“The Study of Administration” by Woodrow Wilson is today recognized as the foundation for the study of public administration. The publication of his essay in Political Science Quarterly (1887) followed closely on the heels of the civil service reforms. To Wilson (1887) these civil reforms were only the beginning but he insisted that we must “expand into efforts to improve, not the personnel only, but also the organizations and methods of our government offices” (Introduction Section, para. 1).
Wilson (1887) defines administration as “the most obvious part of government; it is the executive, the operative, and the most visible side of government, and is of course as old as government itself” (Section 1, para. 2). Despite its mature age, administration had not yet been studied or formatted in an effective way in the United States; instead the question was always what will the policy be, not how will the policy be successfully administered “with equity, with speed, and without friction” (Wilson, Section 1, para. 3). Wilson (1887) proclaims that “it is getting harder to run a constitution than to frame one” and as a result administration is becoming increasingly necessary to establish centralized administration in the United States (Section 1, para.6). According to Wilson (1887), the establishment of administration as a discipline of its own “shall seek to straighten the paths of government, to make its business less unbusinesslike, to strengthen and purify its organization, and to crown its duty with dutifulness”(Section 1, para. 10). Although public administration is still a newer field of study, I do believe that Wilson would be impressed with the progress government has made on a state and local level. We have developed more efficient local agencies that are far more accessible than ever before to citizens therefore making government less “unbusinesslike”.
Wilson clearly states in his article the concern with overall organizational efficiency and productivity of government. In his essay, Wilson (1887) compares the rapid growth of U.S. government to a “lusty child” that has developed in a strong physique but is “awkward in movement” (Section 1, para. 14). However, to be more organized and efficient is not a simple task, especially with the system of public opinion. Public rule has taken away the any chance of swift administrative decisions or serviceable equilibrium in government (Wilson, Section 1, para. 25) Wilson (1887) argues, “…the very fact that we realized popular rules in its fullness has made the task of organizing that rule just so much more difficult” (Section 1, para. 25). I can appreciate Wilson’s concern with overall effectiveness of government. It is close to impossible to quickly execute anything when we are forced to constantly count the popular votes especially in a society full of individuals who are too busy to pay attention. Unfortunately, I believe this will always be a challenge our government will face. Even though everything may not need popular vote, it is hard what was already given back. We need to be open to the idea of constantly re-evaluating our public administrative system. With that in mind we cannot be afraid of change when change is required. We must have more faith and less bureaucracy in our elected officials and the system.
Finally, Wilson makes a point to address the need to separate politics and administration. Wilson (1887) claims that “administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics…although policies set the tasks for administration; it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices” (Section 2, para. 4). In other words, public appointment should not be based on political affiliation or anything other than merit. I am very nearly certain that most people today would agree with this notion. Again, I believe Wilson would be impressed with the progress we have made in this area of government. Yet, without saying too much I would add there is always room for improvement…
Although I felt the essay to be lengthy and repetitive, I am overall fascinated by Woodrow Wilson’s insight on government during a time in which government was trying desperately to figure out how to manage itself. It is apparent that many of the challenges Wilson addresses still remain in our government today and thus justifies the continued need for the study of public administration.
My favorite part of the essay, and a perfect note to end on, is when Woodrow Wilson writes…
Our duty is, to supply the best possible life to a federal organization, to systems within systems; to make town, city, county, state, and federal governments live with a like strength and an equally assured healthfulness, keeping each unquestionably its own master yet making all interdependent and co-operative combining independence with mutual helpfulness. The task is great and important enough to attract the best minds”.
The Study of Administration: Woodrow Wilson. (1887). In Teaching American History online. Retrieved from http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-study-of-administration/