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A brief review of U.S. historical administrative thoughts

Raymond Cheng

Administrative thought is always in a state of continuous change, evolution and adaptation as it has to "grow" to "catch up" with the society together with its ever-changing challenges. Dwight Waldo, the prominent American academic figure in public administration, argued in 1947 that the then current administrative theories and thoughts actually grew and evolved since the industrial revolution from the nineteenth-century (McCurdy & Rosenbloom, 2006, p. 207). As the society developed from one that was generally moral-based which depended heavily on farming, that is, an agrarian society, to an industrialized nation, productivity of human beings was reorganized and a wide range of resources was redistributed on such an enormous scale never seen before and therefore corresponding updates and changes of organizational bureaucracy in the management of people and production was therefore required.

Old Pocket Watch (c) Barbara Henry
Photo © Barbara Henry

Woodrow Wilson's envision in 1887

Hence, changes, as described by Stillman (2005, p. 5), appeared and accelerated with the rapid growth of production scale, trade volume, communications capabilities and technical advancement. And with a more and more complex society, the call for reform in bureaucracy intensified and was eventually reflected and recognized in the U.S. Civil Service Act of 1883. Just as advocated by former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson [1a] in his writing, The Study of Administration (1887) [1b], he anticipated that there would be louder and louder calls for relating governance and the lives of the American people. He described (1887), in his essay, that public administration's collective duty should be one that is able to "supply the best possible life to a federal organization and to systems within systems", and on the other side, to also "make town, city, county, state, and federal governments live with a like strength and an equally assured healthfulness" while "keeping each unquestionably its own master and yet making all interdependent and cooperative." To put it simply, what Wilson envisioned was, just as Stillman had later elaborated (2005, p. 15), a unique federal structure of the U. S. government in which various levels of state, county, city, town and municipal governments are joined and are cooperating with one another "for the pursuit of a common purposes".

A further point that is worthy of emphasizing under Wilson's ideal government hierarchy is that his concept theoretically allows for a clear separation of power and responsibility between the political and the administrative side of governance so that there would be adequate control, democratic, of course, over the administration of government policy. In other words, Wilson believed that the purpose or goal of public administration is to effectively implement policies and decisions, be it political or not, as put forward by any democratically elected government, and hence leading to his politics-administration dichotomy (Stillman, 2005, p. 5). This theory was later challenged by Luther Gulick's fact-value dichotomy in which Gulick advocated a "seamless web of discretion and interaction" (Fry, 1989, p. 80) yet Wilson's politics-administration dichotomy still managed to remain as the center for criticism. In the meantime, many modern scholars like Goodnow (1990), have pointed out that politics and administration can never be completely, let alone distinctively, separated. As Goodnow argued (1990, p. 16), "while the two primary functions of government are susceptible of differentiation, the organs of government to which the discharge of these functions is intrusted" and so "cannot be clearly defined."

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Note 1a: Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), the 28th President of the United States of America, in office from 1913 to 1921, see Wikipedia on Woodrow Wilson or his official White House page at http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/woodrowwilson/

Note 1b: See the original version of "The Study of Administration" by Woodrow Wilson at http://bss.sfsu.edu/naff/PA_800/Woodrow_Wilson.pdf or read the UMass excerpts at http://www.umassmed.edu/uploadedFiles/shriver/education/LEND/Courses/ExcerptsfromTheStudyofAdministration.pdf or the class notes with key summary points by the International University of Japan at http://www.iuj.ac.jp/faculty/kucc625/management/pm/note_wilson.pdf (or download the PDF backup (2.19MB))