The Myth of the Dichotomy: Complementarity of Politics and Administration in the Past and Future of Public Administration

Article excerpt

At the heart of the practice of public administration is the relationship between administrators, on one hand, and political leaders and the public on the other hand. The nature of that relationship and the proper role of administrators in the political process have been the subject of considerable debate. Anxiety about administrative legitimacy has been particularly intense in the United States, where the rise of the administrative state was out of synch with a democratic society (Stillman 1997), but similar issues have arisen in other countries as well (Rutgers 1997). As the field emerged, it was important to differentiate a practice based on professional knowledge and values from political particularism, but the extent and scope of the differentiation were unclear. It was also necessary to reconcile the tensions among complying with the directions of elected officials, maintaining professional integrity, and serving the public. Observers differ as to whether American thinking about the relationship of public administration to society has experienced major shifts over time or has gradually evolved.

Along the lines developed by Lynn, the case can be made that there has generally been continuity in the development of public administration in the United States rather than an abandonment of the traditions of the field. Whereas Lynn organizes his reexamination around the bureaucratic paradigm, my emphasis is the core relationship between politicians and administrators.(1) Not only did traditional thought, as Lynn observes, seek to maintain "balance between administrative capacity and popular control on behalf of public purposes defined by electoral and judicial institutions," it also sought to justify the contributions of public administrators to shaping the definition of public purposes. Put simply, early contributors to the development of public administration acknowledged a policy role for administrators that has often been ignored. Even the politics-administration dichotomy that is a part of the traditional paradigm usually incorporates the ideas of accountability and responsibility--although the paradigm can be expressed in ways that seem to preclude these qualities by portraying administration as mechanically instrumental--but the emphasis on a strict dichotomy of politics and administration will not accommodate the policy role of administrators that has come to be widely recognized.

In the past--and, I would argue, in the present as well--there was simultaneous emphasis on separation and insulation of administrators from political interference, on one hand, and interaction and incorporation of administrative contributions in the design and the implementation of public policy, on the other hand. Wilson and Goodnow favored such contributions, as did Leonard White, who acknowledged but dismissed concerns about the growth of administration "controlling in the first instance the application of law to the individual case, cooperating also in the formulation of policy" (1926, 33). Although legislative control of administration is critical, he argued, "it is nevertheless important to remember that the administration cooperates indispensably with the legislature, and that without its assistance, the task of legislation would become much less informed and much less effective." These founding fathers of the field never advocated the dichotomy attributed to them--a conclusion demonstrated repeatedly (Golembiewski 1977; Rabin and Bowman 1984, 4; Rohr 1986, 31; Van Riper 1984, 209-10).(2) Still, the myth that public administration began as a narrow, confined, and insulated activity is regularly repeated partly because, as Lynn implies, it is self-satisfying to view ourselves as enlightened and to view earlier, particularly prewar scholars and practitioners, as benighted.

There are a number of reasons why the dichotomy idea has persisted. It is convenient to explain the division of roles in terms of total separation because it is easier to explain than a model based on sharing roles, particularly since the separation model does not limit the actual policy contributions of administrators in practice. …