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What Is Public Administration?

What Is Public Administration?

Are you inspired by the thought of driving social change, increasing equality, and improving the lives of others? If you feel passionate about making a positive impact on the neighborhoods and communities around you, a career in public administration may offer rewarding opportunities to challenge yourself professionally while shaping public policy. So what is public administration, and why should you consider pursuing a public administration degree?

This guide covers everything you need to know as a graduate or undergraduate student, from the history and types of public administration to the careers you can explore with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in public administration, to the job outlook and earning potential for individuals in this field. If you feel called to a career in public service, read on to learn about your academic and professional options — and discover whether a graduate, undergraduate, or online public administration degree program might be a good fit for you.

The History of Public Administration

Like all fields, public administration has grown and evolved throughout its history, whose roots reach back to ancient societies like Rome and Egypt. As far as contemporary public administration is concerned, some of its earliest iterations may be traced to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Prussia, when the Prussian government began to appoint and regulate civil servants. Events like the French Revolution ushered in changes to perceptions of civil servants in France, while the formation of the East India Company spurred the development of civil service legislation in the United Kingdom.

In the United States, the need for public service was highlighted by the dramatic economic and social changes following the Civil War, with the federal government establishing the U.S. Civil Service Commission in 1883. Following another conflict — this time, World War II — policy-making became a larger part of public administration. During the social upheaval of the 1960s, groundbreaking new pieces of legislation — for instance, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — continued to broaden the roles and responsibilities of public administrators. Continue reading to learn more about the types of public administration, and how it has evolved over time.

Types of Public Administration

Several types of public administration have emerged throughout this complex field’s evolution, including classical public administration, new public management, and finally, postmodern public administration. Let’s take a brief look at each of these categories.

Classical Public Administration

Developed by Luther Gulick and Lyndall Urvick during the mid-twentieth century, classical public administration takes a scientific approach to public administration, as opposed to the more business-like approach seen later with new public management, discussed below. Classical public administration also places an emphasis on achieving efficiency through smart organizational structuring, which is reflected in ten principles developed by Gulick — for example, the division of labor and the creation of committees.

New Public Management (NPM)

New public management, or NPM, is a model of operating public organizations that were developed during the 1980s. The NPM model is characterized by features such as “flexibility, transparency, minimum government, de-bureaucratization, decentralization, the market orientation of public services, and privatization,” and is known for its emphasis on “the three E’s”: efficiency, effectiveness, and economy.

Postmodern Public Administration

Founded by Hugh Miller and Charles Fox in 1995, postmodern public administration focuses heavily on policy analysis, empirical research, and administrative discourse to achieve better and more effective outcomes from public policy.

What Can I Do With a Public Administration Degree?

What does a public health administrator do, and what sorts of careers can you enter with a degree in this area? At both the bachelor’s and master’s levels, public administration is a versatile degree that equips students with wide-ranging skills that can translate to diverse employment opportunities. For example, by presenting proposals, working in teams, and meeting with public officials or members of the community, you’ll develop and hone exceptional communication skills — skills that you can bring to a broad range of workplaces and challenges.

Whether you are in an entry-level position or an executive leadership role, your daily tasks and responsibilities will depend on the type of profession you decide to enter. For example, a student who becomes a public affairs director may find themselves tasked with writing a speech or coordinating an interview, whereas a student who becomes a budget analyst will perform completely different job duties — for instance, helping ensure that financial proposals comply with state and federal regulations.

Depending on the issues they’re most passionate about engaging with, students who hold MPA and/or BPA degrees can explore fields that range from law enforcement and public housing to urban planning and emergency management. Here are just a few examples of the numerous fields that students can enter once they have earned their bachelor’s or master’s degree in public administration:

  • Economic or Community Development
  • Emergency Management and Disaster Response
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Public Education
  • Public Housing
  • Public Safety and Law Enforcement
  • Public Transportation
  • Public Works, such as waterworks management

We’ll explore some of these career fields in detail in the following section. Read on to learn more about professions like a city manager, community engagement coordinator, and others.

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Public Administration Career Outlook

Whether they’re designing greener and more pedestrian-friendly cities, helping to coordinate the evacuation of a natural disaster zone, organizing community engagement programs, managing the daily operations of a government entity, or working with members of law enforcement, leaders in the public administration field keep our society running smoothly. But how rapidly are public service jobs growing, and what sort of earning potential might you expect in these fields?

Continue reading to learn about the median salaries and job growth estimates for six hot careers in public administration, along with information about some of the roles and responsibilities associated with each position. If you’re considering applying to a graduate or undergraduate program in public administration, here are six potential career paths to keep in the back of your mind.

City Manager

In this challenging but exciting leadership role, you’ll be responsible for planning and implementing the daily operations of your city, which requires a strong ability to coordinate teams, collaborate with public officials, organize budgets and schedules, and manage resources effectively and efficiently. While the BLS does not provide salary data for city managers, Payscale reports a national average salary of over $91,000.

Community Engagement Coordinator

As a community engagement coordinator, you’ll work to develop, plan, and execute a variety of public outreach and community programs for government organizations. For example, you might be responsible for organizing public meetings, forums, or events, requiring you to cultivate exceptional communication skills. You can see more examples of your tasks and duties by reviewing this real job posting for community engagement managers.

While the BLS does not supply data for “community engagement coordinators,” it does report that social and community service managers — who “work for nonprofit organizations… and government agencies… [to] coordinate and supervise programs and organizations that support public well-being” — earn a median salary of $74,000 and are expected to enjoy “faster than average” job growth from 2020 to 2030: 15%, compared to the national average of 8%. According to Salary.com, the national average salary for a community engagement coordinator is over $71,000.

Budget Analyst

If you’re fascinated by economics or finance and have an aptitude for mathematics, consider applying yourself toward a public administration career as a budget analyst. In this role, your duties will include developing and monitoring budgets for government organizations, reviewing requests for funding, and effectively communicating funding requirements with members of both the government and the general public. The BLS projects this field to grow by 5% over the period from 2020 to 2030 and reports that budget analysts earn a median salary of nearly $80,000.

Public Affairs Director

According to the employment website ZipRecruiter, “Your job duties [as a public affairs director will] include conducting market research on public opinion, calculating budgets, and pursuing advertising campaigns with your client’s goals in mind. You [will] also arrange interviews, write speeches, and do anything else needed to repair a client’s reputation,” demanding strong skills in writing and communication. While the BLS does not provide median salary or job growth information for public affairs directors, ZipRecruiter reports a national average salary of approximately $98,000.

Emergency Management Director

The BLS describes emergency management directors as individuals who “prepare plans and procedures for responding to natural disasters or other emergencies,” such as floods and tornadoes, along with “help[ing] lead the response during and after emergencies” have occurred. For example, job duties include coordinating evacuation efforts, organizing training programs for emergency response teams, and assessing risks before they cause avoidable damage. BLS data indicates that emergency management directors earn a median salary of over $76,000, with 6% growth (“as fast as average”) expected from 2020 to 2030.

Urban Planner

The BLS reports that urban planning jobs, along with those of regional planners, are expected to grow by 7% over the decade from 2020 to 2020 — about “as fast as average.” Regional and urban planners earn a median salary of exactly $78,500, according to BLS data. As an urban planner, your roles will include analyzing data, interpreting and applying zoning rules, reviewing land development plans and proposals, and implementing policies or plans that affect land use.

potential student looking up public administration degree options on a computer.

Public Administration Degree Options at National

National University offers both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in public administration, providing program options for graduate and undergraduate students. Students can also opt to complete their program requirements online, making it faster, more convenient, and more economical to earn an accredited degree.

While they differ in terms of length and coursework, both our graduate and undergraduate programs are designed to encourage the development of strategic, innovative, and creative problem-solving skills among students. Read on to learn more about each program, or request information from our admissions counselors.

Master of Public Administration (MPA)

The Master of Public Administration (MPA) at National University consists of eight core courses, each of which can be completed in as little as four weeks: Foundations of Public Administration, Seminar in Urban Affairs, Public Personnel Policy, Quantitative Methods, Ethics, Urban Planning and Redevelopment, and Finance Management and Grant Administration. The eighth and final course is a two-month supervised capstone project, similar to a master’s thesis, which requires students to present original research in both written and oral form.


Beyond the core MPA coursework described above, students in the program can also take four electives of their choice, or choose one of two specializations: Human Resource Management or Organizational Leadership. Students who are strongly interested in either of these fields may, alternatively, wish to consider applying to the Master of Science in Organizational Leadership program or Master of Arts in Human Resource Management program offered at National University.

Bachelor of Public Administration (BPA)

Whether you’re a high school student applying to undergraduate programs for the first time, or you’re looking to transfer into our program from another regionally accredited institution, the Bachelor of Public Administration (BPA) at National University offers online and on-campus options. Our BPA program lays the groundwork for our MPA program — but it also serves as a marketable degree in its own right, preparing students with the skills to enter entry- and mid-level positions in government and nonprofit organizations.

To graduate from the program and earn a Bachelor of Public Administration degree, students must complete core coursework such as Public Policy Development, Government Relations, Management Science, and Adaptive Leadership in Change. The undergraduate program culminates in a supervised Senior Research Project, which the student must present to the program chair along with other faculty members.

Earn a Master or Bachelor of Public Administration Online

Whether you’re pursuing your master’s or bachelor’s degree in public administration, National University gives you the option to complete the program 100% online, including online quizzes and exams, forum discussions, and meetings with faculty members and advisors. Complete the program on your schedule, following our accelerated four-week course structure that allows you to graduate sooner.

Apply to the BPA or MPA Program at National University Today

A BPA or MPA degree is a powerful professional asset, whether you’re interested in starting a new career or advancing in your current organization. Earning your degree in public administration also gives you the opportunity to meaningfully impact and engage with social issues you’re passionate about, putting you on the path to a lifetime of public service.

Take the first steps toward your BPA or MPA degree today. Contact our admissions office to request more information about our graduate, undergraduate, and online programs, or apply to National University online.

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