Books & eBooks on ORM, O'Reilly, Logo, Friends

Donald F. Kettl (2002). The Transformation of Governance: Public Administration for Twenty-First Century America. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, USA. 205pp

Reviewed By: Muluadam Alemu - PhD Fellow at Addis Ababa University, Faculty of Business and Economic.  In Public Management and Policy, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The Transformation of Governance: Public Administration for Twenty-First Century America is a Co-winner of the National Academy of Public Administration’s 2003 Louis Brownlow Book Award for the best book in public administration.  The fact that  the book has so far dominated the world of literature clearly reveals that the academia in public administration, Public Management,  Public  policy, and political science have accepted Kettl’s classic work with a warm welcome. Donald F. Kettl’s professional reputation and scientific contribution to fill knowledge gaps in administrative sciences is incontestable, but critical book reviews on a gracious work written by such a respected professional would have a paramount implication to invite new entrants like me to be part of the realm of epistemology.  The overarching theme of the book (p. xi) is “to scrutinize the historical traditions and transformations of American Public Administration, to identify the challenges facing it, and to map the tensions between what it has to do and its capacity to do”. In line with this, what makes Kettl’s writing style unique is, he clearly informed readers what the book is not (p. xii) by telling that “…it will not attempt to present an inclusive solutions, instead its goal is to frame a research agenda that would create a marriage between theory and practice in the twenty-first century American system of government”. 

To achieve its aim, the book is organized into seven chapters. In the first chapter (pp. 1-25), kettl describes the American “administrative paradoxes”. The StarLink problem is used as an empirical evidence to show the failure of hierarchical and authority based public administration theories to offer an adequate solution to complex administrative problems in the twenty-first century (p.4). Kettl (p.17) argues, “Theory without the ability to predict and understand something real and important is not worth having”.  In line with this, Kettl (p.17) further argue “public administration without guiding theory is risky; administrative theory without connection to action is meaningless”. Hence, Kettl (p.19) describes “…the theoretical tradition in public administration fails not only to fit reality but also faced with tough new policy problems for which the theory had few good answers”. Finally, Kettl, concludes that though “…public administration was lagging behind the intellectual curve (p.19)”, but it is “…undeniably vital to both academic inquiry and government practice that requires understanding the basic transformations in governance with the challenge posed on administration and politics”.

In the second chapter (pp. 26-49), kettl explains “administrative traditions” in America. He attempts to draw a conceptual framework for public administration (p.26) by succinctly describing it as “…the art of turning big policy ideas in to solid results”. In the mean time, Kettl has used his conceptual framework to depict the age-old America’s special apathy towards government power (p.29).  Kettl (p.29) further explains how the source of the profound tension in the American form of public administration is deep-rooted in the four fundamentally different intellectual traditions. Kettl (p.44) tries to frame how the four traditions produced radically different and fundamentally irreconcilable administrative philosophy that fueled centuries of debate and conflict in the American public administration.  

In chapter three (pp.50-76), kettl explains the “administrative dilemmas” in America. The author (pp.50-51), addresses, the administrative problems resulted from the four traditions that put a black spot owing to its failure to guide the realization of Americans’ dreams. Besides, Kettl (p.59) argues that each of the four dilemmas present the fuzzy boundary as the common problem. Moving a step forward, Kettl (p.59) generalizes that the four dilemmas demonstrate difficulties in setting boundaries and pose an adverse effect not only on the American government but also on nations around the world.  Finally, while assessing the fuzzy boundary problem, Kettl argues that even if the four traditions shape both theory and practice, but they lead in conflicting directions (p.73) and proved the difficulty to draw useful new boundaries to replace the old ones(p.74). 

In chapter four (pp.77-98), kettl explains “boundaries within the American bureaucracy”. Kettl (p.80) attempts to show how the classical approach to public administration and principal administrative reforms are framed by the Hamlitonian-Wilsonian connection. Kettl (p.95) discusses the role of formal theories to provide critique on traditional public administration and to provide remedies to improve administrative practices by substituting authority and hierarchy with markets and competition. In the fifth chapter (pp.99-117), Kettl describes “boundaries outside the bureaucracy”. It is the most important part of the book in which the author describes key issues like bureaucratic politics and implementation, public management, institutional choice, and networks and governance.

Kettl (p.115) opts for the development of new theoretical and practical tools as competing solutions to public administration’s fuzzy boundary problem. Finally, Kettl (p.117) identifies the three larger themes that frame the basic challenge of his book. In the first theme, Kettl believes “Public administration has faced with key unresolved issue that it had to tackle”. In the second theme, Kettl argues, “The field has developed widely both on theoretical and practical solution”.  In the third theme, Kettl suggests, “Any approach must at least confront if not resolve the basic administration traditions embodied in Hamlitonian, Jeffersonian, Wilsonian, and Madisonian ideas. Finally, Kettl (p.117) argues, “The challenge is how to pursue these themes to resolve the field’s basic dilemmas and to produce fresh insight for tackling the fuzzy boundary problem.

In the sixth chapter (pp.118-150), kettl explains “administration and governance” in which he provides far-reaching analysis on the key factors affecting the ability of public administration to deliver effective government.  Kettl discusses the importance of devising new strategies to deal with the transformation of governance like devolution, globalization, hyper-pluralism, and functions and place. Kettl (p.147) attempts to show how globalization and devolution define the agenda for governance in the early twenty-first century. Kettl (pp.147-148) identifies the major governance problems in the twenty-first century like adaptation, capacity and scale. In the last chapter (pp. 151-172), kettl deals with Dahl’s basic question: who governs-and how? Kettl (p.160-161) writes how the transformation of governance frames five big issues like challenges, capacity, legitimacy, sovereignty and public interest. The author finally winds up his writing with a blue print of ten basic strategies for building a new approach to the field of public administration. To address the main theme of his book, Kettl’s key thesis to the academia in the science of administration is a living verification that the twenty-first century governance is in need of transformation to rightfully manage the current multifaceted policy challenges. The theoretical base on which Kettl (p. xi) worry is that "…the way we think about and study public administration is out of sync with the way we practice it". In line with this assertion, Kettl argues that such disjunction pose serious challenge to the twenty first century governance. To support his argument with evidence, Kettl writes that the traditional prototype of public administration that long been based on the notions of hierarchy and authority is attesting its failure to effectively deal with twenty-first century policy predicaments that invite the participation of multitude of stakeholders in executing government policy.  

In the twenty-first century, the traditional public administration fails to bridge the gap between theory and practice that put the discipline under intense pressure owing to the emergence of new international forces like globalization, devolution and hyper-pluralism (McNabb, 2009). This therefore provides ample opportunity for academic scrutiny that seem to suit with Kettl's book aim (xi-xii): " examine historical traditions of American public administration, to identify the challenges facing it, and to chart the tensions between what it has to do and its capacity to do it". In his attempt to address the book’s aim, Kettl provides a good narration on public administration theory including its origin (p.5) and the basic tensions the field has faced with to reconcile issues like effective government; limited government; accountable government, and efficient government (p.7). Kettl (p.29) outlines the progress of public administration theory in the “four traditions” as its intellectual soil that nurtured seeds of American conception on the structure, role and nature of government initiated by ‘American literary giants’ (Elkjaer and Simpson, 2011): Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, and Wilson.  

In describing the four administrative traditions, Kettl writes while Hamliton seeks for a strong, top-down, and effective executive branch (pp. 29-32), Jefferson on the other hand opts for weak a bottom-up government with a weak executive (pp. 32-35).  The third American administrative tradition as defined by Madison’s work is the closest to the current political structure of American government.  Being at the cross road of the two views, Madison tries to balance the political power among competing forces using separation of powers as a way out (pp. 35-38). Towards the end of the 19th century the fourth major tradition emerged, in which its architect, Wilson (Wilson, 1887), prefers to concentrate administrative power in hierarchically structured organizations with more focus on administrative efficiency (pp. 38-42).  Kettl (p.43) notes, “The four traditions represent the basic approaches that have framed the study and practice of public administration…” and serves as a mirror to elucidate administrative dilemmas (pp.51-59). Therefore, Kettl describes the key shortcomings in administration theory and government structure using the four dilemmas. Kettl’s discussion on the four dilemmas is not limited to a chapter; instead, he utilizes the concept of the four dilemmas throughout his book to indicate the failure of public administration theories to tackle existing and new administrative challenges in the twenty first century.  

Kettl (p.118) notes that towards the end of the 20th century “…governments at all level become interconnected and intertwined with global forces”. However, the main problem Kettl (p.118) frames is that "Theorists once built their views about government's role on a foundation of national sovereignty, but the rise of globalization in its numerous forms has, as least, transformed the meaning of national sovereignty and, at most, substantially eroded it". Hence, Kettl (p.118) argues due to the rise of the twin forces notably devolution and globalization, the four dominant administrative traditions weighs less in their legitimacy as an original conceptual framework. Kettl (p.119) concludes, “A theory of public administration means in our time a theory of governance as well" since “The transformation of governance …that emerged towards the end of the 20th century focuses on government’s relationship not only with the American society but also with the rest of the world”. 

In his final analysis, kettl (p.167) argues, “The American public administration has never had and it never will have a steady state…Americans have never embraced any of the four administrative traditions for long”. Kettl (p.166) further argues, “The administrative process is always undergoing changes”. Hence, Kettl (p.167) made a powerful remark “To explore public administration in either theory or practice is to make oneself a captain of a ship on a sea where the waves never settle”. In the 21st century, the issue of governance becomes a battlefield for all actors with multifaceted challenges. As a response to this quest Kettl (168-172) wind up his discussion by suggesting a list of ten principles that can tackle the challenges demonstrated throughout the book and that should be considered in the future to develop new public administration theory and paradigm.  Kettl’s book is an excellent work with exceptional writing style endowed with powerful and popular passages that makes it to be interesting for readers.  For instance, in describing the Madisonian tradition (p.36), Kettl uses the most famous piece of the federalist that appears in 1015 books from 1798-2008.  Besides, to illustrate Hamliton’s argument (p.30) for strong executive, Kettl uses the most famous piece of the federalist (70) that appears in 325 books from 1798-2008.  I found Kettl’s work an excellent book complemented with recent concepts of governance and that brings together both the old and modern administration ideologies. Kettl has presented a logical and sustainable argument in describing the nature of the twenty-first century policy problems, their impact on public administration, and the concept of collaborative governance. The philosophical issues Kettl’s builds his argument  are framed based on the American political context that seem to obscure the importance of the book to non-American readers like me. However, most of the problems facing public administration in the America are worldwide in many democracies. Besides, the problems discussed and solutions forwarded are applicable to all kinds of administration in the twenty first century. The case in point that is applicable to Ethiopia is the “fuzzy boundary” where EPRDF officials are faced with problems like overlapping jurisdictions that extends beyond their mandates. Kettl’s book is an important guide to the academia to understand where public administration has been, its current contending debates, and where it is heading to bridge the gap between theory and practice. 

On one hand, Kettl argues that public administration theory has been slow to catch up with new developments; on the other hand, he fails to provide a comprehensive framework how new forces like privatization, international relations, NGOs and international organizations would offer solutions to the central problem. Throughout his book, kettle seems exceedingly anxious to describe the overall administrative problems in America in an inclusive manner. Even if Kettl explicitly states (p. xii) that he did not intend to develop actual theory, as a theoretically-minded reader, I could not understand the reason why Kettl identified ten principles (pp.168-171) as bases for future theory development other than providing a fresh theory (his original theory in fact) capable to address the administrative challenges discussed throughout the book. In most part of the book, but the first and last chapters, kettle describes philosophy of the four administrative traditions to show how each tradition has produced competing theories of governance with their impact on American public administration. However, except the forth (Wilson’s) administrative tradition, the first three weighs high as normal American traditions than solid administrative theories as Kettl strongly argues.  Woodrow Wilson (1887:2) supported this idea in his famous article “…this country needs to know more about administration…”, which is a clear witness for the absence of theory sentiment in the previous three administrative traditions. 

To sum up, besides some of the weakness mentioned above Kettl’s book is a breakthrough in the field of public administration supported by theoretical and empirical frameworks.  Kettl successfully presented his idea in a simple manner for readers with plausible description. I could simply say, Kettl’s writing style is logical and easy to follow. Hence, as discussed above,  what makes Kettl’s writing style unique is,  he initially informed readers what the book is not (p. xii) “…it will not attempt to present an inclusive solutions, instead its goal is to frame a research agenda that would create a marriage between theory and practice in the twenty-first century American system of government”. Above all, what I like from kettl’s writing style is, he finally informs readers “…there is nothing really new in the story of the transformation of governance” rather “It…represents the latest change (p.171). In his final analysis, Kettl provides his audience with a good synopsis of the main problem areas, however much effort is required to do the assignment “…to examine a new theoretical idea and proclaim a new paradigm”. (p.171). In general, kettl accomplishes the mission that he defined to realize successfully. As a critical reader kettle elegantly transferred the task of detailed theory building to his readers “To explore public dministration in either theory or practice is to make oneself a captain of a ship on a sea where the waves never settle” (p167). 


1. B. Elkjaer and B Simpson (2011). Pragmatism: A lived and living philosophy. What can it offer  to contemporary organization theory? Pp. 55-85. In: H.Tsoukas and R. Chiaresearch (eds)  The philosophy and Organization Theory. Emerald Group Publishing  Limited UK

2. David E. McNabb (2009).  The new face of government: How Public Managers Are Forging a  New Approach to Governance. Taylor & Francis Group. Accessed on 25/12/2012 from

3. Donald F. Kettl (2002). The Transformation of Governance: Public Administration for  Twenty-First Century America. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University  Press, 2002, USA.

4. Wilson, W. (1887). The study of administration. Political Science Quarterly, 2(2), 197-222.