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Dichotomy between Politics and Public Administration

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 1986 words Published: 3rd Sep 2021

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The argument about the dichotomy between politics and public administration has been around for so many years. Although many scholars have made efforts to state their thesis for why or why not politics and administration should be distinct from each other, there has not been a universal consensus on the topic. Looking critically at both sides of the argument, those who support that the two should be distinct, claim that it will ensure an efficient, effective and neutral bureaucracy. However, the extent of such distinction had not been clearly stated. The other group who argue that the two disciplines should not be separated rest their thesis on the interconnection between politics and administration. To them, politics and administration are complementary. One writer summarizes the two theories; first, those who think “politics and administration are (and should be) distinct but interconnected and second, those who think politics and administration are (and should be) interconnected but distinct” (Overeem, 2006, p5).

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Let us look at some simple definitions. Politics itself lacks a clear-cut definition. The concept has been used synonymously with government. Thus politics refers to what governments do. In this regard Easton’s definition is most appropriate; “politics is the authoritative allocation of values in society” (Easton, 1953). Here politics refers to the formulation of policies as to who is to get what portion of societal resources, at what time and how. It is what political leaders are actually elected to do (making decisions that are binding on the people).

Simply defined, public administration refers to the activities of the administrative (bureaucratic) agencies of government that actually implement policies and programs. Notably, government policies become laws and these laws provide for the creation of administrative agencies with the primary mandate to implement these policy programs. This definition makes no attempt to provide a comprehensive description of public administration but is relevant for the purposes of this discussion. Moreover, it is obvious that the above definitions show a clear linkage between the two concepts.

The paper is an exposition of the politics/administration dichotomy theory and how this affects the effective and efficient operation of federal agencies. It seeks to assess how relevant the concept is in today’s agency operations by first establishing its origin and the prevailing school of thoughts. To cogently present the thesis of the paper, I begin with a brief discussion on the emergence of the politics/administration dichotomy, specifically assessing the two schools of thoughts both for and against the theory. After that, an effort is made to make a direct linkage to the implications of the theory in agencies operation by employing a few selected agencies namely; the Social Security Administration (SSA), Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Labor (DOL).

Emergence of the Politics/Administration Dichotomy

To a large extent, the argument about politics and administration dichotomy could be traced to the founding fathers (Woodrow Wilson and Frank Goodnow) of public administration and more specifically to the reforms during the progressive era. “While not rejecting politics per se, the public administration reformers of this era sought better government by expanding administrative functions (planning, analyzing), keeping them distinct from political functions (deciding). The politics/administration dichotomy emerged as a conceptual origination whereby the world of government was to be divided into two functional areas ─ one administrative, one political” (Cox, Buck, Morgan, 1994 p6).

During this period, it was thought that the expansion of administrative practice was necessary to improve government operation. Thus the reforms in the Civil Service that sought to replace patronage appointment with appointment on the basis of merit, was a good example of how to manage the work of government effectively and efficiently. Moreover, as Cox, Buck, and Morgan recognized, “the use of independent regulatory agencies, such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, was to bring to bear the expertise and knowledge of civil servants to quickly, factually, and knowledgeably (neutrally) make decisions that would be beyond the ken of political bosses”.

In his writing, ‘The study of Administration’, Woodrow Wilson tried to promote public administration by outlining a distinction between politics and administration. According to him a science of administration would make government more businesslike and cleanse its organization. He stated that administration is a field of business that is removed from the “hurry and strife of politics”. To him, administrative questions are discrete from political questions because political questions are policy questions, whereas public administration is the “detailed and systematic execution of public law” (Wilson, 1968).

In his book, “Politics and Administration”, Frank Goodnow was very much concerned about the negative effects of the spoil system on government administration. He recognized that the spoil system impaired administrative efficiency and was a threat to democratic government. Goodnow rejected party (political) control over administration as the best way to harmonize the expression of the popular will. According to Goodnow, certain areas of administration should be isolated from politics. These include the administration of justice; technical, scientific information gathering; as well as purely administrative management issues. These functions should be performed by politically neutral, tenured and competent individuals who are to act in a semi-scientific, quasi-judicial, and quasi-businesslike fashion (Goodnow, 1967).

The central argument of Wilson and Goodnow was that politics and patronage threatened the efficiency of administration and that, in general, administrative and political questions were and should be distinct. The former should be addressed by technically competent civil servants insulated from politics. In 21st century, Overeem is recognized as one of the advocates of the dichotomy, which is most evident in his writings.

Dwight Waldo is usually cited as one of the writers who disputed the politics/administration dichotomy. His idea akin to scholars of his time was partly informed by the experience from a crisis decision-making atmosphere that characterized the federal government during the World War II period. Thus to the writers of that period the rigid delineation of a distinction between politics and administration was impractical.

In contemporary times, Svara has also attempted to point out the complexity in the political-administrative relations and the limits of the dichotomy concept. According to him, the dichotomy theory obscures more than it illuminates the relationship between politics and administration. For instance, he accuses Overeem for overstating the argument put forward by Goodnow, Wilson and Weber. Svara notes that the traditional arguments for a distinction between politics and administration upon which Overeem based his thesis do not match the restricted role implied by a dichotomy. To him Goodnow, Wilson and Weber also had in mind an interconnection and the need for harmony between the two (Svara, 2006).

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Having assessed the two schools of thought, one could argue that both extremes should not be desirable. One is also tempted to question the usage of the word ‘dichotomy’ because in its rightful application the word implies a total separation of politics and administration which is actually unattainable. Politics and administration do overlap as our earlier definition makes it clear that administration begins where politics ends. The earlier reformers sought to put an end to the spoil system that undermined the core principles of managerial efficiency and effectiveness and this was achieved through the Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 (Pendleton Act), which established the merit system and also marked the beginning of today’s Civil Service Commission. They did not advocate for a total separation between politics and administration.

Implication of the dichotomy theory for agencies operation

At this appoint an effort is made to compare the implications of the dichotomy theory on the structure and operation of the following federal agencies; Social Security Administration (SSA), Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Labor (DOL).

All the three agencies have some things in common with respect to their organizational structure and the staff composition. In each of the agencies a percent of the personnel positions are reserved for presidential (political) appointment whiles the other percent comprise of career service personnel and temporary employees. Thus the staff composition of the three agencies portrays the harmony that exists between politics and administration, which support the thesis that the two are practically inseparable.

SSA and GAO are both independent agencies. However this does not suggest that the two are insulated from every influence of politics- political leaders. A specialized agency like the GAO needs much discretion and authority to effectively deliver on its mission, and could only do that when to a reasonable degree its activities are protected from the sudden changes in the political arms of government. Thus the situation where the Comptroller General of the GAO and the Commissioner of the SSA serve fixed tenures not at the pleasure of the President who appoints them is necessary for continuity. Ones a change in party government is not the end of tenure, they can achieve their program objectives before leaving office.

Again, it is worth noting the activities of these independent agencies are sometimes influenced by decisions of the President or Congress. A case in point, during interactions with the staff at the SSA, it was noted that there were instances when the federal government spent funds in the SSA trust fund. Moreover, GAO activities could be drastically influenced by Congressional mandates.

Lastly, the current situation at the Department of Labor where the Secretary’s position is vacant is affecting the agency in a way that makes the strictest argument for the politics/administration dichotomy unfounded. The absence of the Presidential appointee brings with it a lack of policy direction in the agency. The political leader (appointee) of the agency is a direct link between the agency and the political arm of government. He/she understands the policies of the President and sees to it that the agency work is geared toward the accomplishment of these policies to improve the lives of Americans.

In conclusion, although this paper might be limited in literature review, the point made is that politics and administration should be seen as very interconnected. It is worth reiterating that, public administration is as old as government itself and constitutes an integral part of government without which government cannot function properly. Just as the structure of governments has changed over the years, the structure and role of public administration have also changes dramatically. Moreover, it is important to state that public administration has grown from its traditional role of merely implementing policies adopted by the “political” branches of government to playing very significant role in the formation of public policies. This is more evident by the professional expertise bureaucratic officials provide during problem identification, agenda setting, policy formulation, and evaluation that shape the content of public policy.


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