Woodrow Wilson Public Administration Essay


Woodrow Wilson is regard as the founder or father of study of public administration. His title rests on his Seminal essay entitled “The Study of public administration” which was published in the Political Science quarterly in 1887. Wilson wrote his essay, “The Study of Public Administration” in the era of the Progressive movement which covered the last two decades of the nineteenth Century. In the United States, this movement was developed in response to increasing Urbanization, immigration, the seeming loss of traditional values, Corruption, etc. There was maladministration due to rampant political corruption and the Prevalence of the “spoils system” introduced by President Andrew Jackson. Under this system only the loyal political supporters of the Party’s Victorium at the Polls were appointed to administrative posts As a consequence less qualified and sometimes Unqualified people entered the Public service and contributed to the increasing inefficiency of public administration.

Influenced by the progressive movement Woodrow Wilson was also convinced that there was a need to reform the government and the reforms should be in the field of public administration so as to make it more efficient. It was in this context of prevalent maladministration and the consequent administrative reforms that Wilson emphasized in his essay, the development of the science of public administration as the appropriate cure for corrupt and inefficient administrative system. This vision of Wilson also marked the emergence of public administration as a separate and independent field of Study.

Wilson’s View on Politics and Administration

Woodrow Wilson is usually regarded as the Originator Of the doctrine of politics- administration dichotomy. In his essay Wilson divided government into two separate spheres of politics and administration. In his opinion, politics is dealt with questions of policy formulation; administration is dealt with carrying them out. He defined public administration as “detailed and systematic execution of public law”.

Wilson characterized public administration as a field of business .He Said, “the field of administration is a field of business….. Removed from the hurry and strife of politics” He Stated that administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices”. He further observed that “public administration is a Part of political life only as the methods of counting house are a Part of the life of the society; only as machinery is part of a manufactured product”. To Wilson, politics is the special Province of the statesman and administration that of the technical official. Wilson Wanted that administrators should not involve themselves in the political process .Thus Wilson tried to establish the distinction between politics and administration.

By expounding the politics –Administration dichotomy theory, Wilson urged strongly for the creation of a technically competent and politically neutral administrative system for a democracy. It should be separate from the political system, although it is under democratic control. Wilson believed that if public administration could be separated from the practical politics and the influences of the spoils system prevailed at that time in the USA, it might become more business-like and develop on scientific lines in its own right. Thus his goal was to call attention to the need for efficient administration and to keep it out of Partisan Politics. Wilson saw the Study Of public administration as the latest fruit of that Study of science of politics which was begun some two thousand two hundred Years ago. The foundations of public administration “are those deep and permanent principles of politics”. Thus for Wilson, it is said, the Study of public administration, derived from the Study of politics, was to be distinguished from it, but never divorced from its “maxims” and “truths”. To Wilson, public administration was much more than technical detail and it was to be conducted in a political context .Thus he treated “politics and public administration as two sides of a coin”.

Table 1 Politics and (public administration) Dichotomy -Dividing Politics and Administration



Deals with the “expression of the will of the people “.

Deals with the “Execution of the will of the people”.

Deals with Politicians

Deals with Civil Servants

One becomes Politician by his popularity ,either through positive or negative popularity

Positive Popularity , e.g., Sonia Gandhi

Negative Popularity e.g. Poolan Devi

One becomes Civil servants by his intelligence

One becomes Politics through election

One becomes civil servant through selection

Prior training is not given to politician

Civil servants are professionals

Power is the Centre of study in politics i.e , process of capturing and retaining power

Running administration successfully is the central focus here

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Presented by J. B. Nangpuhan II (MPA Student) to Dr. C. G. Song, professor of Public Administration at Chonnam National University, South Korea under 'introduction to public administration'. Date presented: 29Sept2010.

The Study of Public Administration

(by: Woodrow Wilson)



Key Terms:
1.       administration
2.       personnel
3.       public opinion
4.       civil service
5.       constitutional
6.       politics
7.       province

The eminently practical science of administration is finding its way into college courses in this country (United States) would prove that this country needs to know more about administration. The present movement called civil service reform must expand into efforts to improve not only the personnel but also the organization and methods of government offices. The object of the administrative study is to discover: a. what government can properly and successfully do; and b. how it can do this proper things with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or of energy.

I.        Some account of what others have done in the same line? The history of the study

What is the science of administration? The science of administration is the latest fruit of that study of the science of politics which was begun some 2200 years ago. It is a birth of the century, almost of the generation of Woodrow Wilson. Administration is the most obvious part of the government; it is government in action; it is the executive, the operative, the most visible side of government, and is of course as old as government itself.

Why it is so late in coming? Why did it wait till this too busy century of ours to demand attention for itself? In the early times, there was little or no trouble about administration – at least little that was heeded by administrators. The functions of government were simple because life itself was simple. Government went about imperatively and compelled men, without thought of consulting their wishes. There was no complex system of public revenues and public debts to puzzle financiers because there were no financiers to be puzzled anyway. No one who possessed power was long at a lose how to use it. Populations were of manageable numbers and property was of simple sorts. There were plenty of farms but no stocks and bonds: more cattle than vested interests. The perennial discords between master and workmen which now so often disturb industrial society began before the Black Death and the Statute of Laborers; but never before our own day did they assume such ominous proportions as they wear now. In brief, the difficulties of governmental action are to be seen gathering in other centuries, they are to be seen culminating during the time of Woodrow Wilson. This is the reason why administrative tasks have nowadays to be so studiously and systematically adjusted to carefully tested standards of policy, the reason why we are having now what we never had before, a science of administration.

What are some notable means of administration in the early times? Based on Mr. Bagehot’s graphic, a whimsical way of depicting the difference between the old and the new in administration is revealed. In early times, when a despot wishes to govern a distant province, he sends down a satrap on a grand horse and other people on little horses: and very little is heard of the satrap again unless he sends back some of the little people to tell what he has been doing. No great labor of superintendence is possible. Common rumor and casual report are the sources of intelligence. If it seems certain that the province is in a bad state, satrap No. 1 is recalled, and satrap No. 2 sent out in his stead. In civilized countries, the process is different. You erect a bureau in the province you want to govern; you make it write letter and copy letters; it sends home eight reports per diem to the head bureau in St. Petersburg. Nobody does a sum in the province without someone doing the same sum in the capital, to “check” him, and see if he does it correctly. The consequence of this is, to throw on the heads of departments a amount of reading and labor which can only be accomplished by the greatest natural aptitude, the most efficient training, the most firm and regular industry.

What happened in 18th century and early 20th century? The start of the 20th century marked the presence of scores of masters in the government. The enlargement of functions by the government led to the establishment of new facilities, expansion of postal services, railroad lines, and so on which involved the extension of administrative functions. Where government once might follow the whims of a court, it must now follow the views of a nation. This is the reason why Woodrow Wilson insisted that there should be a science of administration which shall seek to straighten the paths of government, to make its business less unbusiness-like, to strengthen and purify its organization, and to crown its duties with dutifulness.
According to Wilson, the science of administration started in Europe and considered a foreign science in the United States. It has been developed by French and German professors and is consequently adapted in all parts to the needs of a compact state and made to fit highly centralized forms of government like US and England. Europe is susceptible to science because government has long been a monopoly wherein: a. governing is independent of popular assent thus there will be more governing to be done; b. the desire to keep the government a monopoly made the monopolists interested in discovering the least irritating means of governing. In England or in the United States, government has long been a common franchise.
Countries in Europe except England desperately struggled against all change for a long time. They struggled to perfect their machinery as to destroy all wearing friction so to sweeten their methods with consideration for the interest of the governed. They gave people constitutions and franchise but even after that they obtained leave to continue despotic by becoming paternal. They made themselves too efficient to be dispensed with, too smoothly operative to be noticed, too enlightened to be considerately questioned, too benevolent to be suspected, too powerful to be coped with. All this has required study, and they have closely studied it. During those times, three periods of growth were undertaken through which government has passed in the existing systems. First, the absolute rulers and of an administrative system adapted to absolute rule; second, constitutions are framed to do away with absolute rulers and substitute popular control, and in which administration is neglected for these higher concerns; and third, the sovereign people undertake to develop administration under this new constitution which has brought them into power.
In Prussia, for instance, administration has been most studied and most nearly perfected during the reign of Frederic the Great. He considered himself as the chief servant of the state and his great office a public trust. His successor, Frederic William III, under the inspiration of Stein, advanced the work still further which give firmness and form to Prussian administration. Almost the whole of the admirable system has been developed by kingly initiative. Also during the modern French administration, Napoleon merely perfected civil machinery by his single will as an absolute ruler. Before Napoleon, a constituent assembly through revolution attempt but failed in the end.

What were the situations of England and United States in the past?  Before the dawn of a constitutional era, there had been constitutional-making and popular reform. In England, in the days of Angevin kings, legal and administrative reforms began to proceed with sense and vigor under the impulse of Henry II, but his successors, Richard and John failed to continue the reforms. In the end, England embraced the parliamentary form of government. The English race has long and successfully studied the art of curbing executive power but neglected the art of perfecting executive methods. It exercised more in controlling than in energizing government. English and American political history is a history of legislative oversight and of advance in law-making and political criticism. It is not a history of administrative development and not of progress in governmental organization.

What then is there to prevent? Principally, popular sovereignty should be prevented. According to Wilson, it is harder for democracy to organize administration than for monarchy. In monarchy, an individual sovereign will adopt a simple plan and carry it out directly since he will have but one opinion and he will embody that one opinion in one command. In democracy, the people will have a score of differing opinions as it is necessary. There will be a succession of resolves running through a course of years, a dropping fire of commands running through a whole gamut of modifications. However, in government, the hardest of hard things is to make progress. The reason is that the single person who was sovereign was generally selfish, ignorant, timid, or fool – albeit there was now and again one who was wise. On the other hand, the people who are sovereign have no single ear which one can approach and are selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish – albeit there are hundreds who are wise. Public opinion is a first principle of government hence; practical reform must be slow and must be full of compromises. Whoever would effect change in a modern constitutional government must first educate his fellow-citizens to want some change. That is, public opinion is very important. To know public mind in the United States, one must know the mind, not of Americans of the older stocks only, but also of Irishmen, of Germans, of Negroes. This is the history of the study of administration.

II.      Ascertainment of the subject-matter

The field of administration is a field of business. It is removed from politics and stands apart from the constitutional study. It is only part of political life as the methods of the counting-house are a part of the life of society and only as the machinery is part of the manufactured product. The object of the administrative study is to rescue executive methods from the confusion and costliness of empirical experiment and set them upon foundations laid deep in stable principle. It is for this reason that reforming the civil-service in its present stages is a prelude to a fuller administrative reform according to Wilson. Civil service reform is clearing the moral atmosphere of official life by establishing the sanctity of public office as a public trust making the service unpartisan and opening the way for making it business-like.

Administrative questions are not political questions. Civil service reformers view administration that is outside the spheres of politics. Politics sets the tasks for administration but it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices. According to Bluntschli, politics is state activity “in things great a universal” while administration is “the activity of the state in individual and small things. “Politics is the special province of the statesman, administration of the technical official.” “Policy does nothing without the aid of administration.”
A clear view of the difference between the province of constitutional law and the province of administrative function ought to leave no room for misconception. Public administration is detailed and systematic execution of public law. Every particular application of general law is an act of administration. The broad plans of governmental action are not administrative but the detailed execution of such plans is administrative. In this case, the distinction is between general plans and specials means.

What part shall public opinion take in the conduct of administration? If we are to improve public opinion, which is the motive power of government, we must prepare better officials as the apparatus of government.  It will be necessary to organize democracy by sending up to the competitive examinations for the civil service men definitely prepared for standing liberal tests as to technical knowledge. A technically schooled civil service will presently have become indispensable. Bureaucracy can exist only where the whole service of the state is removed from the common political life of the people, its chiefs as well as its rank and file. The ideal is a civil service cultured and self-sufficient enough to act with sense and vigor, and yet intimately connected with the popular thought, by means of elections and constant public counsel.

III.    Determination of the best methods by which to develop administration and the most clarifying political conceptions to carry into administration
All forms of government are different but they also have their likeness. For all governments alike, the legitimate ends of administration are the same, in order not to be frightened at the ideas of looking into foreign systems of administration for instruction and suggestion; in order to get rid of the apprehension that we might perchance blindly borrow something incompatible with our principles. We can borrow the science of administration with safety and profit if only we read all fundamental differences of condition into its essential tenets. We can never learn either our own weaknesses or our own virtues by comparing ourselves with ourselves. For instance, if you see a murderous fellow sharpening a knife cleverly, you can borrow his way of sharpening the knife without borrowing his probable intention to commit murder with it; and so, if you see a monarchist dyed-in-the-wool managing a public bureau well, you can learn his business methods without changing one of your republican spots. He may serve his king; you will continue to serve the people. By studying administration as a means of putting our own politics into convenient practice and as a means of making what is democratically politic – we are on perfectly safe ground.
To suit American habit, all general theories must, as theories, keep modestly in the background, not in open argument only, but even in our own minds – lest opinions satisfactory only to the standards of the library should be dogmatically used, as if they must be quite as satisfactory to the standards of practical politics as well.
The interlacing of local self-government with federal self-government is quite a modern conception. But if problems will be solved, we, according to Wilson, shall again pilot the world. The tendency towards the American type – of governments joined with governments for the pursuit of common purposes, in honorary equality and honorable subordination will be possible. Like principle of civil liberty are everywhere fostering like methods of government, they will have approved themselves worthy to be ranked among the highest and most fruitful of the great departments of political study.

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