The politics-administration dichotomy
The origins of the politics-administration dichotomy are thought to lie in an essay written by Woodrow Wilson in 1887. At that time, he...
What led to the study of the politics-administration dichotomy?
The origins of the politics-administration dichotomy are thought to lie in an essay written by Woodrow Wilson in 1887. At that time, he was concerned to create a distinction between politicians who decide policies, and administrators who deliver these policies. If there is no distinction in these two roles, the ideologies of the politicians can be quickly imposed upon every area of life. Woodrow Wilson was concerned about the possible abuse of the system by powerful Republican politicians in the United States, and this is what led him to study these issues.
The main point of the politics-administration dichotomy is that senior civil servants should be independent from political parties, and should operate according to professional principles and standards developed over many years. They can act as a counter-balance to the power of politicians and they can provide continuity when a political regime changes. If policies are proposed that run counter to the stated values and traditions of the country as a whole, then senior civil servants can call politicians to account and remind them of their obligations to the people. They can also direct their staff to deliver policies in an equitable manner, rather than in a partisan way.
This idealised dichotomy between politics and administration is still being studied today. The problem is not so much the theory, which is accepted as valid and useful, but the difficulties that arise when people try to put it into practice. It is part of human nature for alliances to be built and oppositions to be formed across the boundaries of politics and administration. Modern public life is very complex and this makes it difficult to find rules and systems that keep political and administrative roles separate, while at the same time allowing them to work together effectively.