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Surviving the Divide—The Dichotomy in Today’s Public Administration

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

By Patrick S. Malone
November 4, 2022

Over the years, public administration scholars and practitioners have wrestled with the concept of the politics administration dichotomy, the understanding of which has morphed greatly over the years. As David Rosenbloom pointed out in his 2008 Public Administration Review article, The Politics—Administration Dichotomy in U.S. Historical Context, the view of the dichotomy in public administration altered from the civil service reformers’ earlier notion of partisan politics versus administration to a more comprehensive view of ‘political’ and its relationship to questions of public policy. To be sure, reformers certainly made their case for their viewpoint of the dichotomy and many of the early voices of public administration made themselves heard on the topic as well. 

Certainly, Woodrow Wilson in “The Study of Administration” laid the foundation for this distinction, arguing that there was a clear difference between politics and administration with the former being kept out of the public service. But there was a nuance to Wilson’s argument, consistent with many of the reformer’s perspectives on the dichotomy, that seems eerily relevant today—that of partisan politics. Through whatever lens we choose to examine the dichotomy, it still remains an important intellectual debate within the field. But it is the partisan aspect that is hitting home for those public servants who deliver civilization to our nation every day. 

The nation is divided. According to a study by the Pew Research Trust, just one month before the election, 80 percent of registered voters on both sides of the aisle felt their disagreements with the other side were about core American values. Ninety percent believed that victory by the other side would result in “lasting harm” to the United States. Ideologically, United States was divided more so than 19 other industrialized nations. A recent University of Chicago study validated this trend. Distrust is at record highs. Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed from both major parties agreed there may be a time in the near future where citizens will have to take up arms against their government. Fifty percent of Democrats feel that the government is corrupt and rigged. Two-thirds of respondents from the Republican or Independents agreed. The authors of the study wrote that there is a “dangerous level of estrangement many Americans feel from each other and our democratic institutions.”

Public servants have a unique role in the midst of this political bickering. They are sworn by oath to serve the leadership of the elected political party and in many cases work directly for political appointees. There are laws that forbid them to engage in political activity. They are the neutral delivery method for the implementation of public policy across the nation, yet they have something in common with their private sector and nonprofit sector counterparts, they are human. They are part of the political divide that includes stress, fear and anger. They are part of a nation who’s number one fear is corrupt government and half of whom expect a civil war in the near future. They do not leave their stress, fear and anger at the door of the City Parks Department, the Environmental Protection Agency or the County Health Department. Sadly, they often find themselves stuck in the middle between the desires of elected officials and the interest of the communities they serve.

So what’s the solution? More political parties with varied perspectives would certainly help. The key advantage to this type system include the fact that the majority doesn’t rule. Coalitions must be formed by multiple groups in order to create laws that serve all. It was in fact in Federalist No. 10, that James Madison wrote, “the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security.” Not likely to happen.

We owe it to our public servants to provide an outlet, a safe space whereby they can discuss the distinctive challenges they face as private citizens and as public servants. Is simply not enough to require them to do the work that they do for our communities and tell them to work it out on their own during their private life which in many cases is also governed, formally or informally, by limitations on political discussion.

Why not treat this national divisiveness as a health threat? The physiological and emotional and impact of stress and fear are well documented in the medical literature. There is also a threat to the effectiveness of our public agencies. The servants who deliver to our communities are feeling the same amount of tension as other Americans, even more so since they often have direct contact with elected officials who are sometimes responsible for creating the divisiveness of which we are speaking. This means that there’s a good chance, through no fault of their own, that they are not performing their best during work hours. This has a direct impact on the communities that they serve. 

Author Kirk Schneider offers a solution in his most recent book The Depolarizing of America: A Guidebook for Social Healing. He suggests that one way to overcome the division among people is to bring them together in safe and structured groups for dialogue. It works. Seventy-nine percent of the participants came away with a much more grounded understanding of the feelings and beliefs of those who saw things from a different perspective. Seventy-five percent felt less angry. The fertile ground for relationship building has been nurtured. The result is an organization with more trust, closer connection and more understanding. This directly impacts mission accomplishment.

Dialogue costs nothing, and we are hiding behind antiquated practices to suggest that we cannot create forums within the workplace to have these discussions. Create them. Make time for them. Let’s not leave it to our public servants to find time in their personal lives to deal with stressors that are unique to the vocation that they have chosen, vocation that makes life better for all of us.

Author:  Patrick S. Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University.  He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service.  His co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) was released in Spring 2021.  His new book, “Somatic Leadership” is targeted for release in Winter 2023. [email protected] Twitter:  @DrPatrickMalone

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One Response to Surviving the Divide—The Dichotomy in Today’s Public Administration

  1. Ali Mistarihi Reply

    November 5, 2022 at 5:39 am

    Good thoughts!
    I am currently working on a paper with thoughts close to this. particularly, attempting to address a question on “is it time for public administration to return to its home after drifting too far away from home, and on what capacities?”

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