What Woodrow Wilson left out of the definition of public administration: capital

Back in 1887, Woodrow Wilson wrote an essay on the importance of the study of administration of government. Mr. Wilson, who would go on to become president of the United States, is usually referred to as the father of public administration. By his definition:

“Administration is the most obvious part of government; it is government in action; it is he executive, the operative, the most visible side of government, and is of course as old as government itself. It is the object of administrative study to discover, first, what government can properly and successfully do, and secondly, how it can do these things with the utmost efficiency and the least possible cost either of money or of energy.”
Other scholars have offered their tweaks on the definition. Charles H. Levine, B. Guy Peters, and Frank J. Thompson define public administration as:

“[T]he implementation of government policy and an academic discipline that studies this implementation and that prepares civil servants for this work.” It is “centrally concerned with the organization of government policies and programs as well as the behavior of officials (usually non-elected) formally responsible for their conduct.”

George J. Gordon and Michael E. Milakovich define public administration as:

“… all processes, organizations, and individuals (the latter acting in official positions and roles) associated with carrying out laws and other rules adopted or issued by legislatures, executives, and courts.”

And Melvin J. Dubnick and Barbara S. Romzek provide the following take on this branch of political science:

“The practice of public administration involves the dynamic reconciliation of various forces in government’s efforts to manage public policies and programs.”

Looking back on my public administration studies and my time as a practitioner, I can say that the above definitions capture the various facets of the discipline; that academics and practitioners do not vary much from these definitions when either studying the administration of public policy or carrying out public policy and managing institutional systems. The problem, however, with the study and practice of public administration in a market-oriented political economy is that the study of public administration rarely if ever addresses public administration’s impact on private capital, specifically, how management of public capital positively impacts returns to private capital.

In getting to his description of public versus private capital, Thomas Piketty first describes national capital “as the total market value of everything owned by the residents and government of a given country at a given point in time, provided it can be traded on some market.” National wealth includes land, dwellings, commercial inventory, other buildings, machinery, infrastructure, patents, bank accounts, mutual funds, stocks, bonds. Mr Piketty found that public capital or public wealth are assets and liabilities held by government and other social entities including towns and other social insurance agencies while private capital or wealth is made up of assets and liabilities held by individuals.

One question that public administration does not address is how best to deploy public capital to boost returns to private capital. While there is literature discussing how public sector spending can boost gross domestic product or even productivity, the study of public administration silos itself by discussing fiscal policy, infrastructure, and public goods, and leaving the discussion of private capital to the markets.

Why is this discussion necessary? Public sector spending needs discipline. How many of us have asked the federal government to provide a cost analysis of each tax dollar we spend and then provide some data on returns on that tax dollar? I wager none. But if public spending on the public goods that act as inputs for private sector production was done at low cost to the tax payer while providing a low cost input for the private sector, could public administration play a more meaningful role in the production of returns on private capital?

It is a question worth pursuing.