The Relationship between Politics and Administration

by Rikha

I wrote this piece as part of assignment for the class of Public Sector Management. Basically, this paper was a report withdrawn from a series of group discussions of which I was appointed as the convener. In this paper, the idea of separating politics and administration will be briefly discussed as a starting point for the discussion. Then, several key issues particularly those which got much attention from the participants will be thoroughly reviewed before the conclusions. The discussion went on a comparative manner of three countries represented by the participants, i.e. Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Lesotho.

The main argument of Wilson’s article (1887) is in favour of the separation between politics and administration. The underlying logic of Wilson’s argument is that the former ‘spoils system’ in government at that time (under Jackson’s presidency) was a result of a mixture between politics and administration[1]. By separating the two through applying a merit system in the bureaucracy would prevent the ‘spoils system’ to happen as well as promoting professionalism in administration. Rohr’s article (1989) revisits the issue of this separation between politics and administration by exploring the arguments from those who are both for separation (reform) and against it. Although he acknowledges the reformist’s arguments that the separation between politics and administration would not eliminate democratic characteristic of government, Rohr argues that the dichotomy of politics and administration is inadequate as politics and bureaucracy are mutual.

Articles from Gordon (1992) and Mulgan (1998) provide an analysis of the relationship between politics and public service in the US and Australia. Gordon shows that public administration in America is relatively more politicized and the bureaucracy has their own bureaucratic power and interest to engage into political arena. Meanwhile Mulgan points out that Australia’s public service is less politicized but it shows a growing pattern of being politicized. The U.S. and Australian cases are likely to confirm the argument put forward by Hughes (2003, p. 25) that it was only in parliamentary system the principle of separation between politics and administration has possibility to be implemented.

During the discussion, there were three main issues discussed. The first was a debate about whether it is possible to separate administration from politics. In general, all participants tend to agree with Rohr’s argument that politics and administration should be linked and it is unwise to dichotomize them. Administration, however, should be kept neutral and professional as intended by Wilson. Although the discussion did not discuss in detail about how exactly the ideal relationship between minister (referring to politics) and officials (referring administration), all participants tend to agree that professionalism on both sides would make the relation between the two becomes mutually exclusive and harmony. What is considered as professionalism here is not only an understanding about a broad issue but also, to some degree, having technical skill of certain area of public policy.

Some experiences from participant countries were shared during the discussion regarding the relationship between politics and administration. In Indonesian, public administration, to some extent, shows similar pattern to the U.S. model which is fairly politicized. Many top-level officers such as general secretary or general director positions often associate with certain political party, usually the minister’s party. Bangladesh and Lesotho are also experiencing a similar situation where senior appointments are often interfered by political issues (politicization). It seems that neutrality of bureaucracy is still a big issue in these countries that somehow contributes to the difficulty of making bureaucracy accountable.

The second issue that got much attention is about the accountability of bureaucratic organizations. As Gordon (1992) points out, bureaucracy has inherent power mainly in the form of expertise and programmatic responsibilities. As required in democratic systems, every exercise of power call for accountability, and so does bureaucratic power. The crucial issue is to whom bureaucracies must be made accountable. All participants tend to agree that bureaucracies must be responsible to ministers for two reasons. First, bureaucracy is a professional organization run based on merit system. This means that bureaucracies should be evaluated based on its performance in accomplishing the tasks given by ministers. Second, the ministers then will be politically responsible to the public directly through mass media and elections, and to the parliament or the president as representative of the public. This mechanism will keep bureaucratic organizations under democratic control but still in a neutral and professional fashion. In addition, the Bangladesh experience demonstrates that it is impossible to make bureaucracies accountable without the existence of an independent anti-corruption body.

As ministers are politicians, the issue of bureaucratic accountability has led to the third issu about politicians’ control over bureaucracies. Has the power of politicians over bureaucracies increased or decreased in your agency, sector or country? Why? In Indonesia after democratization in 1998, the House of Representatives has become much more powerful over the bureaucracies. Since then, bureaucracies must be accountable not only to the President (through the ministers) but also to politicians in the House of Representatives. However, since bureaucracies have to be accountable both to the President and the House of Representatives, this situation sometimes leaves the bureaucracy in the middle of a ‘war’ if there is conflicting policy between the two. Unlike Indonesia, politicians’ control over the bureaucracy in Lesotho has been steady and strong. This is because bureaucrats are always responsible to the government of the day. Bureaucrats are also officially not permitted to participate in party politics or show allegiance to any political party.

In sum, the discussion has brought enrichment about the views of the relationship between politics and administration. Strong and steady politician power over bureaucracy is needed to ensure bureaucracy under democratic control. This power does not necessarily mean that the bureaucracy can or should be politicized. However, it should be kept politically neutral in accomplishing its tasks. The relationship between the two would be more harmonized if both sides have the same level of expertise on public policy issues.


Gordon, G 1992, Public Administration in America, St. Martin’s Press, New York.

Hughes, O 2003, ‘The traditional model of public administration’, in Public Management and Administration, Palgrave, London.

Mulgan, R 1998, ‘Politicisation of senior appointments in the Australian public service’, Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 57, no. 3, pp. 3-14.

Rohr, JA 1989, Ethics for Bureaucrats: An Essay on Law and Values, Marcel Dekker, New York. Wilson, W 1887, ‘The study of public administration’ in Shafritz, JM and Hyde, AC (eds.), Classic of Public Administration, Brooks/Cole, California.

[1] At that time, every new president was always followed by major changes of bureaucracy.  

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