Five Key Figures in the History of Public Administration

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Public administration in the United States has undergone many changes over the years and decades as a result of fluctuations in economic and social conditions. Many individuals who were placed in charge of public administration revolutionized it and left their mark for generations to come. Let’s take a look at five key figures who did just that.

President Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson remains the only president to hold a PhD. His training in the study of politics and history enabled him to publish many different essays in Political Science Quarterly, including one called, “The Study of Administration,” which is regarded as his most important work.

In that essay, he laid out his belief in a bureaucracy composed of skilled workers chosen based on their merit. Before this idea, workers in the U.S. government’s administration were hired through a system that often valued their loyalty to a political party. When president Wilson instituted his ‘merit-based’ system of hiring, it represented a sea change to national public administration that helped the U.S. bureaucracy became more efficient.

Also in the essay, “The Study of Administration,” Wilson developed the idea that politicians should create policy, while administrators should help them implement, regardless of party affiliation. This theory is known as the policy/administration dichotomy. This idea from Wilson, along with his belief that the nation’s administration should run like a business, dramatically changed the way government functioned during his presidency and beyond.

Fredrick Taylor

Fredrick Taylor is the, “father of the theory of scientific management.” Taylor was trained as an engineer, and was the author of many industrial innovations that changed the face of industry. He saw that the workings of government could be improved by analyzing it through an industrial lens.

In The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor writes that the “principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee.” To achieve this, he thought each government employee should work as quickly and efficiently as possible, based on his claim that “maximum prosperity can exist only as the result of the determined effort of each workman to turn out each day his largest possible day’s work.”

Mary Parker Follett

Mary Parker Follett was one of the first thinkers to use the principles of social science and psychology to study industrial organization. Her focus was on the dynamics of human relations within industrial groups.

She was a brilliant scholar born to an affluent family in Massachusetts. Instead of choosing academia as her profession, she became a social worker. Her passion involved community-building initiatives. One of the practical outcomes of her work was to enable school buildings in Massachusetts to be used as community recreation and education centers during ‘off’ school hours. This model was eventually adopted in many other cities.

Follett believed in four fundamental principles of organization:

1. She saw coordination as the “Reciprocal Relating” of all elements of a situation;
2. She believed in the direct communication between all people involved in an organization, irrespective of their hierarchical position;
3. She advocated for the principle of maximum coordination in the principal stages of creating a project or policy, and;
4. She asserted that coordination is a continual process that should be kept running at all times.

Douglas McGregor

Douglas McGregor was important in the postwar research and practice of organization. His book The Human Side of Enterprise, published in 1960, applied a perspective of behavioral psychology to the theories of organization.

His main theory was that the assumptions managers make determine their own effectiveness, and they needed to believe in the capability of workers to engage effectively in work. He asserted that neither positive nor negative reinforcement were necessary, but that workers have the intrinsic motivation, potential, and capabilities required to work well. As he wrote, “Management does not put them there.”

Robert C. Weaver

Robert Clifton Weaver was the first black presidential cabinet officer. He served under President Lyndon B. Johnson as the first Secretary of the Department of Housing, making him a notable figure in our nation’s history.

Aside from his presidential cabinet position, Weaver made important contributions to the practice of public administration. He was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “black cabinet,” a group of black administrators that specialized in matters of housing, education, and employment. He was later chosen by President Kennedy to be an advisor on civil rights. Kennedy then appointed him administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency.

Robert C. Weaver took a more holistic approach to administering housing programs. He offered awards for the design of public housing, and increased money for small businesses displaced by urbanization. He revived federal rent subsidies for the elderly, and stressed local initiatives as a way to solve local problems.

Learn More

Our online Master of Public Administration at Ohio University can help you build the skills to address public needs in effective, efficient, and imaginative ways. We want you to take the big ideas in your head and put them into action by helping you develop as a project manager, communicator, policy analyst, and financial mind. When you have an expert understanding of public administration and the professional tools to back it up, you can lead a career of consequence for your constituents.

Recommended Readings

A Day in the Life of a Public Administrator
10 Traits of a Successful Public Administrator