Essay by Woodrow Wilson on Science of Administration

Essay by Woodrow Wilson on Science of Administration
Essay by Woodrow Wilson on Science of Administration

An essay by Woodrow Wilson on Science of Administration published in 1887 is considered to be the symbolic harbinger of fairly autonomous inquiry. To quote Wilson’s memorable comment:

“There should be a science of administration which shall seek to straighten the paths of government, to make its business less business like, to strengthen and purify its organization and to crown its duties with dutifulness.”

Woodrow Wilson’s contribution to public and science of administration can be seen from four interlinked indicators:

(i) Advocacy of a ‘science of administration’;

(ii) Emphasis on the special nature of administration distinguishing administration from politics;

(iii) Apparent predilection for private or business administration;

(iv) Prompt initiative for comparative study of administration.

Wilson’s 1887 article on ‘The Science of Administration’, which is regarded as the foundation essay for the field, was written at a time (in the late nineteenth century) when the topic of public administration was established as a profession and an academic study. The crying need was to eliminate corruption, improve efficiency and streamline service delivery system in pursuit of public interest.

In the 1880s reformers reacted sharply against abuses at all levels: the city, state and national governments. One of the voices of reform was Woodrow Wilson. A lawyer trained at the University of Virginia, he went on to study political economy at Johns Hopkins University. His interest was simply designing governments and policies. Wilson accordingly, shifted his focus from Great Britain to Germany, particularly Prussia, to learn from the German ethos – one of the leading centers of public administrative development.


Wilson’s advocacy that “there should be a science of administration” has to be seen in the historical context. Writing against the background of widespread corruption, ‘science’ meant to Wilson a systematic and disciplined body of knowledge which he thought would be the latest fruit of the science of politics. Also he was critical of the fact that the American administrative practice was devoid of any scientific method. By contrast, he thought administrative science was well developed in Europe in the hands of the French and German academics. European governments, in his view, were independent of popular assent. There were more “governments” in those countries and a natural desire to discover newer principles of administration.

An important reason for the slow growth of the science of administration in America was, in Wilson’s view, the reigning concept of popular sovereignty – “the multitudinous voice called public opinion”. More important than the arid debate on constitutional principles was the need for the systematic analysis of administration leading to the development of a ‘science of administration’. Hence, Wilson wrote: “It is setting harder to run a constitution than to write one.” In his view, the real challenge was not simply how authority would be defined but how it was to be actually used on regular basis by those administrators who must operate the ongoing functions of government and implement new policies.



About Sneha Sharma 26 Articles
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