Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Call for Wilsonian Reform in Latin America

Why does the United Sates have a strong democratic government? Is it that the US has a stronger constitution than Latin American governments? Maybe in the US the political parties are less corrupt? Or does the US government have fewer predispositions about influences citizen lives? Even more frequently cited is America’s strong “democratic culture” vs. the “week ones” in Latin America. If one reads the newspapers or follows American politics, there is frequent reference to possible legislators corruption, with campaign finance reform always a hot topics to solve party problems.

Additionally, gerrymandering still lives on to this day; with frequent redistricting requests proposed by congress for “preventive measures.” The Supreme Court reviews hundreds of cases each year to investigate for plausible constitutional reform. The American Civil Liberties Union, a watchdog to ensure that the government does not invade people privacy, receives handfuls of complaints of possible constitutional violations each year. Equally disturbing, Americans are some of the poorest to participate in the political system, with voter turn out typically below fifty percent. And now social scientists have determined that Americans are “bowling alone.” Without social groups to volunteer with, there are declining levels of social capital. So why does the US government work at all?

Maybe democracy theorists should look at the field of public administration (PA) for answers. Too often political scientists analyze constitutional reforms, political parties or state-society relations, civil society, or social capital as rational for why Latin American governments don’t work. But few researchers evaluate the governmental structure; it’s ability to implement efficient and equitable public policies; or it’s effective political-administrative dichotomy. The study of PA is the search for the best way to run public institutions. This essay will describe the history of American PA, provide its significant heritage, and will argue that Latin America needs a their own “Wilsonian transformation” in order to modernize their government structures and systems.

Major tenets within PA follow along with events in American history. It began in the progressive era, a period of reforms from the 1890s-920s, with former President Woodrow Wilson’s foundational essay. Wilson wrote “The Study of Administration” in 1887, as a response to the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. This federal law established the merit base system for bureaucrats, eliminating nepotisms in public agencies. Wilson’s essay argues for the separation of politics from administration and suggests that government should take a more appropriate, efficient and cost effective business like approach. Wilson is quoted for saying “it is getting harder to run a constitution than to frame one.” He is unarguably the father of American PA.
Approximately when Wilson’s essay was found, several people used it to professionalize the field of PA. With a strong argument to better manage government, New York’s citizens began a movement to improve local governments to be more responsible to communities. They were unhappy with the way New York City was managing its finances and providing public services. An academic group set up the Bureau of Municipal Research to study how the government was using city resources.

The Bureau Men, as Camilla Stivers later coined them, not only created an independent government watchdog, they also envisioned training future bureaucrats to manage city governments, budget and policies. The New York Bureau of Municipal Research opened its training school for public service with a small class in 1911. Students had diverse backgrounds in business, government and the social services. The hope was to convert the students into professional bureaucrats with classes in business, finances, organizational design and management. Furthermore, they also engaged philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to start professional schools of PA.
Various schools popped up to advocate for the scientific management of public institutions. The first was the National Institute of Pubic Administration (NIPA) incorporated in April 1921 and soon thereafter certified additional training schools of pubic services. For example, the Maxwell School, New York; Harvard’s School of Government also programs were later developed at Yale and Columbia. The University of Chicago set up a school in the 1920s to include both PA and social work. In the quest for teaching scientific based management and analysis, the school’s founders also had a personal dedication, to the students and professors. The founders vision for a better American society lead their pursuits to build more schools. Their mission was to establish PA schools in order to analyze government’s work and make it better for the American society as a whole.

While the practical teaching took off, theorists questioned various assumptions of what to teach the students. Of particular importance was the scientific-positivist approach of management described by Fredrick W. Taylor in his essay “Scientific Management.” Taylor felt that the best management is like science in that “it rests upon clearly defined laws, rules and principles.” He suggested methods to make workers more productive. Political scientist Larry Gulick also theorized how to provide government services more effectively. His suggested that a strict division of labor and the coordination of workers in an organization could make it more efficient. He suggested chief executives follow his POSDCCORB typology, which stands for Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, Coordinating, Reporting, and Budgeting. He taught at Columbia University and was a staff member of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research.

Leonard White furthered Wilson’s discussion of the political and administrative dichotomy, by adding that management should adjust to America’s federalist state and its organizational structure. For example the centralized power—moving from the local, to the state, and the national level of government, should have a powerful executive—or the mayor at the local level, governor at the state, and the president at the national level. He argued that administration is the heart of the modern government, and you must have a strong executive to weave through its politics.
Another influential figure also inspired the Bureau’s municipal research was Frank J. Goodnow. In his essay “Politics and Administration” written in 1900, he attempted to give different roles and purposes to government’s administrative and political sides and, finally, argued that the administrative side dealt with the implementation and the processes, while the political side focused on creating the institutions that formulate, adopt, and implement policies, while reinforcing each other.

Another major theme in PA history is the study of the organization. Notable work in this area was by Paul Appleby, in his essay “Government is Different” written in 1945. He suggested that the “public” it different than running a business and this organizational animal was inherently different. Public decision-making processes are more pluralistic and not solely developed on standards of efficiency or profit maximization. Also, the public scrutinizes government outcomes more than business. Appleby describes the public-interest attitude that government official must have, intrinsically makes it less efficient than a private business and should be analyzed as such.

Furthermore, organizational structures are discussed in “ The American System,” written in 1966 by Morton Grodzins, and “Administrative Decentralization and Political Power,” written in 1969 by Herbert Kaufman. These essays argue that government must represent society, as a whole, and in doing so, have organizational issues. Grodzins suggests that functions overlap in government. He describes chaos found in the US government, with its mixture of powers from the various layers of local, state and national governments, which makes a “Marble Cake” affect in America—overlapping tensions and roles of government. Furthering this discussion, Kaufman calls for more decentralization and direct democracy, where citizen controls of local resources by participating in government agencies. He also advocates for the creation of an “Advisory Commission of Intergovernmental Relations,” which he suggest would assist local actors to navigate though federal agencies and programs in order to provide appropriate services to citizens.

These characteristics of the American system of government not only establish the field of American PA, but it also distinguishes it from other nations around the world. Each of the above theorists, academics and practitioners alike are concerned with producing better public policies, making government more efficient and creating a better society. In studying government, it furthers academics to push further in understanding why the US works as it does.

Since, postmodernists argue that it is important to recognize ones “history” which is told through the eye of the beholder. They question the commonality of history. The “relativity” of perspective is important also in the field of PA. It can be argued that Latin America needs to develop its own field of PA, beyond the schools of government that currently exists. It is not to copy the American model, but rather develop each country’s story and means to manage their own state of affairs. For example the foundational wisdom of Wilson in creating the first political-administration dichotomy could be relevant for Latin America, but only insomuch as, each country create their own heroes and histories to analyzing public institutions.

Although the study of government has had a long tradition in Latin America, it needs a reinsurgencies of the art of PA. Interesting a new organization has been established. Created in 2000, the Inter-American Network of Public Administration Education (INPAE) has joined forces to link these stories together. This regional network of schools working in PA and policy analysis in Latin America and the Caribbean has more than 25 members from top research schools in various countries throughout the hemisphere. Its mission is to develop the professional study of PA and public policy outside of government control or management. Creating this political-administration dichotomy is the first step towards true administrative reform and state modernization efforts. Further creativity by academics, practitioners and researchers will need to use this field to model a better state for each country in Latin America.

Moreover, the Summits of the Americas is just another international agreement and event for presidents to come together and discuss top priorities of the day. Whether the governments are able to interpret the signed agreements and implement them on their own terms will depend on how they manage their own bureaucracies. Americans must realize that each country is obliged to administer policies and political commitments on their own time and bureaucracies (space). Finally, above all else, the study of public administration has long been criticized for its tensions between science and art. The current new focus in the US is on New Public Management, which is just another push for more scientific approach to public policy, or positivism in the social sciences. But politics is an art and it must equally be studied. Therefore maybe the best way to define PA is that it’s a craft. If Latin American countries can take this craft and adopt it for its own, they will also have strong institutions to manage public issues.


Appleby, Paul (1945). Government Is Different
Goodnow, Frank J. (1900). Politics and Administration
Grodzins, Morton (1966). The American System
Gulick, Luther (1937). Notes on the Theory of Organization
Kaufman, Herbert (1969). Administrative Decentralization and Political Power
Simon, Herbert A. (1946). Proverbs of Administration
Stivers, Camilla (2000). Bureau Men, Settlement Women
Taylor, Fredrick W. (1912) Scientific Management
White, Leonard D (1926). Introduction to the Study of Public Administration
Wilson, Woodrow (1887). The Study of Administration
Waldo, Dwight (1948) The Administrative State: Conclusion

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