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Politician or Public Servant

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Marie Schuh
October 13, 2023

The first topic in an introductory public administration class is Wilson’s politics administration dichotomy. This is a public administration founding principle that is often misunderstood. Wilson’s point was that both are important, but they must operate with some separation. While it has become fashionable to dismiss the dichotomy, a close examination of the concept supports its importance.

Starting with a definition of terms, politics involves a collective decision-making process. In the government situation, that process typically addresses questions of individual citizen concerns, preferences of various groups and equity. These decisions are typically made by elected officials. Administration involves the implementation of those decisions from a operational perspective. Choices about the implementation process are typically made by unelected bureaucrats with technical expertise. Wilson’s dichotomy suggests that politics and administration can be and should be separated operationally. That separation has typically been conceived as elected officials decide what should be done and bureaucrats decide how to do it.

Subsequent scholars note there can be three ways to approach the relationship between politics and administration: separate (Wilson’s view), inseparable, interactive. However, the technical approach that is taken must address three key concerns: insuring that programs are operating well (i.e., efficient and effective), following the law and avoiding corruption (i.e., following institutional, professional and ethical commitments).

The traditional interpretation of separate involves a situation where there is no contact between elected officials about the policy implementation process. The political leaders decide “what is done” and bureaucrats decide “how it will be done” without reference to each other. The point of the separation is to make sure the will of the people is attained through a political decision making process that is subject to citizen concerns. At the same time. the separation assures that the policy implementation is in the most competent manner through the technical expertise of the bureaucrat absent from political pressure. This absence of political involvement is called neutral competence and the point is to prevent corruption in the implementation process.

Those who support the notion that politics and administration are inseparable note that administrators need to get beyond implementation to advocate for the best policies. They believe that administrators need to bring their technical abilities to the decision making process to assure the most effective and efficient outcome.

Those who see policy as interactive acknowledge that elected officials and administrators are different individuals who use different logic and psychology in making their choices. The best policies consider both types of logic. Interactive supporters acknowledge that the political decision makers are primary in the process, but those decision makers must be informed by implementation considerations. 

I once thought that the idea of a strict dichotomy made sense, particularly when I did research a number of years ago that suggested federal agency political appointees and bureaucrats had differing concerns. In that research, political actors used language that addressed issues around policy selection while bureaucratic actors spoke about management and implementation concerns. However, I have come to recognize that, while not intertwined, politics and administration must inform each other for policy implementation to be successful. Communication is an interactive process in which the political actors acknowledge the technical limitations of their approaches while the bureaucratic actors recognize the citizen concerns that affect what elected officials will accept.

Without this interaction, new policies are likely to fail. From a political perspective, policies focused only on technical aspects might not gain the support of citizens. A good example of this was busing, a system to fight educational segregation that generally was unsuccessful. This system failed because many parents were unhappy with the burdens the policy placed on their children. Alternatively, policies fail when political decision makers ignore technical difficulties. An example of this is the wall between Mexico and the United States. From a technical perspective, a wall cannot solve the immigration problem. The reasons include: the many ways a wall can be breached (e.g., tunneling under, climbing over, sawing through), the effects on families that live on both sides of the border and the motivations of those fleeing unbearable conditions in their home countries.

Interpreting Wilson’s dichotomy as a rigid barrier between politics and administration does good governance a disservice. Both politics and administration have important roles; and the perspective from each role must inform the other role if the outcome is the best implementation. It is the right of the political official to make the decision and it is the responsibility of the administrator to implement the decision as long as the decision does not violate moral, legal or ethical standards. This is why the strong political decision makers consider the technical aspects of the decision and smart administrators acknowledge the political concerns.      

Herbert Hoover said “Being a politician is a poor profession. Being a public servant is a noble one.” Political decision makers are public servants when they work for policies that meet the needs of the people. Citizen needs are achieved when political officials and administrators work together to develop the policies. This is true public service.

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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