Woodrow Wilson and the History of Public Service

Ever since Aristotle, the role and function of government has been thoroughly debated and discussed, and many different philosophical approaches have been attempted throughout history. In the U.S., the current philosophy and policies behind the operation of the administrative branch of government can be traced back to Woodrow Wilson, who pioneered many of the methods still employed today by the government.

What Is The Role of Administrative Government?

Woodrow Wilson famously wrote, “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 either of money or of energy.” He based his approach on four central concepts:

  • The division of politics and administration
  • Analysis of how the public and private sectors compared to each other
  • Achieving greater efficiency by approaching common tasks with a business-like attitude
  • Implementing merit-based assessments of public servants through strong management and extensive training

Academia Responded

Some of Wilson’s ideas weren’t accepted without controversy. The key notion that was debated and continues to be is the separation of administration from politics. This is partly responsible for the many different theories concerning public administration as well as the many ways it has been put into practice over the last century.

Nevertheless, Wilson’s theories were popular enough to birth the public administration field within the US, and in the 1920s the first public administration textbooks were produced. They prominently featured Wilson’s ideas alongside competing theories such as scientific management, but the basic framework of Wilson’s model is the one that had endured through countless revisions and trials. His ideas are the foundation of modern liberalism, and without him it’s unlikely that programs like Social Security would have come into existence.

Other Theories

Fredrick Taylor pioneered the scientific approach to organizational management. It removed subjectivity from the inner workings of organizations because he felt that policies and actions were best determined by objective reasoning as opposed to common sense rules. He also posited that efficiency should take precedence over every other concern. This theory came into prominence during the 1920s, but it quickly faded because workers responded negatively.

The bureaucratic approach can be said to largely embody Wilson’s ideas. It aimed to create equality within organizations by rendering the mechanisms that determined who got hired and who didn’t as impersonal as possible. Structuring organizations this way was also meant to promote accountability, but similar to scientific management it was criticized for ignoring the human element.

Almost all current approaches to administrative theory borrow heavily from Wilson’s original ideas, and the basic structures can still be found within organizations of every size within the modern day. There’s no way to understand how things work within the US without exploring Wilson’s ideas, and because elements of his theories have been so enduring any new approaches will likely continue to borrow from him far into the foreseeable future.

Beth Fillnow is a full-time writer for higher ed blogs and journals nationwide. Interested in management in the non-profit or public sector? An MPA might help. Several schools offer MPA programs, including the University of San Francisco.

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