Posted on 8 December 2015
Professor Andrew Dunsire 1924-2015
From the 1970s to the 1990s Andrew Dunsire was one of the leading and most original British teachers and scholars of public administration. He was originally trained as an historian at Edinburgh University and that training shone through both his later academic work and his passion for genealogical research in retirement. The route from academic history to public administration was shaped by his service in the RAF in World War II and a Harkness Fellowship in the United States after he completed his Edinburgh degree. He started teaching public administration at the London School of Economics in 1953 before moving to Exeter and from there to the then-new University of York in 1964, where he worked until his retirement in 1989, serving for ten years as Head of the Department of Politics – a stint that drew heavily on the scrupulous fairness, consideration and care which he brought to the practice as well as the study of administration.
He was a leading figure in the professional institutions of academic public administration, such as the Public Administration Council of the Joint University Council for Social and Public Administration, and he helped it to breathe new life into its subject by holding annual professional conferences at the University of York from 1969. As a teacher, his forte lay more in small-group teaching than in grand-opera-style lectures. He was a pioneer in developing teaching in organization theory in the 1960s, and was the only public administration teacher in Britain at that time (or maybe ever) who was himself a member of the Institute of Control Engineers.
Andrew Dunsire spent two formative years as a temporary Principal in the Department of Transport , but it was to the theory and understanding of his subject that he made his most important and distinctive contribution. His many publications included one of the most lucid and readable books on the development of thought about administration, and he also pioneered the study of ‘bureaumetrics’, the quantitative study of public organizations. But arguably his most original work was to develop a theory of how to keep bureaucracies under control, for which no adequate account had been given in classical thinking on that subject. Starting from the basic principles of control engineering, Dunsire’s argument was that the only effective way to keep a bureaucracy under control is to expose it to contradictory objectives and make sure those contradictory objectives are kept in tension.
Andrew Dunsire’s ideas were particularly admired in Germany, and he was in much demand on the international conference circuit all over Europe. But his ideas somehow never became quite so well known in the United States as they arguably deserved, and in the 1980s and 1990s apparently simpler management ideas dominated thinking about public services, focusing on ‘bottom lines’ and target incentivized by performance pay systems. Moreover, Dunsire himself never quite developed his ideas at a detailed ‘how to do it’ level. But the many failures associated with gamed-out target systems for controlling public services testify to the enduring value of Andrew Dunsire’s alternative ideas about how to control sophisticated human systems.
His wife Kay died in February 2013. He is survived by his sister, his three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandsons.
Christopher Hood, Emeritus Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford