The first proposition to separate the fields of politics and public administration was made during the late 1800s. Former US President Woodrow Wilson was one of the ardent proponents of making public administration a distinct academic discipline. In his essay entitled “The Study of Administration” (1887), President Wilson said that the administration as a field of business must be removed from the hurry and strife of politics. Despite several clarion calls from staunch advocates, the field of public administration remained to be a subfield of political science during the 1950s-1970s. But it was not long before public administration became recognized as administrative science, thus an independent field of study. While we can now say that the century-old epistemic debate is finally over, some questions still need to be answered: why is there a need to spark the debate in the first place? Better yet, how necessary is it to discuss the need for dichotomizing politics and administration? We will answer these questions in the latter part of our analysis.
Politics versus administration
Before we delve further it is best to differentiate first politics from administration. For President Wilson, the field of politics aims to answer the question, “Who shall make law and what shall it be?” while administration attempts to address the question, “How should the law be administered?” Using the similar line of thought, legal scholar and Wilson’s contemporary Frank Goodnow stated that while politics has something to do with policies or expressions of the State’s will, administration has to do with the execution of such policies. Wilson and Goodnow made clear that politics is limited to crafting of policies and lawmaking, a function generally vested upon a State’s legislative body; and administration is focused on the implementation of laws, a function normally held by the State’s executive branch.
Although these definitions are valid, it would be somewhat problematic if we were to use this in our present (or any future) analysis. To illustrate, the legislative veto and oversight function of the Philippine Congress can be viewed as a manifestation of how it can act like and share the authority of administration with the executive branch. Also, the exclusive power of the President of the Philippines to introduce the budget proposal to the Congress shows how the President can play a preeminent role in policy agenda. Other than the overlapping (if not harmony) of functions of politics and administration, the problem which now remains is the obsolescence of this longstanding differentiation of these fields.
If we were to view politics as a field which concerns the allocation of public resources, a cursory definition which I believe is being employed by the scholars of our time, it would be resonant of what public administration essentially means. From the words of Professor John Vieg, public administration “embraces every area governed by public policy… including the formal processes through which the legislative exercises its power [and] the function of courts in the administration of justice.” In modern usage, public administration is not anymore a practice restricted to the domain of executive branch as, in the passage of time, it became more concerned with serving the public through formulation of necessary laws, proactive implementation of laws crafted, and efficient delivery of public services.
Why the debate continues
If truth be told, the difference between politics and administration is really hard to tell as the former heavily influences the latter, or vice versa. Nevertheless the discussion has gone a long way. While some scholars posit that Wilson called for a complete separation of politics and administration, Wilson himself admitted that the dichotomy of the two is fictional. So if it is implausible in the first place, why call for dichotomy? This is now the part where we shall answer our first question we asked in introduction.
Wilson stated four reasons why there should be a science of administration: (1) straighten the paths of government; (2) make its business businesslike; (3) strengthen its organization; and (4) crown its dutifulness. Wilson knew that it is not possible to achieve absolute separation of politics and administration as what he really wants was to keep public administration out of the ills of politics and institutionalize the practice of effective administration. As governments today serve several masters (the people), their functions became more complex which made Wilson underscore the need for great mastery in running the government. For this monumental task, the role of the study of administration is to produce competent administrators who will not just serve as passive instruments of power but vanguards of the public interest, and to promote a type of governance responsive to the needs of the public and reflective of the people’s will.
In conclusion, we shall answer the last question we posed earlier: how necessary is it to discuss the need for dichotomizing politics and administration? It has never been this necessary, and relevant it has always been. As it appears, the need for dichotomy is more than an epistemic question and the birth of the public administration as a field of study more than an academic milestone. The root of the debate brings with it a nobler cause and a greater call. Now more than ever, the call for an administration which will always be all ears for the people’s demands, for public administrators who will serve as the voice of the marginalized, and for future administrators who will rise to the challenge of upholding good governance, will always remain loud and clear
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