On Wilson’s Study of Administration

In Public Administration on June 2, 2009 at 10:38 pm


Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

In 1886, Woodrow Wilson, not yet president but a leading intellectual in the progressive movement, wrote a manifesto concerning the topic of the administration of government entitled, The Study of Administration (full text found here). While not the first to discuss the matter, Wilson’s intention appeared to be to make public administration more applicable to the administration of government as it is conducted in the United States. Wilson discussed what other governments in various stages of development have done to overcome the hurdles of managing the physical application of the laws imposed by their constitutions and later by their respective lawmaking bodies. Wilson then defined what exactly Administration was as it applied to the United States Government and attempted to determine the best method to develop and clarify how administration may best be undertaken and improved upon in the United States and under its Constitution. Wilson described public administration as, 

“detailed and systematic execution of public law. Every particular application of general law is an act of administration” (Wilson, 1887).

Wilson lists taxation, executions, mail delivery and military recruitment as acts of administration.

A discussion of the political climate of the time period in which the essay was written is in order to fully appreciate The Study of Administration. Only three years prior to the writing of the essay, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act became law. The law placed federal government employees on a merit system, required applicants for some federal jobs to take a competency exam and effectively ended the spoils system. The spoils system was a practice that rewarded party loyalty with a job (often with little work or responsibility) in the federal government. The passing of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was seen as a tribute by some to President Garfield, who was assassinated by Charles Julius Guiteau, who felt he was disenfranchised by the spoils system when he was not offered a job in Garfield’s new administration. In actuality, Guiteau was nothing more than a mentally ill man who believed he deserved an ambassadorship from the Garfield administration because he delivered a (plagiarized) speech during the campaign to whoever would listen. While the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act may have been a tribute to President Garfield; who had mentioned the need for civil service reform during his campaign speeches, the passing of the act is an important benchmark that delineates the political climate of the time period in which Wilson composed The Study of Administration.

During this climate of change, civil service reform and public administration (even if it was not referred to by name) was on the minds of the People and on the minds of those inclined to discuss concepts related to political science, such as Wilson.

Wilson’s article called for a more efficient execution of how laws are physically carried out by government agencies and those otherwise charged with carrying out the ultimate will of the People. Wilson assumed that because the form of government in the United States is a representative democracy, the laws are ultimately the will of the People. In discussing the administration of these laws Wilson states,

“It is the object of administrative study to discover, first, what government can properly and successfully do, and, secondly, how it can do these proper things with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost of either money or energy” (Wilson, 1887).

In discussing facts that Wilson used to make his case for the improvement in the field of public administration, he lists “Three periods of growth through which government has passed in all the most highly developed of existing systems, and through which it promises to pass in all the rest” (Wilson, 1887).

First, Wilson discusses the period of absolute rulers and how these absolute rulers employ the concepts of administration. Second is the period in which these countries develop constitutions to rid themselves of absolute rulers and when popular control over government decisions begins. Wilson then adds, “and in which administration is neglected for these higher concerns” (Wilson, 1887). The third is the time period after the development of the constitution in which the people begin to craft the administration of their government functions and laws under the new constitution.

To justify the validity of the claims concerning the existence of these three distinct periods in the development of public administration within developing nations, Wilson cites the plights of Frederic the Great of Prussia, Napoleon of France, and England and the United States during each stage of development.
It is notable that Wilson considered Prussia an example of a country in which public administration had been perfected. Only paragraphs before, Wilson had extolled representative democracies as more evolved systems of public administration, yet he describes Frederic the Great’s management of the government in flattering terms.

Stern and masterful as was his rule, still sincerely professed to regard himself as only the chief servant of the state, to consider his great office a public trust; and it was he who, building upon the foundations laid by his father, began to organize the public service of Prussia as in very earnest a service of the public (Wilson, 1887).

Notwithstanding, Wilson then goes on to praise the management of Napoleon, describing him as a despot who is unconcerned with the will of the people for the sake of what Napoleon (presumably) considered the greater good.

In a search for material that criticizes Wilson’s work in both positive and negative terms, there is certainly no dearth of content. Professor Larry Walker of the University of West Florida wrote an article very close to the topic at hand, interestingly, in the same publication Wilson had 103 years earlier. Walker’s article, while not overly complimentary, does share some positive comments. In the first paragraph Walker quotes Dwight Waldo, who referred to Wilson’s essay as “the most important document in the development of the field” (Walker, 1989). Walker also cites biting criticism of the essay from Vincent Ostrom, who said

“The Wilsonian theory of administration was no less than a counter-revolutionary doctrine” (Walker, 1989).

Walker then adds his own opinion by saying,

“I offer this assessment of Woodrow Wilson: There is a great deal to admire about Wilson and there are ample grounds on which to credit him with formative influence in the founding and shaping of modern public administration” (Walker, 1989)

Walker then moves on to a more biographical account of Wilson’s life including a discussion of when he told his wife of his desire to study administration, the corresponding political climate in which he wrote his most famous works on the study administration and how above all Wilson was a reformer. Walker then comes to the conclusion that whether one agrees or disagrees with Wilson’s essay, it is in fact an important part of the body of knowledge of public administration.

What information could be harvested that would be beneficial to the public administrator? The Study of Administration makes dozens of points that are seemingly the basis of a progressive approach to government. One could take away from the work an understanding of how political labels have shifted and evolved over the years. Progressivism as it was written about in Wilson’s essay is much like today’s definition of economic conservativism. Progressivism today is often used synonymously with modern American liberalism. It is interesting to note that while not much emphasis is placed on these political labels within Wilson’s essay one with an understanding of political ideologies can pick out the philosophical basis for the political factions of the day, and for that matter all the way to present day. Accordingly, Wilson injected progressive concepts into his writings.

An important concept that some contribute to Wilson became known as the politics/administration dichotomy.

“Civil service reformers tried to avoid the political and ethical implications of a merit system of personnel selection by drawing a sharp distinction-indeed a dichotomy-between politics and administration, assigning politics to elected officials who make policy and administration to civil servants who simply do the bidding of their political masters” (Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy, 2003).

As a progressive candidate, governor and president, some major ground was broken that to an outsider may be seen as overtly political; however, The Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914, The Federal Reserve Act of 1913, and The Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 were major political feats to get passed into law, but they also had implications for the way government was administrated. One could argue that the passing of these laws under Wilson’s watch represents the third period of growth for government; the period in “Which the sovereign people undertake to develop administration under this new constitution which has brought them into power” (Wilson, 1887)

In conclusion, The Study of Administration is an important document in the body of knowledge of public administration. Wilson discussed what other developing and developed governments have done to overcome the hurdles of managing the physical application of the laws imposed by their constitutions and later by their respective lawmaking bodies. Wilson then defined what exactly Administration was as it applied to the United States Government and attempted to determine the best method to develop and clarify how administration may best be undertaken and improved upon in the United States and under its Constitution. The essay has timeless ramifications as evidenced by its continuing relevance to the discussion over 100 years later.

The Politics/Administration Dichotomy and Bureaucratic Leadership. (2003). In Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy (Vol. 2, p. 704). New York, NY: Marcel Dekker, Inc.

Walker, Larry (1989). Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Reform, and Public Administration. Political Science Quarterly, 104, Retrieved May 16, 2009, from

Wilson, W. (1887). The Study of Administration. In Public Administration Concepts and Cases (Vol. n.a., pp. 6-15). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.


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