The politics-administration dichotomy : a reconstruction Overeem, P.

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The politics-administration dichotomy : a reconstruction

Overeem, P.


Overeem, P. (2010, January 13). The politics-administration dichotomy : a reconstruction. Retrieved from

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“Nothing is more central in thinking about public administration than the nature and interrelations of politics and administration.” (Waldo 1987: 91)

Readers who expect a reexamination of the politics-administration dichotomy to be little more than an exercise in corpse picking are not entirely mistaken. This study does actually bear some resemblances to a forensic autopsy investigation.

In the following pages, I attempt to determine the death of the dichotomy (is it really dead or does it still breathe some life?), to establish its identity (what exactly is this reputedly dead or nearly dead idea?), and to investigate the causes of its present bad condition (has the dichotomy collapsed because of its own internal weaknesses or did it die an ‘unnatural’ or even violent death?). These metaphors should not be taken to indicate some morbid interest on my part;

they are just very common in the literature (cf. Campbell and Peters 1998; Levy 2009). Moreover, as can be guessed from my subtitle already, I am not entirely without hopes about the possibility of recovery for the dichotomy. This study even suggests a way to achieve that miracle. It aims to offer a reconstruction in the double sense of the word: a reconstruction of what has happened to the dichotomy and on that basis also a reconstruction of the dichotomy itself.1 The first, historical aim is subsidiary to the second, theoretical aim. If this attempt at reconstruction is understood in opposition to currently fashionable works of deconstruction, I will not object.

A study like this of course relies on the ideas of many people, but two authors have been particularly important for my work. The first is Dwight Waldo (1913-2000), whose oeuvre has been a constant source of delight and inspiration over the years. His best-known book, the canonical The Administrative State:

A Study of the Political Theory of American Public Administration (1948;

the subtitle is important) has shown me a way to go. Although I concentrate on only one of the many topics discussed in Waldo’s book (especially in its seventh chapter) and place it in a historically and geographically wider context than he did, his approach to administrative thought is here gratefully adopted.

1 For an instructive and rather hard-headed version of conceptual “reconstructionism,” see Oppenheim 1981: esp. 177-202.


Preface x

Substantively, my theoretical reconstruction of the politics-administration dichotomy as a constitutional principle follows a path hinted at but never really explored in Waldo’s later writings. Thus, Waldo is present throughout this study. He has stimulating things to say in every chapter (and on top of them) and even when he is not explicitly cited, the style and substance of his reasoning will often somehow be mixed with my own.

Jim Svara, second, has been nearly as important as an admirable sparring partner and occasional opponent. Although this study testifies in many places of my disagreement with his ideas, they have been a source of continuous motivation and, I must say, occasional frustration for me. Apart from the couple of times we have crossed swords in print, while writing this study I have had an intense and ongoing interior dialogue with him of which he will be peacefully unaware. I am glad we have always been on good terms and I would like to thank him sincerely for the constructive way in which he has discussed these matters with me, particularly during his visit to Leiden and mine to Phoenix.

Research for this study was conducted in the Institute (formerly Department) of Public Administration at Leiden University, The Netherlands. It was designed as a part of a larger project titled The Renaissance of Public Administration: An Interdisciplinary Project on the Foundations of Administrative Thought, which was funded as a so-called PIONIER project by the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research (NWO). This project aimed to clarify the history and meaning of the concept of public administration and was divided into several subprojects, based on the idea that analytically the meaning of public administration can be found at the intersection of three conceptual dichotomies: politics/administration, public/private, and state/society (Rutgers 1998). As research on the second of these dichotomies has already been concluded (Pesch 2005) and the third is currently under renewed investigation (Tijsterman 2008), this study seeks to tackle the first.

The Renaissance project, now formally concluded, has resulted in a large flow of publications, but it is not easy to determine how the findings of this study fit into the results of the overall project. As could be expected, the Renaissance project has not resulted in a single understanding of public administration. Instead, one of its main findings was that there is a variety of conceptualizations of public administration, depending on varying normative starting points and underlying public values (Rutgers 2003). This general conclusion, at any rate, is definitely supported by this study.

These years I have often experienced that knowing what to write is by far not the same as knowing how to write it. Some editorial notes may be helpful to the reader. One is that, unless otherwise indicated, italics in quotations are original


and translations from non-Anglophone sources are mine. More conspicuous, probably, is that this study follows the custom, introduced by Dwight Waldo (1968:

443 n.1; 1971: viii; 1972: 217; 1975: 181 n.) and occasionally adopted by others, to use ‘Public Administration’ (with capitals) to designate the self-conscious academic field of study, research, and teaching, and ‘public administration’

(without capitals) to refer to the processes, institutions, and other phenomena in government that are the object of this field of study. (The phrase ‘study of Public Administration’ then refers to the meta-study of the academic field itself.) Waldo already recognized that the distinction is sometimes hard to draw, but in large part the difficulty seem to be a peculiarity of the English language. The corresponding distinctions in other languages (such as those between Verwaltungswissenschaft and öffentlichte Verwaltung in German, or bestuurskunde and openbaar bestuur in Dutch) are usually not very problematic. If there is a case of doubt and ambiguity, however, I have omitted capitalization. For the sake of consistency, references to other academic fields are also with capital letters. It should be noted that in quotations these conventions are often not followed.

Another word of explanation, before I conclude this preface, concerns the cover illustration. It shows fragments of two out of a series of five murals by the American artist Elihu Vedder (1836-1923) that decorate the lunettes in the vestibule to the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The upper picture, simply titled Government, symbolizes republican government or constitutional democracy. The woman, crowned with a wreath, holds a tablet with the words ‘A government of the people, by the people, for the people’ in one hand and the Golden Rule in the other. She is flanked by figures of genius, the one holding a sword and the other a bridle and the reins of power. The lower picture is called Good Administration and shows a female figure having a book in her lap and surrounded by symbols of equity and justice (a pair of scales and an evenly quartered shield in her hands and a symmetric arch over her head).

The two figures on her side represent the considerate selection of administrators:

the youth on the right has his voting decision informed by the study of books and the young female on the left is sifting the wheat from the chaff above a voting urn.2 Thus both pictures represent the ideal of virtuous, limited, and informed rule, but the cover as a whole also illustrates the main thesis of this study: that in a well- ordered polity ‘good administration’ should be separate from and subordinate to (democratic) ‘government’.

2 Source: http://myloc.go/ExhibitSpaces/BiblesGallery/GoodBadGovernment/Pages/default.aspx (accessed November 6, 2009).


Preface xii

I gladly adopt the duty to end with acknowledgments – and some apologies. The fact that writing this study has taken me much longer than expected, though unpleasant in itself, is mostly due to factors that have greatly enriched my life. Foremost among these is the opportunity offered to me at Leiden University to teach courses, write papers, and otherwise participate in academic life to an extent that is truly uncommon for most PhD students elsewhere. I want to thank my fellow pioneers in the Renaissance project and my other colleagues at the Institute, especially Sebastiaan Tijsterman, for their collegial fellowship. Support by scholars from other institutions and universities is also gratefully acknowledged. Apart from Jim Svara, I am indebted to Mark Bovens, Paul Cliteur, Paul Nieuwenburg, Rik Reussing, John Rohr, Richard Stillman, Gary Wamsley, and many others for constructive discussions and useful suggestions in very different phases of my research. Needless to say, they bear no responsibility for the errors this study may still contain. Special thanks go to Ineke Smit for her accurate and truly stimulating editorial work on the manuscript. A very different source of delay was my election to the deaconry of our Reformed congregation in Leiderdorp. Many evenings have been spent with meetings, worship, and works of charity in which I could not write, but was called to the service of Christ and the members of His body. He deserves my gratitude above all. Probably the greatest obstacle, finally, and yet a deeply valued one, has been family life. If the saying is true that each child one gets delays the finishing of a dissertation with one year, I am perfectly in time. I want to thank my family and friends who have given me much-needed diversion and encouragement. This study is dedicated to my wife Joanneke, whose importance for Pieter, Anne-Wil, and myself is beyond expression. The numerous occasions at which you and the children have hindered and stimulated my work are fondly remembered.

Leiden / Leiderdorp, November 2009 Patrick Overeem




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