The Persistence of the Politics-Administration Dichotomy: An Additional Explanation1

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ABSTRACT

An enduring notion in American public administration, "the politics-administration dichotomy" persists in academic discussions and in the practical talk of administrators. Dismissed variously as a fiction, intellectual aberration, or political rationale, the dichotomy's persistence may have its foundation in the nature of the decision-making processes of large bureaucratic organizations. Using Brunsson's models of the "political" and "action" functions of large public organizations, this research adds to the explanations of the notion's durability and explores the implications of this interpretation for public administration theory and organizations.

Waldo (1984) characterizes the politics-administration dichotomy as a "perdurable" feature of American public administrative thought. Two recent exchanges between Svara (2006, 2008) and Overeem (2006, 2008) testify to this fact: the former rejecting "dichotomy" as a term in favor of "complementarity," the latter valuing "dichotomy" for its implied political neutrality. From the time that Wilson (1978) articulated the possibility that administration is a sphere of activity distinct from politics, the notion has been with us as an empirical statement, historico-cultural consequence, reform rationale, behavioral norm, myth, intellectual aberration, and a process gap. Conceptual arguments not withstanding, the dichotomy has provided a perspective for assessing the neo-liberal managerialism that has permeated administrative thinking for the past three decades (Box, 1999; Cox, 2002; Kobrak, 1996; Rosenbloom & Ross, 1994). The dichotomy, as fact or ideological invention, continues to be debated and to withstand attacks on its "Progressive orthodoxy." It persists despite evidence that politics and administration are inseparably linked in a number of ways:

(a) administrative acts have political consequences;

(b) administrators initiate policy;

(c) administrators shape policy after the fact;

(d) civil servants are not politically neutral;

(e) legislators investigate and intervene in administrative processes.

Despite this evidence the dichotomy remains a seminal idea in American public administration and appears unlikely to go away.

Explaining the relationship between the nominal policy makers, elected or appointed, and the nominal implementers of policy presents political science and public administration with one of the greatest of theoretical challenges (Moe, 1990). This paper points to evidence regarding organizational decision processes, identified in the institutional literature, which may add to the explanation for this concept's perdurability while amplifying our understanding of the connections between these two spheres. The implications of this interpretation for public administration theory, the prospects for organizational reform and the implications for governance are explored below.2

EXPLANATIONS FOR THE DICHOTOMY'S "PERDURABILITY"

Waldo (1984a, 1984b, 1987) suggests two reasons for the persistence of this notion. In The Administrative State (1984a) he finds the source of the politics-administration divide in unresolved issues arising from the separation of powers doctrine expressed in the U.S. Constitution. The division allowed rationales for Progressive administrative and political reforms. These reforms strengthened the executive under the guise of efficiency while protecting establishment interests from politicians manipulating immigrant newcomers for other ends. Although he admits that, by the end of the 1930's, no one took a practical separation of the two activities seriously and most recognized the role of administrators as policy initiators, the popularity of the dichotomy continued. Later Waldo (1987) finds the idea sustained in part by two philosophical streams in Western culture, the Greek civic-culture (political) tradition and the Roman imperial (administrative) tradition, inherited by the American system. …