Apolitical public administration | Sunday Observer

Apolitical public administration

5 December, 2021

“The administration must be at all points sensitive to public opinion. A body of thoroughly trained officials serving during good behavior we must have in any case: that is a plain business necessity.

Bureaucracy can exist only where the whole service of the state is removed from the common political life of the people, its chiefs as well as its rank and file. Its motives, objects, policy and its standards, must be bureaucratic.” - Woodrow Wilson

“It is getting to be harder to run a Constitution than to frame one”: said Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States in his academic essay published in 1887.

Johns Hopkins

Wilson, an academic and a university administrator had completed his bachelor’s degree at Princeton, a law degree at the University of Virginia and a PhD in Political Science at Johns Hopkins before he became the President of the Princeton University in 1902. He went on to become the governor of New Jersey for a two-year term before becoming the President of the country in 1913. He was one of the few politicians who studied the type of relationship the Government should have with the public administration extensively and championed the concept of “apolitical public administration”.

One of the main causes for a democratically elected Government to lose the support of the very same people who brought them into power is an inefficient administration.

When people start making statements such as: “I don’t think politicians or the public officials care what people like me think”, “Voting is the only way that people like me can have a say about how the Government runs things” or “It is hard to figure out who the politician is and who the official is”, then the Governments as well as the public officials should be smart enough to pick the signal and start the self-evaluation process right away.


There can be all types of different reasons for people to make such statements. For example, a statement like “I don’t think politicians, or the public officials care what people like me think” could as much be a statement about the way public officials deal with the people’s opinions and requests, as it is a statement about the individual’s capacity to make him/herself heard. However, if and when the number of people making such statements is increasing, unless their perceptions of government structures and officials are completely random, there must be some degree of association between the reality of governmental performance and how people evaluate the responsiveness of their Government.

Public administration is responsible for providing public goods and services to the citizens without any discrimination based on race, religion, sex, caste, education, and affordability. Therefore, performance of public administration should not be limited merely to a cost benefit analysis. Some of the benefits intended by the decisions made by public administration may only be noticed after several years. For example, a program of educational reform might show its impact perhaps through the next generation.


Therefore, a common definition of efficiency such as ‘the ratio of output to input’ wouldn’t fit in well with the public administration. Any measure of efficiency of public administration should include values, inspirations, and human perceptions along with traditional cost-benefit analyses. However, as with any other organisation evaluating its performance is vital for public administration too. As the management guru Peter Drucker has said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”. It is fairly straightforward for business organisations to measure performance since the main criterion is maximising profit.

Though a major part of the input in public administration can also take monetary form, the outputs, quite often, are not readily measurable in monetary terms. Therefore, the concept of efficiency in the world of public administration is more complicated than exploring tangible outcomes within a relatively short period of time.

Given the fact that public officials have to work within the existing political framework, it is very clear then for a country to improve the intentions of the political establishment and the public administration have to be on parallel paths. Public organisations should be equitable, efficient, and economical. Equitability would address the qualities such as fairness, justice and equality while being efficient and economical the best or the most preferred plans are executed spending the least possible amount of public funds.

The conflict arises when the politician’s intention is to do the most marketable project (not necessarily useful or needed) to secure his win in the next election spending the most amount of money possible so that he and his strategic partners can siphon the biggest chunk of money from that, and the public official’s intention is to execute the most preferred plan using the least amount of public funds.


Honest and capable public officials who fail to execute such plans submitted by the politician will soon be replaced by a person who is willing to be a puppet of the politician.

Such politicians have found even more efficient ways of making sure that they will have a public administration consisting of such puppets by recruiting so called professionals who are their party loyalists into so called ‘think tanks’ of the party.

People who answer such calls also know that it is the first step in achieving their goal of landing a high-ranking position in the public administration which will provide opportunities for them to become rich if they participate in the puppeteering act to best of their abilities.

What they do not realise is that the rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility, a word that is not even heard by such puppets.

Peter Drucker is also credited with the statement: “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”.

Within the dichotomy of the politics-administration, the politician; the leader, should have the intention of doing the right thing and administrator; the manager, should have the intention and the capabilities of doing it right. Woodrow Wilson said that elected officials should provide political guidance through policy leadership, linking with citizens, and legislative oversight linking with public administrators.


Public administration’s primary responsibility is to enable public policies into concrete implementation in conformity with legislative intentions and instructions. An overarching goal of public administration could be to provide neutral and competent policy advice to elected officials. Public administration should be able to do the work of Government efficiently according to explicit objective standards rather than to personal, party, or other obligations and loyalties. The defining feature of public administration should be ‘neutral competence’.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]