The Politics-Administration Dichotomy Model as Aberration

Article excerpt

One of the most important and enduring theoretical constructs in public administration is the politics-administration dichotomy model. It has been useful for marking off the boundaries of public administration as an intellectual field and for asserting the normative relationship between elected officials and administrators in a democratic society. It has been a convenient straw man for public administrationists; to attack and has been criticized as being irrelevant to current conditions. Montjoy and Watson (1995) have recently observed that the main shortcoming of the model comes from using it as a guide to describing actual behavior in the policy-making process. They argue that the model, as they have interpreted it, "remains important as a normative standard in the profession of local government management." They express the view also held by many practitioners that the dichotomy model is useful because it provides a rationale for insulating the practice of public administration from political interference.

The debate about the utility of the original or a reinterpreted version of the model misses a fundamental point: the dichotomy model is not what it seems. It is not an idea that can be traced back to the origins of the field of public administration or the municipal reform movement. Rather than trying to explain or rehabilitate the model, it is more appropriate to view it as an idea that emerged relatively late and that deviated from the ideas of the founders of public administration and the framers of the council-manager form of government. It is important for academics to get their intellectual history right and stop presenting simplistic and historically inaccurate explanations of how the field began and evolved. In addition, practitioners and promoters of the council-manager form should recognize that they have been disadvantaged by the pervasive attitude that the form is based originally on the dichotomy model and realize that they weaken the legitimacy of city managers as comprehensive leaders by perpetuating this notion.

Let us be dear about the definition of the concept. As it applies to local government, the dichotomy model holds that:

* The city council does not get involved in administration.

* The city manager has no involvement in shaping policies,

* The manager occupies the role of a neutral expert who efficiently and effectively carries out the policies of the council. (Presumably, administrators do not exercise discretion, for to do so opens the door to interpreting policy and choosing how and to what went it will be applied.)

Montjoy and Watson characterize a similar definition as a "strict version" of the doctrine, and they propose a "reinterpreted dichotomy" that reinforces legislative supremacy while permitting a policy-making role for the manager, but still helps managers resist the forces of particularism (1995, 231). While these ideas would be acceptable to die early thinkers in public administration and municipal reform, they are different from the dichotomy model rather than a reinterpretation of it. The "strict" definition is the dichotomy model. It is not conceptually possible as Montjoy and Watson suggest and as many practitioners would prefer, to have a one-way dichotomy that keeps elected officials out of administration but allows administrators to be active in policy making. The dichotomy model, standing alone, is an aberration. It is associated with the dominant concepts of orthodox public administration during the twenties and thirties and is essentially different from concepts of democracy and administration that preceded and followed it.

The historical record shows that die dichotomy model came along after the founding period of public administration and the creation of the council-manager form. The early statements by Wilson and Goodnow were an attempt to define the field and to defend public administrators from interference by elected officials and party organizations, but their view of government does not match the features of the dichotomy model. …