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Sustainability as a Conceptual Focus for Public Administration


Daniel J. Fiorino is executive in residence and director of the Center for Environmental Policy at American University. His teaching and research interests include environmental policy, environmental sustainability, and regulatory innovation. He is the author of The New Environmental Regulation, which won the 2007 Brownlow Award of the National Academy of Public Administration.


This article argues that sustainability should define the conceptual focus for the field of public administration in the coming decade. Sustainability involves three systems: environmental, economic, and political/social systems. The challenge of governance, and thus of public administration, is to sustain each of these systems on its own while maintaining an appropriate balance among them. The article defines the sustainability concept, and its environmental component in particular, in ways that are relevant to public administration; assesses the validity of the concept in terms of the interrelationships and interdependencies among the three systems; and suggests the implications for the field. By integrating knowledge and study of the environmental system with the traditional competence in the political/social and economic systems that is expected in the field, public administrators may achieve a more theoretically complete and empirically valid foundation for education, research, and practice.

And just as many apparently insoluble problems have eluded solution until someone discovered the “right” way to view them, so it may be that our failure to cope adequately with certain large and complex problems of our time is a consequence of failure to see the unifying elements in the complexity.

—Lynton K. Caldwell, 1963