Thomas Woodrow Wilson was an American academic and politician, who served as the 28th president of USA. He is attributed with establishing the intellectual roots of “Public Administration as a Discipline” through his famous essay “The Study of Administration” published in the Political Quaterly 1887, that he wrote as an academician. Though Wilson has asserted that aim of his work was to produce a ‘semi-popular introduction to administrative studies’, the essay is generally regarded as the beginning of public administration as an independent discipline.

Prevailing Conditions

  • Public Administration was treated and studied as an integral part of political science and never as an independent discipline. Political Scientists were busy writing about the constitution, nature of state, popular power, sovereignty etc. They were mostly worried about the problems of monarchy and democracy.
  • Before 19th century, population was very small, the functions of government was limited and simple. But now, after 19th century it had become complex, increased funcitons, trade, MNCs, personnel management etc.
  • The bureaucracy wasn’t appointed on the basis of merit but spoils system (nepotism and favouritism). Bureaucracy has no or limited accountability towards the public.
  • The bureaucratic systems and administration of Europe were abler and more efficient than that of the USA (according to Wilson).

The Essay

  • According to Wilson, study of administration developed as a consequence to the increasing complexities of the society, growing functions of the state and growth of governments on democratic lines. To adapt to changes there needs to be constant reform of the government and reforms should be in administrative field. Wilson considered administration as the most obvious part of the government. He felt that administration is government in action i.e the implementation part of governance.
  • His most important and controversial contribution in his essay was the Administrative – Political Dichotomy, where he said that unlike the previous belief and practice, Administrative questions are not Political questions. While the political questions are based on values and popular opinions, the administrative systems much work in order to bring out economy, effectiveness and efficiency.
  • He rooted for public administration being a science and began the quest for finding universal principles for the administration.
  • He also advocates for recruitment on the basis of merit, scientific training , objective performance evaluation and promotion etc.
  • He also said that bureaucrats must take public opinion without affecting the independence of Bureaucracy to prevent the dictatorship of the bureaucracy.
  • He suggested adopting the business principles of efficiency, effectiveness and economy into the administration.
  • He talks of the consent of the governed but he extends this to the participation in government of all all classes and interests and the disentanglement of the government from all vested interests.
  • He argues that laws should be clear, explicit, founded upon fact, unmistakable in its command and in its penalties and should be changed if they are bad.
  • He writes that Government must administer as a “good trustee” as an instrument of humanity for social betterment and identifies the priority functions like food security, conservation of natural resources etc.

How to study Public Administration?

Wilson gave 3 approaches to study public administration:

  1. Philosophical Approach
  2. Historical Approach
  3. Comparative Approach

Philosophical Approach

Under this approach, Public Administration is studied from the perspective of philosophy. Philosophy tells us how to lead life, what should we do or not do etc. and is highly idealistic in nature This approach tells us what administrators must do when they are in position of power. Philosophical approach to public administration can be found even in religious texts like Bhagwata Gita, Ramayana etc. Wilson said that this approach to studying pub ad is not useful as it is not pragmatic

Historical approach

Under this approach, Public Administration is studied as a part of history. It means we study the evolution of public administration from a historical perspective. We study history to learn lessons from our past and not to repeat the same mistakes again.

Comparative approach

Wilson strongly favoured this approach to study public administration

Under this approach, Public Administration administrative systems of different countries are compared to find out relative strengths and weaknesses of our administrative system. He compared the administrative system of USA with that of those in Europe, and felt that Europe had better administrative systems than USA. Though, at that point of time, Dictatorship was prevalent in Europe.


For his invaluable contribution to the discipline of Public administration, Woodrow Wilson is regarded as the father of the discipline. But Critiques argue that him being called as the father of public administration would be doing gross injustice to all those thinkers before and after him who have made enormous contributions to the discipline.

Critics have pointed out the Wilson raised more number of questions than he provided answers for. For instance:

  • Public administration is capable of becoming science, But How?
  • Politics administration dichotomy, HOW?
  • Public opinion must be considered without hampering the independence of administrators, HOW?

Critics have also highlighted the inconsistencies in Wilson’s ideas. Initially, Wilson says politics and administration must be separate but later he emphasised on harmonious coordination between politics and administration

Also, Wilson did not expand his ideas later. His only contribution was his article “ the study of administration”.

Validity: Criticism of Criticism

Above criticism may not be true, he can still be regarded as the father of public administration as a discipline. Pervious administrative thinkers have written extensively about public administration but yet they cannot be regarded as father because they wrote about public administration as a part of political sciences whereas public administration got the status of an independent discipline only after the publication of Wilsons article.

Also, It is wrong to say that Wilson only raised questions and did not provide answers and undermine his contribution. By raising important questions about the nature of the discipline he provided an opportunity for later administrative thinkers to come up with solutions. For example – Bureaucratic theory of organisation by Weber is inspired from political – administrative dichotomy, SMT by Taylor has efficiency and economy like a business in it’s core, comparative approach inspired Fred Riggs and other comparative thinkers.

There is no inconsistency in Wilsons theory because politics and administration should be separated to make administration more efficient but at the same time there should be proper co-ordination between political executive and bureaucracy for successful implementation of policies


The publication of Woodrow Wilson marks the birth of public administration as a self conscious enquiry. Through his essay, Wilson successfully sought the establishment if public administration as a recognised field of study. Doctrine after doctrine, which public administration has accepted as valid, was clearly enunciated by Wilson in his essay. So, he is truly and rightly the father of Public Administration.