Assignment #2– Politics Public Administration
In Chapter 5 we will examine the marriage of politics and administration. After
completing this chapter, you will understand the need for administrative reform
following the Jacksonian spoils system, as well as the intersection and reality of politics
and administration. Central to this chapter will be an examination of bureaucratic
discretion and decision-making. Further discussion will center on the executive branch’s
inability to control the bureaucracy, the legislative branch’s lack of desire to control the
bureaucracy, and the judicial branch’s role as a reluctant arbiter of bureaucratic actions.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let
us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have
borne the battle
Image 5.1 Poster for Congress of Industrial Rights.
Source: Ben Shahn, Library of Congress, 1946. “Poster RegtoVote” by CIO—Library of Congress. Licensed
under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons:
and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and
with all nations.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States.
The Intersection of Politics and Administration
Reform and Neutrality
Competence versus responsiveness has been a historical struggle in public
administration. From George Washington to John Quincy Adams, the small
bureaucracies of the federal government valued competence and qualification. In 1828,
however, the bureaucracy’s focus on competence shifted. The election of Andrew
Jackson to the presidency ushered in a new public administration philosophy—the socalled “spoils system.” Central to the spoils system was the belief in a more “responsive”
bureaucracy. Jackson believed that virtually any individual was capable of executing the
“simple” tasks of public management, which were thought to be a matter of “common
sense.” Disappointingly, a heavy price was paid for more responsive administration
under the spoils systems. Inefficiency was widespread, profiteering was common, and
scandals were recurrent. The ills associated with the spoils system were pervasive not
only at the federal level but also throughout state and municipal bureaucracies. A large,
rapidly growing and increasingly industrialized nation could not afford substandard
public service administration. Waste and corruption had to be restrained. In the postCivil War period, reformers made public appeals for efficient and honest government.
Reformers, most notably Princeton University academic (and future US president)
Woodrow Wilson, insisted on a separation of politics and administration. Wilson
championed a firm separation between the determination and implementation of policy.
Policy determination should occur via the political process, while policy implementation
should be the realm of apolitical administrators only. In other words, policy stands as an
expression of state will through elected officials, and public administrators should
execute that expression of state will in a professional, competent, and apolitical fashion.
All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an
influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field.
Albert Einstein, physicist; Nobel laureate.
The Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 changed everything by creating a bipartisan
Civil Service Commission—the predecessor of the system that is currently responsible for
90 percent of government employees. Critics maintain that a significant price has been
paid for this type of merit-based system. By being too shielded from politics, mediocrity
and incompetence have again become pervasive, so much so that the system arguably
rivals the Jacksonian spoils era. Other critics argue that corruption has yet to be
eliminated. Corruption persists in less obvious ways, such as through friendly ties and
under-the-table favors, although overt forms of corruption still make headlines from
time to time.
The creation of a civil service system provided the basis for more “businesslike”
government. The central principle became machine-like efficiency; that is, accomplishing
a given task with as little wasted energy as possible. This civil service reform movement
influenced governments at all levels to establish ethics codes, which distinguished
acceptable from unacceptable public employee behavior. Some of these codes of ethics
were incorporated into laws. The idea was that government services must be delivered
without passion or prejudice, and that truthfulness and openness were essential to
creating an optimally favorable administrative environment. This reform movement
assumed that public administrators would abide by the law and even higher ethical
standards. Providing services less efficiently was considered acceptable as long as public
servants conducted themselves lawfully and ethically.
Honest, businesslike government became the mantra during this reform movement.
Reformers such as Woodrow Wilson and Frank Goodnow advocated that greater
thought be paid to the “science” of public administration. Wilson believed it was
imperative that government not only determine what policies should be enacted but also
implement those policies with the highest degree of efficiency and responsiveness to the
citizenry. Public administration needed to emerge as a profession, and public
administrators needed to conduct themselves as such; that is, public administrators must
be responsible, professional, and efficient. Theories of “good governance” became
widespread, namely from the Bureau of Municipal Research in New York, which was
established in 1906. Good governance stresses that efficient service delivery is vital to the
public’s interest. Additionally, these theories suggest that administration and politics
should remain separate. Ideally, public administrators operate in an apolitical
environment, removed from the sphere of elected boards and political officials.
Furthermore, expertise should be a trademark of reform. The essence of the good
governance reform movement is encapsulated in the proverb: “There is neither a
Democratic nor a Republican way to build a road, just the right way.” As satisfying as
this may sound, contemporary public administration has witnessed the movement away
from the naive belief that politics and administration can be separated and toward the
recognition that the practice of public administration cannot realistically occur in a
neutral, apolitical environment.
The Reality of Bureaucratic Politics
In contrast to the notions of nineteenth-century reformers such as Wilson and Goodnow,
twentieth-century analysts acknowledged the reality that appointed administrative
officials often take the lead in making policy, while lower-level public officials often
interpret policies. Nineteenth-century policies were largely distributive—meaning the
government provided specific services that the free market would not (for example,
education, a national defense, and other services that did not require significant
interpretation on the part of public administrators). This all changed, however, with the
creation of the welfare state that began with President Franklin Roosevelt’s policies
during the Great Depression and continued with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, a
reform package rooted in the twin concepts of social justice and public improvement. To
be clear, the welfare state refers to policies that provide for the general welfare of it
citizenry. These policies are, by and large, “redistributive” in nature, meaning that taxes
collected from higher-income, wealthier citizens are redistributed to lower-income,
poorer citizens in the form of services and benefits. Examples of redistributive policies
include welfare benefits, food stamps, and Medicaid (health insurance for the poor,
which is not to be confused with Medicare, health insurance for retirees under Social
Security). With the arrival of Depression-era “big government” and the growing
implementation of redistributive policies during Johnson’s Great Society, it became clear
that no separation between politics and administration was realistic. Wilson’s call for
politics-administration separation is now seen as rather naive. Clearly, politics and
values encroach on administration from numerous external sources. Public
administrators are policymakers, as public administration is ultimately the sum of
politics plus management (Holzer and Gabrielian 1998).
Many scholars have spoken against the utopian view of public administrators as
neutral and apolitical. This attack on the overly simplistic nature of the politicsadministration separation began in earnest in the 1940s, having gained momentum by
the end of World War II. Scholars such as Appleby (1949) pointed out, “Arguments about
application of policy are essentially arguments about policy.” Waldo (1984) maintained
that public administration research was grounded in political theory, while Long (1949)
contended, “The lifeblood of administration is power.” This underscored public agencies’
need to cultivate a clientele in order to ensure political survival. Selznick (1949)
demonstrated how the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a New Deal-era agency
providing electricity and resource management for the southeastern United States,
survived and accomplished its mission by taking into account the needs of the local
citizenry. In his landmark book Administrative Behavior, Herbert Simon (1947/1997)
demonstrated that facts and administrative realities drive not only how decisions are
made but also how values are formed. Simon (1967) disputed Wilson’s notion that “the
field of administration is a field of business … removed from the hurry and strife of
politics.” Simon stressed that Wilson’s notion is normative, and thus “the field of
administration ought to be a field of business.”
There is no doubt that the development of the administrative agency in response to modern legislative and
administrative need has placed severe strain on the separation-of-powers principle in its pristine formulation.
Byron White, football player; Supreme Court justice.
The assumption that politics and administration could be separated was ultimately
disregarded as utopian. Wilson and Goodnow’s idea of apolitical public administration
proved unrealistic. A more realistic view—the so-called “politics” school—is that politics
is very much a part of administration. The politics school maintains that in a pluralistic
political system in which many diverse groups have a voice, public administrators with
considerable knowledge play key roles. Legislation, for instance, is written by public
administrators as much as by legislators. The public bureaucracy is as capable of
engendering support for its interests as any other participant in the political process, and
public administrators are as likely as any to be part of a policymaking partnership.
Furthermore, laws are interpreted by public administrators in their execution, which
includes many and often unforeseen scenarios. Policy implementation is the final step in
the policy process, and it serves as the last chance for outside interests to influence
Given that laws must be interpreted in the context of unanticipated circumstances,
administrative discretion becomes necessary. Administrative organizations are often
subject to external pressures by special interest groups and elected officials. This stems
from the fact that when public administrators draft policies and interpret them, they are
making value-based judgments. Even the most “technical” decisions are somewhat
value-laden. With such discretion, public administrators fall victim to policy preferences
from all sorts of stakeholders, most notably interest groups, legislators, media groups,
and rank-and-file citizens. Pressure is also found within public organizations.
The manner in which a policy is interpreted and implemented is as important as the
writing stage of the policymaking process. As a result, public administrators are
consistently pressured by interest groups and elected officials. Within a public
organization, bureaucrats often emerge as advocates for one special interest over another
—advocating for one certain position and interpretation of a newly drafted policy.
Making the “process” more objective is imperative, and one way of doing this is to make
the process more logical. According to the rational-comprehensive school of decisionmaking, the best decisions are logical; that is, decision makers try to meticulously
account for every possible consequence of choosing one course of action over another.
On the other hand, the incrementalist school argues that pressures resulting from crises
and deadlines limit the amount of time available for such a detailed analysis. The
incremental approach defends the process of making decisions based on choosing a
course of action that is both satisfactory and sufficient. In other words, incrementalists
advocate finding a “good enough” alternative until a better one presents itself. This is
called “muddling through.”
The intermingling of politics and administration is fairly obvious when one looks at
the budget process. Every government, regardless of the level (municipal, county, state,
or federal), operates under the direction of an official spending plan—more simply, a
budget. Budgets are massively dense documents filled with calculations and figures.
Thus, to most laypeople, budgets are overly dry. While this is true to some extent, the
battle for resources by public organizations is not as dry a process as one might think.
Money is the lifeblood of any organization. An agency or department’s budget affects
the number of people it employs and the resources available to them. The struggle for
money becomes a struggle over values, prompting questions such as, Should money be
spent on more police officers, for emergency medical technicians, or for a remedial
mathematics program? Eminent political scientist V. O. Key (1940) recognized this
struggle when he asked, “On what basis shall it be decided to allocate x dollars to
activity A instead of activity B?” Key believed that personal values and priorities
ultimately determine where money is spent. Developing “criteria” to decide how public
resources should be spent is nearly impossible, given that people’s values and priorities
differ. These diverse values and priorities are reflected in budgetary choices. The budget,
therefore, is an interest-oriented process defined by constant struggle—struggle to
determine whose interests and preferences will be given consideration. Politics ends up
being very much a part of this struggle (Wildavsky 1992).