The Early History of Public Administration in the United States: Woodrow Wilson

Before serving as governor of New Jersey and eventually as the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson had a successful academic career as a professor of history and political science at Bryn Mawr College, Wesleyan University and Princeton. In 1887, he made a signature contribution to the field of public administration with his article, “The Study of Administration.” This essay provides valuable insight into the development of the field and practice of public administration, which Wilson believed should be thought of as its own academic discipline to be studied and understood by politicians and students alike.

The Early History of Public Administration in the United States Woodrow Wilson

The Increasing Complexity of Government

In the late 19th century, Woodrow Wilson observed that the process of running the government had becoming more difficult and complex. Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, most government affairs had been focused on political philosophy and the making of laws. As the population grew, new economic and social concerns presented themselves and the government itself increased in size and scope. Wilson called for a different approach to administration, alleviating the constraints of politics and policy by delegating non-legislative, non-political activities to administrative agencies, emphasizing professional training and study of the science of administration.

Constitutional Law vs. Administrative Function

In this essential essay, Wilson states “Every particular application of general law is an act of administration.” It was important to Wilson that public administration be separated from the creation of general laws. He observed that the plans and policies that the government made were not administrative, though the execution of these plans was. These were to include actions such as raising taxes, recruiting members of the army and navy, delivering mail and more. By understanding the separate duties of the political government and public administration, Wilson hoped that the laws meant to serve the American people would be carried out efficiently and with the least possible cost or energy.

The Business of Public Administration

Woodrow Wilson also emphasized that public administration is a field of business and should be run with similar tactics and strategies that businesses adopt to achieve optimal performance and efficiency. He called for studying the government as an organization to reform administrative functions and “straighten the paths of government.” While acts of making policies and revising constitutions are seemingly endless, the business of administrative actions in carrying the plans of government can be systematic, set, and easily executable.

Opposition to Bureaucratic Elite

Woodrow Wilson advocated for a trained and educated group of competent administrators and civil servants. He stated the importance of having well-informed members of the civil service who can maintain efficient and professional execution of administrative duties. He opposed the formation of a bureaucratic elite who could compromise democratic control by the people who constitute the democracy in the United States. He held that the civil servants and administrators should not be politically influenced, but objectively focused on the execution of government policies.

The Current Government and Public Administration Environment

Woodrow Wilson was primarily concerned with achieving efficiency in the public administration’s execution of government laws and reducing corruption in administrative ranks possible through cronyism and nepotism. The challenge of a growing government managing increased complexity holds true in today’s civic and political environment as well. As the number, jurisdiction, population, size, and expected responsibilities of governments grows, social and economic issues such as health care, the environment, financial regulations and immigration need to be addressed. Increased administrative efficiency is needed in the current U.S. public administration framework as policymaking is performed by agencies to which the Congress has delegated legislative authority, including state and local authorities. Wilson called for politics and administration to be separated and the duties of the administration to be carried out by scientifically educated administrative experts. It is still a struggle in the current environment to separate administrative actions from political influence; indeed some scholars do not believe in the Wilsonian divide between administration and politics.

Woodrow Wilson’s academic studies continue to have impact on the field of public administration. His essay, “The Study of Administration” laid the groundwork for the public administration discipline in America and promoted the need for a scientific and business-oriented understanding of administrative practices. Public administrators practice today is founded in no small part on the academic and practical contributions of Woodrow Wilson.

Learn More

If you seek to change the world on a local, national, or global level, the University of San Francisco is a great place to start. By learning more about the University of San Francisco Online Master of Public Administration (MPA), you will be taking an important first step toward pursuing your professional goals and commitment to social justice. Our program is designed for professionals who want to become effective managers and civic leaders who effect change through policy management and advocacy.

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