Politics Administration Dichotomy

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Politics Administration Dichotomy

Politics Administration Dichotomy


One of the most important and enduring theoretical constructs in public administration is the politics-administration dichotomy model. It has been useful for marking off the boundaries of public administration as an intellectual field and for asserting the normative relationship between elected officials and administrators in a democratic society. It has been a convenient straw man for public administrations; to attack and has been criticized as being irrelevant to current conditions. The main shortcoming of the model comes from using it as a guide to describing actual behavior in the policy-making process. They argue that the model, as they have interpreted it, remains important as a normative standard in the profession of local government management. They express the view also held by many practitioners that the dichotomy model is useful because it provides a rationale for insulating the practice of public administration from political interference.


The debate about the utility of the original or a reinterpreted version of the model misses a fundamental point: the dichotomy model is not what it seems. It is not an idea that can be traced back to the origins of the field of public administration or the municipal reform movement. Rather than trying to explain or rehabilitate the model, it is more appropriate to view it as an idea that emerged relatively late and that deviated from the ideas of the founders of public administration and the framers of the council-manager form of government (Van Hook, 1998). It is important for academics to get their intellectual history right and stop presenting simplistic and historically inaccurate explanations of how the field began and evolved. In addition, practitioners and promoters of the council-manager form should recognize that they have been disadvantaged by the pervasive attitude that the form is based originally on the dichotomy model and realize that they weaken the legitimacy of city managers as comprehensive leaders by perpetuating this notion (Svara, 1999).

The politics-administration dichotomy has provided a good bone to gnaw on for a century's worth of scholars since it was conceived by Woodrow Wilson and elaborated by Goodnow. Yet, with all the academic bunking, debunking, rebunking, revisiting, and reappraisal, the concept retains an amazing endurance, both for academicians and practitioners. Van Hook stated that the values reflected by the dichotomy continue to be held by many. Waldo conceded that, notwithstanding scholarly criticism, the dichotomy cannot be abolished (Svara, 1998).

Montjoy and Watson concluded that, for practitioners, the politics- administration dichotomy remains important as a normative standard in the profession of local government management. It seemingly defines good public administration, notwithstanding Waldo's early insight that the dichotomy tells us nothing so far as particular actions are concerned (O'Toole 1987). For example, after studying military base closings, Koven concluded that the dichotomy's applicability remains problematic. The concept itself remains a part of public administration education. Future public administrators generally learn about the dichotomy and its meaning. A typical textbook states that it is not possible to separate politics and ...
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