concretely in a number of respects.

  1.  The goals that both are expected to serve are different. Since their activities are guided by the nature of these goals the nature and organizational framework of these activities are bound to differ. Clearly the maximization of profit is the overriding goals of private administration. All efforts must be channeled in this direction, and all obstacles to its accomplishment must be removed. The situation is quite different with public administration in which the goal, in concrete terms, is not as clear – cut and single minded. Profit, social welfare, national prestige and political advantage are all to be accomplished simultaneously. The public administrator must integrate them with a lot less emphasis going to the profit motive than in private administration. As a result of this mixing of goals the public administrator must be more cautious and take less risk than his private counterpart. He must be more diplomatic and less single – minded than the private administrator. He must conciliate more, negotiate more and consult more than in private administration before arriving at a decision. 
  2.  Related to this difference in goals is the difference in the assessment of the performance of these two administrations. In much of the work of public administration, it is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the output or evaluate precisely the activities of the administrators. For example, it is difficult to quantify the performance of those engaged in diplomatic activities, and the implementation of educational and health service programs. The situation is quite different with private administration. Here all inputs and outputs are evaluated in monetary terms, particularly their relationship to the profit or loss of the enterprise. This inability tocompare performance lies at the heart of the incomparability of public and private administrations. 
  3. There is also a difference between the two types of administrations with respect to the span of activities with which they deal. The activity of the private enterprise is one of a narrow focus, of the concentration of attention and resources on one line of activity. Such activities are usually economic in character, and concern only one specialized or specific aspect of economic life. Public administration concerns itself with at once social, economic, cultural and political activities. The resultant diffuseness of attention adversely affects not only the time that can be devoted to an in – depth examination of the various aspects of the implementation of public programs, it also hampers a clear definition of the programs themselves. 
  4.  Unlike administrators in private administration, civil servants are accountable to the public for every aspect of their official activities. They are subjected by the public to a detailed scrutiny of their use of resources and the nature of performance of their jobs. They face scrutiny by the press, legislature, taxpayers, the traditional surveillance of the courts, and byinterest groups and political parties. Although private administrators are influenced by their public contacts, are subject to government regulations and maintain a vast public relations activity, their activities are still in general private in character. Their internal operations are to a large extent their own business, closed to the public gaze. The demands for public consultation and participation in the activities of public administration are growing all the time due to the increase in the number of pressure groups and agencies that demand attention and the right to be consulted. All these demands impose constraints on the public administrator in terms of his/her originality, initiative and use of discretion in the exercise of his/her judgment. They also slow down the process of public administration because of the time involved in these consultations. Caution becomes an important value. Risk taking is banished. And flexibility or adaptability is difficult to attain. 
  5.  Both administrations differ in their structure of decision – making. In private administration the ultimate decision – making group is very small, limited to the board of directors of the enterprise. In addition, members of this group have a direct personal and concrete stake in the output of the business. Thus, the smallness of size enables decisions to be directed strictly to the output, and for a result – oriented decision to be emphasized. The ultimate decision – making group in the public administration, the cabinet, is much larger than in the private sector. It is, therefore, more unwieldy as a machinery for quick action. Furthermore, its members are not personal owners of the public enterprise and, therefore, can be more easily distracted from the objectives of their decision – process. 
  6. The structure for the implementation of decisions in public administration is much more decentralized than in private administration. It consists of the various ministries of the civil service. Therefore, much more than in private administration efficiency and effectiveness of the civil service depends to a greater extent on the effectiveness of the mechanism for coordinating the activities of these decentralized units. This need for coordination is much less compelling in private administration where centralization prevails. Thus, in public administration, the lateral organization of activities around functions is an important aspect of the overall structure of the system. In private administration this lateral organization is absent.All these functions are performed within one and the same structure. This centralized arrangement encourages unity of command, greater flexibility in the allocation of resources and faster adaptation to changing conditions. 
  7. In public administration, officials are employed until retirement, are promoted largely by seniority, and remunerated at standards rates within fixed pay scales and promotion grades. Such conditions of service sometimes do not bear much relationship to performance since no matter how inefficient the official turns out to be he is already in a particular grade and can hang on until retirement. In other words, he enjoys job security. By contrast, in private administration an official can be relieved of his job anytime his performance is deemed inadequate. The salary and fringe benefits are usually high but job security is absent. The consequence of this difference is that the private administrator is under greater pressure to keep his job than the civil servant. He is, therefore, likely to be more highly motivated than the latter. Thus, public administration is much slower and more inefficient than private administration because of its poor work habits and ethics. 
  8. The hiring and firing of workers in private administration is swift and merciless. In public administration, it is slow and humane. Consequently, private administration can move faster in the organization of its activities than public administration. It can quickly add or drop staff,as it deems necessary to achieve its objectives. Public administration does not enjoy this kind of flexibility. 
  9. Discipline is much harsher in private than in public administration. This is essentially because the private sector thrives on the exploitation of man by man. Profit takes precedence over human values. Although the conditions of work are usually better than in the public they are much more exploitative, considering what the worker produces in relation to what he gets as wages and social security. Thus, the public administrator is under much less pressure from the enterprise than his private counterpart. He/she is, therefore, more relaxed with his/her work, and more likely to develop a positive non – mercenary attitude to his/her work. Public service cultivates feelings of patriotism that are vital for the overall success of the society. The public servant develops a sense of participation in the history of his people in a very direct way. This positive attitude is an asset to public administration that is denied to private administration (Nnoli, 2003)

Self Assessment Exercise 3.2

State the differences between public and private administrations 

3.3 Public and Private Administration: Their similarities

Public and private administrations have the same essence. There are therefore, similar in fundamental terms.

  1.  They are both designed to help those who wish to implement their programs but are too few to do so. For public administration government is helped, whereas in private administration the owners of the enterprise, the board of directors, receive the aid. Both administrations are guided by the goals that their employers seek to achieve. 
  2.  In their performance of their tasks both are hierarchically organized and operate with clearly spelt out procedures regarding command, obedience, promotions, discipline and work ethics. 
  3.  Both administrations perform similar functions of data gathering, provision of advice on alternative policy options, recruitment of personnel, resource management, the advertizing of their activities, interest articulation and aggregation, and the negotiation, conciliation, arbitration and settlement of disputes. 
  4. They are both a similar form of organization of men in the performance of these tasks and functions (Nnoli, 2003). 

Self Assessment Exercise 3.3

Mention the similarities between public and private administrations

3.4 Qualities of a Public Administrator

A good administrator must possess the following qualities:

  1. Tact: He must be tactful in dealing with his political bosses. The President or Governor, Minister or Commissioner, as the case may be. An administrator must be efficient and brilliant and yet there may be clamor for him to be moved somewhere else on the grounds that he usually puts up the backs of those working with him. When dealing with political bosses and members of the public, a top administrator should avoid being arrogant, pompous, or pedantic. This is equally important in minuting, in submission in the file, in correspondence, and in discussion. 
  2. Modesty: Administrators have a duty to brief their bosses, both when they are alone together and when they are in the public at some meeting or conference. Such briefing, especially the ones carried out in public, should be done as unobtrusively as possible. 
  3.  Sense of Judgment: Another quality most essential in an administrator is a fine sense of judgment. Every moment of the day an administrator is engaged on assignments which require evaluation, weighing of evidence, assessing degrees of urgency on various public issues, and assessing the mood and temper of those sections of the public which are clients of the department, and which the department has to consult or take into consideration before arriving at decisions and formulating policies. 
  4. Foresight: The Administrator should be able to forecast based on his knowledge and experience, the probable consequences of measures proposed for policy. He should, in addition, be able to think of likely developments that may arise over the next year or two. From his knowledge and accumulated experience, he should have the skill to deduce likely developments, given a set of factors and circumstances. 
  5.  Ability to Delegate: Another essential quality necessary in an administrator is the ability to delegate work to his subordinates. It is a mark of poor administration for a top administrator to seek to handle by himself all the essential assignments in the department. In the process, he will create a bottleneck which will cause endless delays, and he will ruin his own health. 

Self Assessment Exercise 3.4

List the qualities of a public administrator


We have given a general introduction to the study of public administration where key issues in the discipline are discussed. The understanding of these key issues will equip you to undertake further analysis of critical areas of administrative issues. We sourced our materials from reputable works of experienced administrators and renowned scholars.


Here, we have discussed key issues in public administration with emphasis on the following; the History of Public Administration, differences between public and private administration, their similarities, and qualities of a public administrator. Even though public and private administrations are comparatively different, yet, they share some commonalities.


  1. How did public administration emerge? 
  2. What are the qualities of a public administrator? Discuss three of them.
  3. Discuss three differences and similarities of Public Administration and private administration


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