Woodrow Wilson in Public Administration

Woodrow Wilson in Public Administration

Woodrow Wilson is recognized for numerous things that he had accomplished during his life. Apart from a being a United States president, he was also regarded as the founder of Public Administration. Wilson was born in 1856 in Virginia to Joseph Ruggles and Jessie Janet. He spent his teenage years in South Carolina and Georgia, where he experienced the ravages of civil war. Wilson was not able to read until he was ten years since he was suffering from dyslexia (Schell, 2012). However, this aspect did not deter him from attaining commendable education prospects. Wilson earned multiple degrees, and he has remained as the only president of the United States to have earned a doctorate. In 1890, he achieved his dream job of professorship at Princeton. He became the 13th president of the University, and his efforts led to significant upgrades. His high ideals and caring demeanor made him popular among different stakeholders in the University. However, his oratory skill ensured that he became renowned beyond the institution’s setting (Schell, 2012).

Wilson’s political ambitions while at Princeton had transformed him to a social democrat. In 1910, he was tapped for the New Jersey governorship. He was determined in ensuring that there were reforms on several issues and this endeared him to people that were fanatics of progression as it resulted in his nomination as a presidential candidate via the democrat’s ticket in 1912 (Schell, 2012). In 1913, he was inaugurated as the United States 28th president and stayed in office for two terms.

Among the achievements as the president is that Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. He also participated in the Paris Peace Talks, issued the Fourteen Points and principles for peace. Wilson also led the Congress to the passage of Clayton Antitrust Act, Federal Reserve Act, Federal Farm Loan Act, Sedition Act 1918, Espionage Act of 1917, Federal Trade Commission Act and also oversaw implementation of some laws like the Revenue Act of 1913 (Schell, 2012).

With regards to public administration, among the major works that Woodrow Wilson is recognized with is the essay he wrote titled “The Study of Public Administration”.  This is the essay that made people recognize Wilson as the founder of public administration. Two decades before the writing of the essay there was a movement that was developing trying to respond to the increasing immigration, urbanization, corruption, inefficiency and the seeming loss of traditional values among other things (Snellen, 2014). Wilson was opposed to the spoils system of public administration, which had prevailed in the country for a long period. The system worked in a way that loyal supporters of a given party way awarded administrative posts once the party found its way to the presidency. The movement that was forming against such actions and practices influenced Woodrow Wilson to publish his essay on public administration. The essay emphasized on making major reforms within the government structure to ensure that issues regarding administration are now transparent and efficient.

In the essay, Wilson postulates that any aspect that involves the application of general law represents an act of administration. The essay lists executions, taxation, military recruitments, and mail delivery as acts of administration.  During this climate of change, reforms in civil service and public administration (even though not referred to by name during this period) were in the minds of people (Snellen, 2014). This was more so in the minds of people that were inclined to discussing concepts regarding political science. Wilson’s essay was trying to focus on efficient execution of laws that related to government agencies. This was not only on the agencies but also the people involved with these agencies in one way or another. There was an assumption that Wilson carried that since the United States government acted as a representative democracy, the law ought to be representing the will of the people. In this respect, Wilson asserts that administrative study should strive with the objective of identifying what the government is capable of doing properly and successfully and then identify how these things can be done efficiently with the least possible cost being incurred (Frederickson, 2010).

Wilson has also gone ahead to illuminate on different rulers to show the problems that have been there in public administration. Some of these shortcomings were the reasons for writing the essay as he saw it as a tool that could be propagated to bring sanity that was lacking in the public administration sector. The timing was right given that the people were already contemplating of changes that ought to be done to ensure that relevant agencies started to operate as it is expected of them (Frederickson, 2010). When many people are fighting for a similar outcome, it becomes easy forcing the authority to give in due to fear of revolution that is likely to result from the people involved.

The study of public administration essay by Woodrow Wilson has several main points. Among them is the establishment of the politics-administration dichotomy. This is a theory that tries to outline the boundaries that exist in public administration. Here, Wilson was trying to show the difference that ought to exist between politics and administration. Wilson believed that politics should be responsible with the making of laws while administration should have the responsibility of addressing how these laws ought to be administered. Creating this separation was viewed as a way of enforcing efficiency since the autonomy of how the laws operate is removed from the hands of the politicians (Henry, 2015). The people involved with the administration are likely to have some desired know-how hence the ability to ensure that the desired outcome for the laws is easily achieved.  Giving politicians complete autonomy only works in giving them the power to manipulate public agencies to their own liking.

The politics-administration dichotomy as proposed by Wilson has some perceived advantages. It is a theory that has the ability to ensure that there is the establishment of a strong government that ensures efficient productivity. The complexities involved with governmental functions make it even more compelling to implement the theory due to lack of trust that people have with self-government. This is because there are times when politicians tend to be ignorant, stubborn, “foolish”, or selfish (Henry, 2015). The dichotomy ensures there is little room for error even when public administration issues are executed in a unselfish manner. It is this model that created the first check concept of checks and balances in public administration. This is one of the predominant systems that have ensured there is democratic accountability, something that has helped in shaping the government of the United States (Frederickson, 2010). Accountability becomes prevalent when there is the separation of duties since it is easy to tell where things are not going as planned.

Despite the advantages that come with the dichotomy, the model can also draw some criticisms. Among them is that the definition is somewhat narrow. For instance, if people were to consider politics as only a policy-making aspect hence administrators such as city managers would be barred from participation. The model is also directed towards behavioral prescription, but not towards guiding behavior (Henry, 2015). It is not simple to keep elected officials out of administration while at the same time allowing administrators to remain active in policy.

Wilson also argues that administration ought to be run like a business. This aspect came in due to the aspect of efficiency that is usually associated with businesses. When the government is run like a business, there would be aspirations of operating efficiently just like businesses do. Another aspect of a business that led Wilson to make this assertion is the issue revolving around employees. Businesses strive to employ the best employees available in the market. This is because there is an understanding that they are an integral asset to the success of the business (Henry, 2015). This is why businesses take their time when it comes to recruitment of employees. There are rigorous interviews involved to ensure that the appropriate employee has been recruited for a given position. The employees brought in should have skills that will make them compatible with the systems and operations being executed in the workplace. If public administration adopted such an approach, Wilson thought it would ensure success has been actualized at all times (Frederickson, 2010). Businesses also strive at ensuring that they enhance proper training and management of employees after they have been hired. This is an aspect that ensures these employees are equipped with favorable and up to date skills necessary for their day to day activities. Efficiency and long-term sustainability are easy to achieve and ensure success at all times as a result. That is why Wilson saw that if public administration operated as a business, there would be efficiency that would result in long-term success. This was a good thought given that most public administration agencies lack significantly when it comes to efficiency. That is why there are poorly maintained VA hospitals, long queues to get driver’s licenses and inferior returns from investment of social security among other things.

However, there has been criticism on public administrations being run like a business. Most of the criticism is based o the idea that public administration and the private sector are quite different from one another. There have been examples of officials that have been doing very well in the private sector, but the moment they move to the public sector they fail miserably. This is because the issues that are confronted in the private sector are very narrow compared to the public sector. That is why running a business comes out as being different from the concept of running a government. Bryson et al. (2014) assert that Public administration tends to revolve around public interest, which is something that is not prevalent in the private sector. The private sector is more about the customers and relevant stakeholders, and little attention is given to people that have not invested in the business. The private sector also measures performance based on the profitability that is actualized for a certain period. Performance in public administration, on the other hand, has to focus on achievement of desired outcomes. Compromise has also been a fundamental success factor in public administration given that there is no one owning a controlling number of shares in government. The same thing cannot be said for businesses in the private sector.

Some of the aspects in Woodrow Wilson’s essay can be criticized, but the contribution that this essay brought to public administration cannot be understated. The essay not only presented Wilson’s view points, but it also helped in the establishment of public administration as a distinct discipline. Before 1887; when the essay was written, public administration was not being recognized as distinct subject matter. It was not coherent, and it lacked characteristics that would help to set it apart from other disciplines (Bryson et al., 2014). The essay by Wilson helped present PA as a coherent subject matter hence paving the way for further discussions.

Wilson’s essay made it possible for the study of public administration to be approached from a scientific perspective. Wilson did this by ensuring there was a comparative analysis from different regions and disciplines. As a thinker, he recognized the importance of ensuing “comparative administration”, something that had remained unrecognized and not thought of (Bryson et al., 2014). Wilson tried his best to show how politics and administration are distinct from each other. It is true that some of the thoughts contained in the essay were not very clear, but it is apparent that the genesis of public administration as a discipline can be traced to this essay. Wilson’s essay can be categorized among the important documents that have enabled the development of this subject.

Wilson also showed that studies regarding public administration should be conducted within the confines of a certain geographical region. A good example is how he explained in the essay that public administration studies were more prevalent in German and French academicians during those periods when the essay was being written. Wilson asserted that as a result, these studies might not have been entirely suited or relevant to the America people’s needs. This is because the principles adopted in Europe need to be Americanized and then modified for the multiform and complex state coupled with the decentralized government prevalent in the United States (Henry, 2015). This assertion made sense since it is quite noticeable that there is no single solution that is suited to every problem, and this applies to any area of study. It is important to view something from an individual perspective in order to come up with the aspect that is likely to work best rather than trying to be universal.

Wilson’s essay went to a great length in promoting the concept of skilled bureaucracy in public administration too. This is because he criticized the spoils system that had been in use for a long time. It was apparent that many people did not favor this system since it was a major issue that resulted in complacency in the country’s government structures. The people being awarded various administration positions were not qualified, and this resulted in high levels of inefficiency. Hiring employees due to their skills level was the best way of ensuring that bureaucracy was working efficiently hence ensuring the success of public administration.



Bryson, J., Crosby, B., & Bloomberg, L. (2014). Public Value Governance: Moving Beyond Traditional Public Administration and the New Public Management. Public Administration Review, 74(4), 445-456.

Frederickson, H. (2010). Social Equity and Public Administration: Origins, Developments, and Applications. M E Sharpe Incorporated.

Schell, W. (2012). Leading Them to the Promised Land: Woodrow Wilson, Covenant Theology, and the Mexican Revolution, 1913-1915. Hispanic American Historical Review, 92(1), 203-204.

Henry, N. (2015). Public administration and public affairs. New York: Routledge.

Snellen, M. (2014). Foundations of Public Administration: An Essay in Its Paradigms. Eleven International Publishing.

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