What is Public Administration?

Public Admin Degrees

A group of people work in an office setting with the text careers in public administration

Public administration is a broad field that covers the administrative services needed to help build and strengthen society.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defines it as a branch of study that prepares you to serve as a public service manager in local, state or federal government.

Typically, public administration programs cover public policy management, legislative relations, public budgetary processes and financial management, labor relations and ethics, NCES reports.

What Can you Do with a Public Administration Degree?

Those possessing a public administration degree typically work in a diverse number of roles that may range from developing nutrition programs for low-income families to working with law enforcement officials to help solve the opioid epidemic.

They may also oversee urban planning and municipal budgets, according to The College Board.

The Princeton Review asserts that an undergraduate degree in public administration can help open the door to careers in public housing, law enforcement and labor relations, as well as in health care and social service organizations.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists a number of careers that require a solid grounding in the principles of public administration, including:

What Does a Public Administrator Do?

Public administrators share an important role in ensuring that laws and regulations, civil rights, municipal budgets and health and safety codes are enforced to protect the community they serve.

Specifically, BLS outlines some of the responsibilities you might have working in a public administrator, or administrative services, role:

  • Research, plan and recommend policies and programs that fall within budgets and follow administrative and government law
  • Coordinate with others to adopt and put into action new policies or programs
  • Manage and evaluate special programs and/or projects
  • Collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative data such as public records, budget reports, surveys and historical data to make adjustments and improvements, as needed
  • Communicate the effectiveness of programs with other employees, constituents and stakeholder groups

Today, the issues facing public administrators are as broad as the populations they serve. Good public administrators must ensure they serve all constituents fairly and equitably.

Some of the challenges they face include the perception of corruption in government, the rise in new technologies and their effect on communications, a lack of diversity in citizen participation and implicit bias and racial discrimination, according to a commentary published in the American Society for Public Administration’s PA Times.

It will be increasingly important for public administrators to seek innovative solutions in an era of increasing and changing populations, the commentary suggests.

Public Administration Degree Jobs

BLS provides the following examples of government and public administration careers, along with job descriptions, in which an undergraduate degree is helpful.

  • Administrative Service Manager – Sometimes referred to as business office managers or facilities managers, administrative services managers plan, manage and coordinate the support services of an organization, including its employees and its resources, according to BLS. In an administrative service manager role, you could expect to set goals for personnel and departments, oversee related buildings and equipment, and manage policies related to health, safety and efficiency. The median annual wage for administrative services managers was $96,940 in 2019, according to BLS.
  • Budget Analyst – As a budget analyst, you could prepare reports and monitor institutional spending for a nonprofit, private or government organization. Your duties could include reviewing municipal budget proposals, monitoring organizational spending, making spending recommendations and projecting future spending, according to BLS. The median annual wage for budget analysts was $76,540 in 2019, according to BLS.
  • Emergency Management Director – In this role, you could prepare plans or procedures for disaster response in a community, city or state. Emergency management directors work with government, nonprofit and public safety officials to create emergency plans, assess damage, coordinate and distribute resources and secure funding, according to BLS. The median annual wage for emergency management directors was $74,590 in 2019, according to BLS.
  • Public Utilities Specialist – Energy services are highly regulated and need specialists who understand the laws and regulations that underpin them. In this role, you could develop and negotiate contracts, amendments and other agreements for the sale, purchase or interchange of utilities such as power and water. In 2018, the Department of Energy hired the most public utilities specialist, with an average salary of $103,339.
  • Social and Community Service Manager – Interested in improving transportation access for the elderly or ensuring communities have strong crime watch programs? As a social and community service manager, you could coordinate and supervise social service programs and community organizations, including those run by the government and nonprofit organizations, according to BLS. Duties include fundraising, creating and monitoring budgets and working with stakeholders to evaluate the effectiveness of programs. The median annual wage for social and community service managers was $67,150 in 2019, according to BLS.
  • Urban and Regional Planner – Urban and regional planners develop land-use plans and programs that enhance communities, factor in population growth and update physical facilities in cities and communities. As an urban or regional planner, you could work with public officials, developers and community groups to design development plans for new industrial parks, public housing and public outdoor space, according to BLS. The job also requires a strong knowledge of zoning, building codes and site plans, and could require a master’s degree, according to BLS. The median annual wage for urban and regional planners was $74,350 in 2019, according to BLS.

If you're interested in more advanced positions in the field, you can consider other jobs available with a master's in public administration.

Whichever role you choose, working in public administration can offer you other benefits in addition to salary, including a sense of purpose, the opportunity to learn and grow, and a way to make a difference in your community, state or country.

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks ’11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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