Abstract – Politics and Administration by Frank Goodnow
PAF 602 (Fall 2008)
Goodnow, F.J. (2003). Politics and Administration: A Study in Government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Frank Goodnow’s classic work aims to express the separation of government authority beyond the traditional executive, legislative and judicial triad. Goodnow distinguishes and explains the dichotomy between elected legislators who enact the will of the state (politics) versus the officials and entities that are responsible for the execution of that will (administration). Goodnow outlines the separation of political and administrative authority in a comparative analysis between the United States and a number of European countries. His analysis and suggestions are predicated upon the efficient and legitimate formulation and exercise of the will of the people and the source of administrative legitimacy.
While, “the function of politics…consists in the expression of the will of the state” (p. 23), “the function of executing the will of the state has been called administration” (p. 72). The relation of politics to administration is one of separation and subordination. Goodnow argues that while politics can never be completely apart from administration, “…popular government requires that it is the executing authority (administration) which shall be subordinate to the expressing authority (politics)” (p. 24). The executing authority, according to Goodnow, should be one of centralized administration in contrast to decentralized or local administration and it should also not be overly controllable by the expressing authority for fear of impartial administration.
Political parties are central to Goodnow’s architecture of a popular government and efficient administration. His reasoning is that the role of powerful yet responsible political parties are a necessary means of expressing and executing the will of the state and that their power can be checked, as necessary, by “government organs” (p. 257). Having powerful political parties ensures that the will of the people is the will of the legislature, and thus through the aforementioned subordinate relationship, results in the effective administration of the people’s will.
Goodnow’s theory of a separation between politics and administration has pervaded the practice of public administration for years. The spoils system was abandoned long ago and the civil service system has placed the power of administration generally out of the hands of the legislature.
I found Goodnow’s work to be very informative and insightful. I think he makes a number of interesting correlations relating to the distribution of authority and the ideal of a separation between legislation and execution. I think that in an ideal world where the morals of individuals in administrative positions were always honorable, his suggestions might prove practical.
However, I cannot subscribe to the train of thought that legislation and administration can be entirely, or even mostly separated. All people, and hence any government organization comprised of them, are never without political and environmental influence. While it may be the job of administrators to act within the spirit of the encompassing legislation, I believe it impossible to impartially enact policy free of personal and external pressures.
As John Rohr pointed out in the introduction:
The discretionary nature of the powers exercised by administrators is unmistakably clear in the frequency with which vague words such as the following appear in statutes authorizing administrative action: adequate, advisable, appropriate, beneficial… (p. xx-xxi)
Words such as these leave incredible authority in the hands of administrative personnel and allows for subjective meanings influenced by anything from politics to the weather, to determine the supposed expression of the will of the people. I feel this to be one of the major flaws in Goodnow’s argument of a division between politics and central administration.
One aspect of Goodnow’s argument that I found particularly interesting was his comparison of administrators and the judiciary role. He reasons that judicial decisions are simply a means of executing the will of the state and that politics should not overly influence either the administration or the judiciary; thus he appears to view them as being rooted in the same foundation opposite politics. This thought has never occurred to me before but seems to make some sense. Unfortunately, the judiciary, by its nature, has authority over the legislature and thus would seem to be contradictory to Goodnow’s idea of administration as subordinate to politics.