Classical Theories of Public Administration

by Walter Johnson; Updated September 26, 2017

The classical, or structural, theory of public administration does not normally admit of multiple theories, but centers around a complex set of variables, ideas and concepts that govern public administration, or state bureaucracy. Although there are many classical authors such as Luther Gulick, Henri Fayol or Lyndall Urwick, most of whom are writing in the early 20th century, there are several important themes attached to the classical theory.

Specialization and Command

Classical administration theory centers around the division of labor. This theoretical approach defines “modernity” as the increasing specialization of labor. This means that a central bureaucracy must exist that keeps these functions coordinated and connected through an impersonal chain of command. Therefore, the emphasis in this approach is on both the decentralization of functions and specialties, and the centralization of administrative command to keep the functions working together.

Unity

All classical theory in this field stresses the singularity of command. This means the structure of the organization must develop ascending levels of authority. Each level takes from above it, and transmits to what is below. Hence, the system revolves around levels, rationality and command. It is a system that, in all its manifestations, is hierarchical. In addition, this also implies a great degree of discipline. It is also a radically impersonal system, because it is the organization and the offices that make it up that matter, not the individuals. Individuals in this theory are functionaries of the organization.

Efficiency

Classical theory stresses efficiency in organizational work. The command structure is designed to manifest both the overall objectives of the organization as well as the specific purposes of the functional units. Although the classical system stresses structure over everything, the basic issue is efficiency in communication. This requires certain things to be in place: a strict definition of duties and objectives, the control over all labor functions and a rational connection of one functional unit to another. Without these basics, no organization can function efficiently, according to the classical argument.

Atomism

More abstractly, the classical theory stresses the fact that individuals have no intrinsic connection to one another. This assumption is often called “social atomism.” Individuals are isolated from one another naturally and, therefore, only the organization, through its chain of command and sense of mission, can unify individuals into a single, efficient and rational working unit. Furthermore, it assumes that individuals are lazy, selfish and uninterested in any social good beyond themselves and, therefore, organizational unity and discipline never can be relaxed. It is an unfortunate necessity.

About the Author

Walter Johnson has more than 20 years experience as a professional writer. After serving in the United Stated Marine Corps for several years, he received his doctorate in history from the University of Nebraska. Focused on economic topics, Johnson reads Russian and has published in journals such as “The Salisbury Review,” "The Constantian" and “The Social Justice Review."