Politics and Administration Dichotomy

There has been an intellectual debate on the issue of politics and administration dichotomy since the emergence of public administration as an activity and field of study. As Ademolekun (1986:13), notes that: There is hardly a basic textbook published since the emergence of the discipline of public administration as a distinct field of study at the dawn of the century that does not devote some space to the subject of politics and administration dichotomy

Early scholars in their writings in public administration particularly, maintained that there should be a difference between politics and administration and argue that politics and administration are two distinct spheres and each has its own group of functions.

Woodrow (1941) whose view formed the starting point of politics–administration dichotomy contend that politics and administration are separate, each having its own major task ans that political question are not administrative questions even though the former sets the task for the latter.

He holds that politics is the special province of the statesman (politicians or political office holders), but administration is the special province of the technical officials (administrators or bureaucrats/civil servants). Focusing on a specific example, Woodrow Wilson, through an article in 1887 entitled “the study of Public Administration” differentiated the domain of constitutional law and that of administrative functions.

According to him, public administration is the detailed and systematic execution of public law and that every particular application of general law is an act of administration. For instance, the collection of taxes, the hanging of the criminal, the delivery of mails, the recruitment and training of civil servants are obviously acts of administration.

On the other hand, the general laws which direct these things to be done are obviously outside and above administration. In effect, the broad plans of government actions (policy making) are not administration but the detailed execution of such plans is administration (policy execution).

In essence, Woodrow’s argument is that politics and administration are two distinct functions of government and that politics has to do with policies or expression of the will of state while administration has to do with the execution of these policies.

Another proponent of politics and administration dichotomy is Pfiner (1967), he argued that politics must be controlled and confined to its proper sphere which is the determination and crystallization of the will of the state.  He posits that administration is the carrying into effect of this will once it has been made clear by political process.

He advised that politics should stick to its policy making determination sphere and leave administration to apply its own technical process in the implementation, free from the blight of political meddling. In essence, politics should be concerned with the implementation of the policy made.

This entails that policy makers should not then dabble into administration (policy implementation) and that administrators should only concern themselves with how best to execute policies. Politics should best be seen and played as an independent and separate activity from administration.

The need to separate politics from administration is to ensure professionalism of the public service and restrict the administrators to the implementation of public policies only. On the other side are the scholars who maintain that there is no dichotomy between politics and administration. They contend that a rigid distinction cannot be maintained between public administration and politics.

Cross (1964), in a comprehensive review of organizations and administrative theory, described politics and administration dichotomy as an “exploding fallacy” and argues essentially that making and execution of policies are inseparable intertwined.

Luther Gulick who was also a strong proponent of the politics–administration dichotomy maintained that there is “a seamless web of discretion and interaction between politics and administration”.

The challenges that politics-administration dichotomy faces are rooted in the divergence between what it claims and what obtains in practice or reality. For instance, administrative officers are involved in the policy making process especially in the provision of relevant information and advice needed in policy making.

By this, administrators use a lot of discretionary power in the implementation of policies. Most often, administrators use their discretion to alter or adjust policy guidelines substantially. In reality too, public servants have partisan prejudice and their personal partisan opinion do affect their work, despite every attempt to maintain neutral posture.

Suggested Posts: