Get access

“Our Usable Past”: A Historical Contextual Approach to Administrative Values


Donald P. Moynihan is an associate professor and Romnes Fellow in the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research examines the application of organization theory to public management issues such as administrative reform, performance management, and employee behavior. His book The Dynamic of Performance Management, was published in 2008 by Georgetown University Press.


In responding to Professor Lynn's criticism that the field of public administration has been insufficiently attentive to law, this article offers an alternative perspective on the source of administrative legitimacy. Leonard White understood that public administration is shaped by its broader context. It does not assert its own values but, in an effort to maintain legitimacy, reflects the political and cultural values of its environment. In White's time, the extraordinary challenges that the state faced, and its subsequent transformation, demanded a management capacity that previously had not existed. While the role of law as a formal means of control is generally accepted, it must take its place with management and other administrative values in the exercise of legal discretionary behavior. Asserting law, or any other single administrative value, as dominant undercuts other values that act as sources of legitimacy.