Governments confront perhaps the greatest confluence of global challenges today: the first-world financial and fiscal challenges of late capitalism’s conflict with humanism; the looming ecological catastrophe of climate change and quagmire of future energy production; and the third-world challenges of population explosion, urbanization and intensifying conflict over dwindling resources. At the same time, public administrators tend to poll about as well as your average congressional member.
Distrust of government administrators today is a scenario not unlike the nation’s last great economic calamity, when public officials responded to the Great Depression by strengthening the Great Fiction of our field: the separation of policymaking from the administration of government.
The modern conception of the policy-administration dichotomy is often attributed to the writings of Woodrow Wilson and Frank Goodnow. Wilson, in his famous directive for American administrators to emulate a murderous fellow’s skills for sharpening a knife “without borrowing his probable intention to commit murder with it,” prescribed a comparative study of the “ways and means” of foreign government as a form of self-improvement (Wilson, 1887). Goodnow addressed the flaws in conceiving of an “extreme” literal interpretation of the constitutional separation of powers that ignores the differentiated duties of various authorities within government (Goodnow, 1900).
Wilson was concerned with the corrupting influences of political parties on government administration, as well as with Congress delving into the minutia of management (Stillman, 1973). Goodnow worried that political interference would lead to inefficiencies if administrators cared more for the favor of party bosses than for the good of their departments. But he accepted some level of political involvement and administrative policymaking influence when he noted that “much must be left to official discretion, since what is demanded of the officers is not the doing of a concrete thing, but the exercise of judgment” (81). Foremost, both early founders of Public Administration were seeking to define a “zone of competency” for public professionals to operate in with discretion and developable areas of expertise.
This artificial separation was exacerbated by debates over the organizational differences between business and government, and whether the discipline is more artistry or science. Despite the best efforts of administration scholars, the root-stems of the dichotomy survive in modern American governance and impede the ability of practitioners to establish an acceptable “zone of influence” in policy advising. Worse, the public appears at a loss to comprehend and appreciate the vast size and scope of the tasks government administrators have been charged with performing.
Current scholar James Svara (1998) called the dichotomy model that would grow out of their writings more an “aberration” in the history of government administration theory, one that neither man ever prescribed or even mentioned beyond the general desire to break the hold of spoils-era corruption on public management.
In promoting the council-manager form of government, Richard Childs envisioned the public administrator as a leadership figure in the community who would bring only questions of general policy to the council. Such empowerment of unelected leadership would later become a politically unpopular and minimalized characteristic of the progressive reform era, much to Childs’ disillusionment.
Tax Revolts, and Poorly Understood Progressivism
The dichotomy dates back to the 1927-1936 period in which financial support from the Rockefeller Philanthropies was contingent upon the rhetorical separation of so-called “neutral” government research from the more politically interested social sciences as they were then viewed (Roberts, 1994). Because of the social stigmatism attached to the name of billionaire namesake John Rockefeller, the various organizations his non-profits supported were keenly sensitive to the implication that they were trying to influence the political process. In order to secure support, Roberts wrote, early advocates of government research had to establish a “demonstration of neutrality” to secure funding or simply survive the rampant anti-tax sentiment among the Depression-racked citizenry.
This rhetorical imperative of some fledgling municipal research bureaus coincided with the rise of professional organizations in the decade after 1925, centrally organized around the Public Administration Clearing House and International City Managers Association, both run by Louis Brownlow. A former journalist, author, and municipal manager, Brownlow embraced the notion of professional neutrality for public administrators while at the same time espousing a expanded zone of influence for improving the lives of citizens. It was an “activist” and liberal view of government action Brownlow adhered to himself as a city manager and one he prescribed for the federal government while chairing President Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Administrative Management.
The Brownlow Committee would be credited with enlarging the powers of the presidency, and transforming the office into one more focused on administrative management (Stillman R. J., 1998). Still, both Brownlow and fellow administrative professionalist Luther Gulick were heavily indebted to the Rockefeller philanthropies for funding their work and took their charge to avoid government advocacy to heart (Roberts, pg. 225). The economic conditions overwhelming much of the government infrastructure during this period led such efforts to become heavily focused not just on government reform in the council-management government, but the drive for greater efficiency to become the dominant organization goal.
Similarly to Childs’ disappointment over the turn that his municipal reform movement took toward efficiency, Brownlow and Gulick were never disciples of marrying the establishment of professional standards to efficiency alone. Gulick would go on to become a fervent critic of the policy-administration dichotomy, although he is erroneously linked with espousing the model earlier in his career. Following his work on the Brownlow Committee, Gulick would go on to become an advocate for Keynesian full-employment policies for post-World War II economies (Markwell, 2006).
Nonetheless, early administration scholars oversaw the establishment of a new field, the spread of public administration departments at universities across the country, and the greatest period of government expansion and advocacy in history. The scholarship that followed would both seek to challenge and expand the zone of competency, to be more honest and self-critical, fueling a still unresolved argument over the theoretical foundations of the field that has hindered the authority of practitioners.
The Role of Values in Public Administration
Submitted to empirical testing, the politics-administration dichotomy was never an ideal type built to last. Herbert Simon implored administration scholars to abandon the squishiness of “proverbs” in favor of more rigorously testable theory-building that could “rebuild those tools to usefulness,” and clearly articulates a role for administrators in his positivistic prescription. “Certainly neither the practitioner of administration nor the theoretician can be satisfied with the poor analytic tools that the proverbs provide him,” he wrote. (Simon, 2008).
Simon’s influence on policymaking is informative in that he acknowledges the crutch the Classic Paradigm has become for administrators in policymaking. Although his writings urge the development of an empirically driven science of administration that would both develop theory and inform practitioners, he felt the need to wean the professional side of the field from its paradigmatic shelter by proposing a fact-value dichotomy.
But this formulation was equally problematic. Simon envisioned decision-making premises divided along these two lines: fact-based and value-based, in which fact-based premises are falsifiable while value-based premises are not. Therefore, administrators in the policy process should be focused on fact-based premises, which leads to testing whether alternative policy proposals produce the expected outcomes or not. Value-based premises are inherently judgment calls about whether a policy choice is “good” or “bad” and should be left to the less technically minded political leadership (Simon, 1957). By jettisoning the old approach which he found problematic both descriptively and normatively, Simon prescribed a “different standard for administrative behavior,” in which standoffish neutrality was supplanted by involvement in the policymaking process and predictability due to the value-premises imbued in the organization via recruitment and socialization (Fry & Raadschelders, 2008).
Simon’s distinction articulated in Administrative Behavior was immediately criticized as harmful to the development of scientifically based yet politically realistic administration. Although he defended the distinction, it became an afterthought in his later organizational work (Subramanian, 1963). However, the treatment and contention of contradiction between values and facts as Simon conceptualizes them – and others criticize them -- deserves some unfolding here to serve our purposes.
Simon and Waldo, Revisited
The Behavioral movement that began in the 1940s wasn’t the only pressure-point brought to bear on government. Dwight Waldo would argue that Classical scholars were in fact describing a social science in their emphases on principles of management, efficiency, and consolidation of power in the executive which were value-laden. Waldo also rejected the policy-administration dichotomy as a cover for the underlying ideological goals of the Classical paradigm, which he saw as developing government-centered expertise to foster greater efficiencies and advance the “mission of America.” (Waldo, 1971).
The accepted history in texts is that the Behavioral and Politics-as-Administration approaches “devastated” the Classical Paradigm, and yet the remains are with us today. What did this devastating assault leave in its place? How did the absorption of both Simon’s and Waldo’s arguments impact the “zone of competency” and what are the lasting effects on policy analysis?
In retrospect, Simon’s substitution of the fact-value dichotomy for the policy-administrative remedies neither the problem of the professional sphere of influence nor the lack of scientific theory-building. Instead, his proposal perpetuated the myth of separateness between policymaking and administration. Because Simon’s conceptualization of organization decision-making as one where all actors in the hierarchy utilize “decision premises” that are in effect the formulation of policy, his own theoretical contribution undercuts the false choice of values or fact-based decision-making he presents.
Simon endeavored to give lift to a “science of administration” as well as a practical scientific basis for government management. But his refusal to accept values as an endogenous element of decision premises – and thus a value-influenced policy formulation at work in every level of government – left policy in the same rut. Those who followed disavowed value-free administration explicitly and articulated vastly different positions for public managers.
Charles Lindblom assaulted classical rationalism in policymaking and discredited the view of neutral competence. Out of fear of the bureaucratic organizations he considered anti-democratic, Lindblom sought to replace analytical problem-solving with a combative sphere of partisan research fueling the mutual adjustment of political actors. Unlike Simon, he does not support the notion that administrators can employ neutral, scientific principles to design and apply appropriate government remedies to problems identified by the public through political leadership (Gregory, 1989). Ironically, Lindblom later in his career appears to lament the end-result of such partisan analysis and triumph of lay ideas in political ends, noting that “we are governed by presidents of dubious qualifications, often working with teams of cronies rather than experienced political leaders,” (Lindblom, 2002).
Likewise, Waldo’s modern treatment of the classical approach is tilted heavily toward his early career, when the scholar admits to having viewed public administration with contempt. Most cursory examinations of Waldo’s contributions overlook the softening of his position toward the dichotomy and the role it played in fostering political reform. Waldo went so far as to write that the policy-administration dichotomy was still engrained in the field’s culture and no satisfactory alternative had emerged (Waldo, 1980).
It is fitting that Waldo – perhaps the field’s most distinguished historian and critic – offered virtually no constructive theory to replace the discredited but not discarded classical paradigm. Public Administration in the United States is at a period of quandary and crisis. Faith in the institutions of government – and by extension, the people behind the machinery -- is faltering without a clear empirical rationale as to why this should be. Every week, we are confronted with growing evidence that public support for the modern governmental apparatus of effectuating public aims is slipping.
One potential long-term remedy is to behave organizationally much like Philip Selznick’s definition of cooptation: “The process of absorbing new elements into the leadership or policy determining structure of an organization as a means of averting threats to its stability or existence.” (Selznick, 1949). Selznick was describing the Tennessee Valley Authority’s methods in the 1930s for generating local buy-in for its mission to improve flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and economic development to the Depression-racked Tennessee Valley. But the concept seems aptly suited for confronting the present disconnect between the public and their government.
Cooptation is applicable to an organization threatened by societal pressure as a form of adaptation to inoculate itself. Although wishful thinking, why couldn’t public administration make similar efforts to strengthen government agencies threatened by modern tax revolts? Much like some countries require citizens to serve in the military, government would be better-suited by political leaders with some level of training in administrative theory and procedures.
Selznick writes that “cooptation reflects a state of tension between formal authority and social power,” and its affect is to limit choices, and change the character and role of the organization. He writes that the phenomenon has taken hold as society has democratized, voluntary associations have formed, and the government has greater need to broaden the public’s participation as a means of control.
Today, quite the opposite patterns of fact have emerged: public participation in government has dropped precipitously over the years. Politicians are hailed for showcasing their lack of basic understanding of governance. While it is unlikely public administrations will resign their positions in mass and run for public offices, the discipline today needs to take a hard look at antiquated prescriptions for policy analysis against the backdrop of today’s modern perceived policy failures. Who is failing whom?
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I received my PhD in Public Administration from Florida State University. I work as an Assistant Professor at Northern Illinois University.