The Constitution and the council-manager plan: public administration operating under a system without shared powers

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Virginia Tech


This study carries forward the exploration of John Rohr’s normative theory of public administration by examining the applicability of the "balance wheel" role for public administrators to local government administration. Because local government charters contain no moral basis for action, and there is no oath of office to uphold which would bind administrators in the pursuit of a set of local regime values, the issue of where local public administrators get their norms for action is an important one.

Local government department heads from South Carolina were interviewed from both mayor-council and council-manager governments in an effort to understand how they viewed their role in the governance process. During these interviews, particular emphasis was placed on where administrators look for guidance when faced with complex or conflicting signals from their environment.

The original hypothesis guiding the research was that form of local government would influence administrators’ responses. That is, administrators from council-manager governments would find it difficult to be guided by Rohr’s normative theory of public administration because they operate in a system of government unlike their federal and state counterparts, i.e., no separation of powers exists in this form of government. The data analysis revealed that, when looking for guidance, form of government mattered less than did the type of task area that an administrator works in. In short, sources of guidance for administrators are often dependent upon the type of task an administrator is involved.

This study suggests that when public administration scholars offer normative prescriptions for administrative behavior they should consider a contingency approach that is sensitive to the task area of the administrator. Indeed, data analysis suggests that a local government administrator’s profession may be the most important variable in predicting where an administrator will find guidance.



local government, Rohr, guidance, roles