6 Things You Need to Know About the "Father" of Public Administration

An Educated Politician

Before Woodrow Wilson became president, he was a scholar of politics and history. To this day, he is the only U.S. President to have acquired a Ph.D. His knowledge led him to publish many important essays in Political Science Quarterly, including his most influential work, “The Study of Administration,” published in 1887.

Believed in a Skilled Bureaucracy

Up until 1884, the administration of the U.S. government was carried out by workers hired through the “spoils system,” a system that valued a person’s faithfulness to a political party, not their level of skill. As a result, the U.S. bureaucracy became very inefficient. In Wilson’s seminal essay, “The Study of Administration,” he proposes that administration should be run by skilled workers selected based on merit, not elected by the people or chosen by politicians.

First to Illustrate the Policy/Administration Dichotomy

The idea that politicians should create and execute policy and administrators should help them do it, regardless of their political views, is known as the policy/administration dichotomy. Wilson was one of the earliest supporters of this theory. In “The Study of Administration,” he wrote that “…administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics.” He compares administration to a machine that can efficiently run independently of politicians’ changing views.

Believed Administration Should Run Like a Business


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In his essay, Wilson argues that comparative analyses should be made between the government and a privately owned organization. The focus of government is not on making profit, but it should still aspire to run efficiently, much like a business. Hiring employees for the business (administrators) should involve an assessment of the potential employee’s skill level, then training and proper management after hiring.

Broke Down Every Government’s Development Into Three Periods

According to Wilson, all developed governments form over the same three periods of growth. First, the nation succumbs to an absolute ruler who imposes government administration. Second, the nation develops a constitution to oppose the absolute ruler and form a government influenced by the popular vote. It isn’t until the third stage that governments are able to develop their administrations to properly support their new constitutions.

Applauded the Methods of Napoleon Bonaparte

Wilson brings up several nations when discussing his three-part government development theory. The U.S. and England make the list, but surprisingly, so do Napoleon’s France and Frederic the Great’s Prussia. At the same time that Wilson denounces Napoleon as a “despot,” he also praises his ability to organize the government’s administration efficiently, writing that, “No corporate, popular will could ever have effected arrangements such as those which Napoleon commanded.”

Wilson’s foundational concepts of public administration were once considered revolutionary and contributed to the progressive movement in the United States. Without Wilson’s work, public administration may have taken many more years to be regarded and studied for the science it is.

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