politics-administration dichotomy

Entry initiated by N Miller, first posted 28 September, 2006

The concept that the political realm and the administrative realm are separate and should not intersect. This idea is prevalent in public administration today, even if only as an ideal; most scholars see it an impossibility.

The idea of a politics-administration dichotomy is commonly attributed to Woodrow Wilson in his essay "The Study of Administration" (1887).
He states:
"It is a thing almost taken for granted among us, that the present movement called civil service reform must, after the accomplishment of its first purpose, expand into efforts to improve, not the personnel only, but also the organization and methods of our govern ment offices: because it is plain that their organization and methods need improvement only less than their personnel. It is the object of administrative study to discover, first, what government can properly and successfully do, and secondly, how it can do these proper things with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or of energy. On both these points there is obviously much need of light among us, and only careful study can supply that light."

However, the modern view on this theory can be found here

" The debate about the utility of the original or a reinterpreted version of the model misses a fundamental point: the dichotomy model is not what it seems. It is not an idea that can be traced back to the origins of the field of public administration or the municipal reform movement. Rather than trying to explain or rehabilitate the model, it is more appropriate to view it as an idea that emerged relatively late and that deviated from the ideas of the founders of public administration and the framers of the council-manager form of government. It is important for academics to get their intellectual history right and stop presenting simplistic and historically inaccurate explanations of how the field began and evolved. In addition, practitioners and promoters of the council-manager form should recognize that they have been disadvantaged by the pervasive attitude that the form is based originally on the dichotomy model and realize that they weaken the legitimacy of city managers as comprehensive leaders by perpetuating this notion."


Another modern view on the Politics-Administration Dichotomy comes from James Svara his article The Politics-Administration Dichotomy Model as Aberration. Svara writes that;
“practitioners and promoters of the council-manager form should recognize that they have been disadvantaged by the pervasive attitude that the form is based originally on the dichotomy model and realize that they weaken the legitimacy of city managers as comprehensive leaders by perpetuating this notion.
Let us be dear about the definition of the concept. As it applies to local government, the dichotomy model holds that:
  • The city council does not get involved in administration.
  • The city manager has no involvement in shaping policies,
  • The manager occupies the role of a neutral expert who efficiently and effectively carries out the policies of the council. (Presumably, administrators do not exercise discretion, for to do so opens the door to interpreting policy and choosing how and to what went it will be applied.)”(Svara, 1998. 51)
Svara concludes his article with these thoughts on the Politics-Administration Dichotomy;
“A final defect of the dichotomy model is that it is essentially negative: it established a barrier that neither side was supposed to cross. A positive alternative is to emphasize, as did the New Municipal Program in 1919 and the Task Force on the Council-Manager Plan in 1994, that the form is based on combining representative democracy and professionalism in a unique approach to governance.”(Svara, 1998. 57)

Another contributer to the theory of the politics-administration dichotomy is Frank J. Goodnow. He published "Politics and Administration in 1900 and identified two "distinct functions of government. Politics was to determine to the state will while administration should carry it out.¹ The first text book dedicated entirely to public administration was published in 1926 by Leondard D. White: "Introduction to the Study of Public Administration." White reiterates the stance that politics and administration should be held separate.


References


¹Henry, Nicholas. 1975. "Paradigms of Public Administration." Public Administration Review, Vol. 35, No. 4.(Jul.-Aug.), pp.378-386.
Svara, James. 1998. "The Politics-Administration Dichotomy Model as Aberration." Public Administration Review, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan-Feb), pp. 51-58