Since the rise of public administration as an academic field, scholars have sought to understand the role of politics in public administration. The relationship between politics and administration is inherently complex because elected officials—politicians—create laws through the legislative process. Administrative officials—serving in the agencies of government—are tasked with implementing the policies made by elected officials. Both groups share in responsibility for enacting laws, but they also have distinct considerations that govern their behavior. Scholars have varied in their beliefs about the extent to which politics should be (or is) involved in public administration. As Demir and Nyhan (2008) describe, there are three approaches to the relationship between politics and public administration.
Early Scholars Believed in Separation
Early public administration scholars, such as Woodrow Wilson, believed that there should be a firm separation between politics and public administration. Wilson referred to this as the Politics-Administration Dichotomy. As representatives of the people, subject to the will of the people through the vote, elected leaders are the ones who provide policy leadership and direction. They are responsible for policy guidance. Administrative officials, on the other hand, should carry out the implementation of policy in line with legislative intentions. Administrators should maintain neutral competence, providing expertise and assistance to carry out the goals of elected leaders. The benefits of the separation between politics and administration is that each group’s role is clear in the process. That clarification of roles can help avoid conflicts between administrators and politicians, and political influences should be minimized in public administration.
Other Scholars View them as Inseparable
Other scholars, though, have rejected the idea that politics and administration can be kept separate. Instead, under this view, politics and administration are inseparable. Administrators do (and according to some, should) engage in the policy making process. It is impossible to keep politics out of administration since the legislation passed by political officials may be vague or show a lack of technical expertise possessed by the administrative officials. As a result, administrators become involved in the policy making process.
A Third Approach Sees the Two as Interactive
As Demir and Nyhan (2008) describe, a third approach to the relationship between politics and administration argues that the two are inherently interactive due to the shared nature of their job responsibilities, but that the administration should still be responsive to elected officials. This is a sort of middle view between the separation and political models of the relationship between politics and administration. Practically speaking, because of the nature of the legislative process and the implementation of policy, administrators will need to have some policy making role.
The relationship between politics and administration—both how it works in practice, and how it should work in theory—are core questions related to the field of public administration. The controversies surrounding the politics-administration link are far from settled and continue to bubble up both in the academic literature, and also in public discourse regarding the work of government.
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By: Anne Cizmar, Associate Professor and MPA Program Coordinator
Dr. Cizmar received her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. Her research and academic interests include the American presidency and public opinion. Dr. Cizmar’s work is published in several journals including Political Research Quarterly and Public Administration Quarterly.
Demir, Tansu, and Ronald C. Nyhan. 2008. “The Politics–Administration Dichotomy: An Empirical Search for Correspondence between Theory and Practice.” Public Administration Review 68, no. 1: 81-96.