WILSON’S VISION OF PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION
It was the seminal essay “The Study of Administration” written by Woodrow Wilson and
published in the Political Science Quarterly in 1887 that the academic study of the discipline of Public
Administration started. Wilson called for the politics-administration dichotomy in this essay and he
stressed the need for studying administration scientifically. This study was unique in two respects: it
advocated the study of the administration i.e. the government inaction and also helped in starting
an enquiry into public administration as a subject.
Wilson’s vision of public administration can be analyzed by his three inter-related areas of
• He emphasized on politics-administration dichotomy with stress on distinguishing the special
features of administration.
• He advocated a scientific study of the subject of administration
• He advocated the use of comparative methods in the study of administration
According to Wilson when the complexities of the society grew and governments were called
upon to perform diverse functions then the necessity of administration was felt. Some of these events
which took place by the 19th century were:
• A sudden increase in population
• Complex nature of trade & commerce and increasing dependence on it
• Rise of big corporations
• Rising discontent in the personnel of government departments & other personnel management
These problems pose a challenge for the governance and “how” & in “what” directions should
the governmental functions are performed was asked. For answering these questions, Wilson
vehemently stressed the need for reforming government especially its administrative part. Wilson
emphasized on the administration because to him, it was the “most visible” part of the government and it
represented the “government inaction”. Wilson mentioned that till then studies in political science
concentrated on examining which type of state should exist, the structure of the state, the constitution of the
state and the various forms of the government. Only questions asked pertained to “what” law should
be made and by “whom”. In this scheme of things, administration figured nowhere and it was largely a
It was in the above light that Wilson stressed on the need to separate the fields of politics and
administration. Administration, according to him, was a technical field which is a field of professional
“technical official” while politics is the realm of “statesman”. Wilson defined public administration as
“detailed and systematic execution of public law”. According to him, making the detailed plans as to
where the government should act was not the business of administration i.e. policy planning is the
area of administration. It should be left to the politicians while the administration should concentrate on
policy execution. Thus a clear cut distinction between “policymaking” and “policy execution” was
brought about by Wilson.
According to Wilson, the field of politics was marked by a lot of uncertainties and conflicts; it is
not the function of an administrator to deal with such problems. Public Administration should be
concerned about the management of government “business” efficiently. Wilson wanted administrative
affairs to be managed by the same levels of “efficiency” and “economy” as the business operations
are performed. He advocated “merit” as the sole criterion to select the civil servants and wanted them
to be trained thoroughly. Hence Wilson wanted to “professionalize” administration and wanted to
keep it away from the field of politics.
Though it is clear from the above discussion that Wilson stressed on the need to
professionalize administration and reform it but scholars are divided on whether Wilson was
aware of the inter-dependence between politics and administration. Some are of the view that
Wilson forcefully advocated politics-administration dichotomy others were of the view that
Wilson saw politics and administration as closely inter-related. Whatever is the case, one
thing is clearly spelled by Wilson that bureaucrats should be subject to democratic control.
Thus howsoever professional administration could be, it should be the political elite who should
exercise controls over it.
In the times of Wilson, the US public administration was full of corruption, nepotism and
favoritism. “Spoils system” was in existence. The efficiency of the administrative system was sought
to be improved and service delivery was to be brought in line with the concept of “public interest”. To
achieve these ends, Wilson advocated the scientific study of administration. He equated science with
a “systematic and disciplined” body of knowledge. According to him, public administration could also
have such a systematic and disciplined body of knowledge. At that point of time in America, there were
no studies available on administration but Wilson was aware that French and German had developed
an “administrative science” in Europe. Wilson believed that America being a democratic country
(democracy had not come to Europe at that time) had to confront with a lot of problems. According to
him, “popular sovereignty” and the multitudinous monarch called “popular opinion” were the reasons
why administrative reforms were not radical and were mere compromises.
As already mentioned, Wilson was concerned about policy implementation rather than about
traditional questions about the constitution or the nature of the state. According to him, it was easy to
frame the constitution than implement & work one. Implementation of public policies was the real
challenge according to Wilson.
Due to his interest in knowing and advocating the adoption of the administrative practices of
other countries into the American administration, Wilson is regarded as the father of comparative
public administration. He emphasized studying the administration historically and comparatively.
Without such comparative studies, according to Wilson, the advantages, shortcoming and the
peculiarities of administration of different countries could not be known. Though European countries
were autocracies at that point of time in comparison to democratic America but still some
administrative practices could be learnt from them by the American administrators. He allayed the
fears that comparative method may lead to the import of foreign systems by his famous statement “If I
see a murderous fellow sharpening the knife cleverly, I can borrow his way of sharpening of knife
without borrowing his probable intention to commit murder with it”.
The publication of famous essay by Wilson marked the beginning of public administration as an
area of study. Though he failed to explain what the study of administration actually constituted, what
should be the proper relationship between the administrators and the political class and whether
administration could ever become science similar to the natural sciences yet it was Wilson who first
of all stressed on the need to augment administrative capability of the state which is realized even in
the modem era of today. It is not certain whether Wilson advocated politics-administration dichotomy
knowingly or unknowingly but one thing is certain that he wanted to professionalize public
administration and wanted to de-politicize it. Though he could be criticised for neglecting policy
formulation from the ambit of administration but he wanted administration to use innovative methods
in administration and to borrow from some of the good administrative practices of other countries also
(e.g. the European countries). Wilson wished administration to be based on a systematic knowledge
and not just rules of thumb. All this discussion clearly shows that Wilson introduced the “idea of
administration” as well as Public Administration as an academic discipline.
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