Political institutions are distinctive entities. They are both instrumental to and of a regime. They are the principal means by which a polity can achieve its collective purposes. But, political institutions also exert a formative effect on a regime. A people that seeks to govern itself through representatives, for instance, must create a representative assembly, and in doing so the people give the assembly a particular character. But then, by virtue of its composition, its structure and operation, and the purposes it chooses for the polity as expressed in the laws it passes, the representative assembly has a far-reaching impact on the character of the polity, and how it develops over time. Woodrow Wilson stated it quite elegantly in notes for a major treatise he never wrote. "Institutions are subsequent to character. They do not create character, but are created and sustained by it. After being successfully established, however, they both confirm and modify national character, forming in no small degree national thought and national purpose--certainly national ideals" (Link, 1971, 234).
Public administration is as much a political institution as any legislature, court, or office of an elected executive. Administration is clearly a means to reach collective ends, but it exerts a formative influence as well. It does so in two ways. First, it contributes to the identification, creation, and refinement of collective purposes. Second, it is actively involved in shaping people's preferences and in structuring the vast array of relationships among citizens in both their public and private lives. Of course, citizen preferences and the continually evolving dynamic of relations among citizens influence the expression of collective purposes both directly and indirectly through the various avenues available in a democracy. One of these avenues can be the decision-making processes of administrative agencies.
Through internal collective processes of their own as well as participation in external processes, administrative agencies help to decide what goals a nation, a state or province, or a locality should pursue and what values should be upheld or disparaged. A park service, for example, may be the principal organizational vehicle for preserving the natural heritage of a nation. At the same time, it is also involved centrally in defining what a nation's natural heritage consists of and in crafting and recrafting the meaning of preservation over time. The service's efforts to establish common understandings and goals arise out of scientific research conducted by the service itself or by other researchers, and out of responses to interactions with park visitors, and individuals and firms seeking access to natural resources for economic gain.
In carrying out the law, administrative agencies often create particular categories or classes of citizenship and define the proper relationships among those classes. An immigration law may define in general who is a natural-born citizen, a naturalized citizen, a legal visitor, or an illegal immigrant. Typically, an immigration service must flesh out the details and try to clarify differences at the ambiguous margins of the definitions. More that immigration service must also define the duties, obligations, and restrictions that pertain to each. In doing all this, it also shapes behavior, the perceptions many citizens hold of one another, and the experiences they may have in particular contexts, such as employer and employee.
Public administration as a political institution helps to lend a regime its distinctive character. Popular images of public bureaucracy often depict a monolith that is remote and indifferent to the lives of citizens and communities. As an identifiable entity, however, public administration is highly differentiated, with many of its faces turned fully toward the public. As Woodrow Wilson observed in his university lectures, "Administration, therefore, sees government in contact with the people. …