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What is public administration?

By Laurie Davies

At a glance

  • Public administrators have a passion for making a difference in their communities.
  • Jobs in public administration include municipal, regional, state and federal government roles as well as positions with nonprofit and community-based agencies and organizations.
  • A Bachelor of Science in Public Administration prepares students for roles in public, private and nonprofit sectors by covering a range of topics like civil leadership, business and governmental law, and finance. 

What is public administration?

Imagine an uptick in juvenile crime in your community where unsupervised young people are smashing windows, scrawling graffiti and committing other property crimes.

Some might lock their doors and lament the state of today’s youth. Others might roll up their sleeves, write a grant to secure funding for a youth center, and work with local nonprofit agencies to offer a mix of programs, mentoring and education for young people.

The latter is just one of many examples of public administration and how it can be applied to improve community life. Whether it’s addressing crime, connecting communities through bike trails and sidewalks, creating vibrant parks or addressing traffic safety issues, the role of public administration in communities is vital.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if a public administration degree might be right for you:

  • Do you think about making a difference in your community?
  • Can you solve problems and shape or direct public policy?
  • Can you facilitate collaboration?
  • Can you manage fiscal resources?
  • Do you have a heart for serving a diverse public?
  • Do you think big picture?

If this sounds like you, a public administration degree might be a good fit. Read on to discover more.


Public administration is just one branch of community or government services. Check out our Bachelor of Science in Public Administration degree.


What does a public administrator do?

If you’re thinking of getting a public administration degree, you’re probably asking: What does a public administrator do? Maybe the better question is, what doesn’t a public administrator do?


From the water that comes from your tap, to the streets that get you to work, to the parks your kids play in, to the airports that connect you to business and leisure travel, the duties of a public administrator are vast. So are the job possibilities.

Simply put, a public administrator is “someone with a passion for making a positive difference in their community or communities in need,” says Franzi Walsh, DBA, MPA, associate dean in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix (UOPX).

“Anything that makes your life livable where you are, that’s public administration,” says Walsh, who oversees the college’s criminal justice, public administration and security programs.

Public administration includes jobs in:

  • Public works
  • Police/fire
  • Housing
  • Parks and recreation
  • Community and economic development
  • Libraries
  • Transportation
  • Code enforcement/zoning
  • Airport administration
  • Nonprofit administration

Patrick Sherman, a 20-year public-sector veteran who has held both elected and appointed municipal administrative positions, is a University of Phoenix College of Business and IT faculty member and an Industry Advisory Council (IAC) member for the University’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. He says the ability to see the big picture in public administration is key, especially for those looking to serve in local or regional governments.

“Cities and counties tend to have many disparate, moving parts,” he says. “There’s not a lot in common between water and sewer, housing, parks, police and airports. You need to be able to see how everything connects like the gems of a mosaic making a community whole. That takes a big-picture perspective.”

What are the types of public administration?

Over time, public administration has changed from a field that carried out public services at minimum cost to one that responds more to public needs. Reflecting this evolution are the following three major schools of thought:

Classical public administration: This theory suggests public administration should be run like a business. It’s all about efficiency.

New public administration: Advanced in the 1960s and ’70s, this theory looked at public administration through the lens of an obligation to society. It’s born from activism and ethics.

Postmodern public administration: This theory of planning had its beginnings in the 1990s. It espouses public-sector solutions rooted in pluralism and relativism.

Public administration jobs

Whether you’re looking to enter public administration with a bachelor’s degree or enhance your expertise with a master’s degree (and possibly move into general management of a city or a nonprofit organization), a range of job possibilities is available. Some roles you may be familiar with are:

  • City management
  • Policy planning
  • Economic development
  • Parks, recreation and libraries
  • Public works and infrastructure
  • Courts
  • Program analysts
  • Civilian public safety positions

A Master of Public Administration (MPA) can prepare you to be a: 

  • Chief operating officer
  • General manager
  • Operations director
  • Regulatory affairs director
  • Compliance manager

More detailed overviews and salary information are available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for specific job possibilities, which include:

General and operations manager

Overview: The role of a general or operations manager is to plan, direct or coordinate the operations of public- or private-sector organizations and oversee multiple departments or locations.

Annual salary range: $45,850 to $161,190 in May 2020, according to BLS.

Education requirements: At minimum, a bachelor’s degree and work experience are required for roles as top executives, according to BLS.

Job outlook: Roles as top executives are projected to grow at 8%, which is average, according to BLS.

Social and community service manager

Overview: Social and community service managers coordinate and supervise programs and organizations that support public well-being.

Annual salary range: $42,230 to more than $115,800 in May 2020, according to BLS.

Education requirements: A bachelor’s degree and work experience are typically required, according to BLS.

Job outlook: Positions are projected to grow 15% between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS.

Sometimes the best way to understand options is by comparing them. Explore career opportunities with public administration’s sister degree: criminal justice.

The salary ranges above are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

Why earn an online Master of Public Administration?

A Bachelor of Science in Public Administration can give you a foundation in civil leadership, business and governmental law, and finance and budgeting. A Master of Public Administration (MPA) is a broad-based, versatile degree that can develop your leadership, public policy, communication, problem-solving and management skills.

Sherman recommends the MPA for anyone looking to move out of a silo (police, planning or parks, for instance) and into general management of a city, county, state or federal agency or a nonprofit or community-based organization. “If you’re a planner and you have your sights on assistant city manager, it’s good to consider a master’s in public administration rather than a master’s in urban planning,” Sherman says.

An MPA creates leaders who know how law, policy and the public intersect, and can communicate to internal and public stakeholders effectively. Lana Salomonson, who serves with Sherman on the college’s IAC, says the skill set of an MPA holder is also transferable to the nonprofit world. She’s firsthand proof.

Salomonson, who began her career as a TV reporter, earned her MPA and then went on to work in management for the state of Illinois. Today, she is executive director of a large nonprofit organization in Springfield, Illinois.

“The master’s [in] public administration has helped me immensely in the nonprofit world,” she says, noting that the budgeting skills she learned immediately applied in both the government and nonprofit realms.

For example, she began with a zero-based budget in each and required staffers to justify expenditures and build their budgets from the ground up — a management skill learned during her MPA studies.

“An MPA really teaches you how to work for your public, whatever that is,” she says. “If you’re working for the city government, your public is citizens. If you’re working for a senior center, your public is seniors. If you’re working for an adoption nonprofit, your public is adoptive parents,” she says.

Why get your MPA online from UOPX?

At University of Phoenix, much like an online MPA itself, versatility is key — that’s reflected in the fact that the University was built for the busy. For most UOPX students, earning a degree is a second job. That’s why you can attend class whenever it fits your life, day or night.

UOPX students also take one class at a time. And the MPA itself offers these distinct advantages.

1.     Curriculum to careers: Both the University of Phoenix Bachelor of Science in Public Administration and Master of Public Administration have a curriculum-to-careers focus. According to Walsh, this means that class content lines up with real skills valued in the workplace.

“We try to map the bigger assessment assignments with jobs that are being posted by cities, counties and states,” she says. That way, UOPX students can have confidence that the skills they learn will position them to compete for jobs.

2.     Practitioner faculty: Sherman, who has helped create curriculum for the MPA, says UOPX faculty make the difference. “Our degree program was put together not just by academics, but also by people with experience in the field,” he says.

3.     Well-rounded approach: Salomonson says an MPA from University of Phoenix can uniquely position graduates to identify well-rounded, community-based solutions. “University of Phoenix faculty members, staff and Industry Advisory Council members bring well-rounded experience in criminal justice, city management, nonprofit administration and more.”

4.     Career Services for Life®: At UOPX, every degree is backed by a lifetime of career support. Active students and graduates get access to career exploration tools, career coaching, resumé building, interview prep and more. 

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