Columns of a public building

Public administration: serving the needs of the people

While public services and public administration is largely the purview of government, the real-world application of its planning, orchestration and development and performance can be a far larger, and more-complex, affair. Prospects, a specialist in graduate careers, estimates that there are 5.6 million individuals working in the public sector in the United Kingdom. Add this to the number of people working in public administration-adjacent capacities outside the public sector, and the number is far higher still.

In our daily lives, we may be unaware of the sheer scale of service provision, but those working both at the frontline and in behind-the-scenes capacities perform critical roles that have an effect on our individual livelihoods and that of wider society. But what does public administration involve – and what careers are available to those interested in working in public affairs and public management?

What is public administration?

Public administration refers to the sector – which, depending on the country, may be governmental, public sector, private sector, non-profit organisations and local agencies – that works to meet the needs of the public, and maintain a civil society through public policy and programme coordination. A wide-ranging field, it encompasses the planning, organising, directing, coordination and control of national and local government operations.

In the UK, the term civil servants refers to those who are employed by ‘His Majesty’s Civil Service’.and, collectively, the Civil Service “helps the government of the day develop and implement its policies as effectively as possible.” An independent body – but one that is overseen and managed by the prime minister – its work spans various agencies, central government departments and non-departmental government bodies (NDPBs). The Civil Service does not include: individuals working for the National Health Service (NHS); the police; the British Armed Forces; government ministers or officers of local government or NPDBs; or those working for the Royal Household.

The Civil Service adheres to four overarching standards.

  • Integrity: the obligations of public service must come before personal interests.
  • Honesty: the Civil Service must be truthful and open.
  • Objectivity: advice and decisions must be rigorous and evidence-based.
  • Impartiality: the Civil Service must act according to the merits of the case, and equally serve governments of all political parties.

What does public administration involve?

Public service is a complex, fast-paced and changeable environment, characterised by the pressure to deliver in critical areas of need but often with limited resources. It requires individuals with the ability to navigate complicated policy issues – grounded in multiple, competing contexts – and improve service performance.

It has a broad remit, generally encompassing law enforcement, education, health and social care, all levels of government, business administration, and more. As such, its responsibilities are equally broad, although the specifics of public administration vary from country to country. Responsibilities are likely to include, for example:

  • public safety
  • social policy
  • community development
  • crisis management
  • sustainability
  • environmental management

The individual roles of public servants vary considerably. While policy making and policy analysis dictates much of the overall work, examples of wider roles may include:

  • political risk analyst
  • company secretary
  • education administrator
  • equality, diversity and inclusion manager
  • government social research officer
  • intelligence analyst
  • statistician
  • health service manager
  • environmental health practitioner
  • corporate treasurer
  • diplomatic service officer

Public administration in a business context

Management practice in public service and governmental environments continues to be shaped by concepts regarding government – from its leadership, performance and efficacy to its efficiency, organisation and drivers.

There is much to learn from public administration trends and activities.

  • How is performance measured and improved?
  • What accountability mechanisms are built into the process?
  • What is the nature of leadership and how can it impact societal and cultural change – both within, and external to, a services context?
  • How is evidence gathered and used as a basis for effecting change, influencing policy, making decisions and developing solutions?
  • What can it teach us about fiscal management, wider reforms, working within tight constraints and enhancing performance?
  • How do government policies impact the way business is conducted?

Pursuing a career within public administration

While there is no specific path to a career in the public administration field, the vast majority of positions require a university degree and, often, skills across business and management.

Depending on the career ambition – and which level, or either seniority or experience a role requires – it may be useful to undertake specific undergraduate or postgraduate study for that area. There are plenty of higher education institutions to choose from, and course focus is wide-ranging. You can choose courses tailored to your professional development needs, for example across fields such as public policy, labour relations, programme development or public finance. Master’s degrees are generally required for management-level positions and roles that directly develop and implement public programmes.

Work experience and other professional experience can help to set you apart from other graduates, as well as giving you valuable insight into the workings of the sector. It may be helpful to have an academic background in social science or political science, but it is not essential. Entry requirements, part-time and full-time study options, tuition fees and other details vary by provider – for further information, ordering prospectuses or attending open days can help you to make an informed choice.

Gain the skills to enact meaningful change in the challenging public administration sector

Are you passionate about making a difference in the lives of citizens and their communities? The University of York’s online Master of Public Administration (MPA) programme aims to equip you with the insight and know-how to pursue senior leadership positions in this changeable, critical field.

Our flexible MPA degree offers an in-depth, holistic and contemporary view of the decision making, strategic planning, financial management and leadership involved in effective public administration. Expand your knowledge through specialist modules as you discover a multi-dimensional approach to administration which spans policy process, organisational and human contexts, and the wider environment that dictates public service demands and limitations.