How Did Politics and Public Administration End Up at the COVID-19 Dinner Table?


I recently presented at the NECoPA Virtual Conference on Friday November 6, 2020.  I presented the topic How Did Politics and Public Administration End Up At The COVID-19 Dinner Table?  23 total attendees heard the lecture followed by several follow-up questions.


President Woodrow Wilson stated the field of public administration is a field of business. Essentially, he legitimized the concept of separating politics from the administration.  Leonard White then writes about the conventional wisdom of administrative theory.  He summarizes that politics and administration were separate and management could be studied scientifically to discover the best methods of operation. Public administration was capable of becoming a value-free science and politically neutral administration should be focused exclusively on attainment of economy and efficiency in government.

Slide 1

The focus on my presentation is to briefly discuss a pathway public administration has taken and how it is affecting our COVID-19 discussions today.  I believe a great deal of us have substantial knowledge in how to deal with the pandemic. Yet, when it comes to implementation, that pesky thing we call politics plays a significant role in how public administrators help manage the crisis. The pandemic has spearheaded our philosophies into a new stratosphere by allowing for political intervention into a public health crisis.

Peter Melan - Municipal Consultant Slide 1

Slide 2

I don’t think president Wilson could ever envision his theories having relevance 133 years after publishing his study of administration in 1882.  Obviously, no one predicted the current situation. Yet, we seem to ignore the basic foundations set forth by his teachings.  The concept of public administration is devoid of politics, or so we thought given our current circumstance. The government should be efficient without political interruption for continuous operation. I tend to question how, in light of this concept, the discipline has become polarized given the nature of politics. The landscape between the two eras draws no comparison however as administrators, we seem to be less cognizant of the true independence we hold sacred.

Peter Melan - Municipal Consultant Slide 2

Slide 3

In my first graduate class, I learned a great deal of information about the foundations of public administration. Theories discussed and applied to the practice make sense and without political interference.  When I read about David Rosenbloom, I wrote about the three distinctive approaches to public administrative theory; managerial, political and legal.

Each have their own unique involvement in practical terms with varying degrees of effectiveness.  I am not diving into partisan politics, as the country witnesses on a daily basis. However, we see how decisions being made with respect to COVID maintain their own balancing act of which approach administrators take to manage the pandemic. An important statement from an essay by Rosenbloom  resonates in some of the current decisions I see being made on a daily basis.

The political approach to public administration stresses the values of representativeness, political responsiveness and accountability through elected officials to the citizenry.  With managerial approach as the primary motivator behind public administration, it is no surprise that the political approach is directly affected. And as we have seen in this past election cycle, they convey the image of polarizing weapon in races. This is regardless of their level in government.

Peter Melan - Municipal Consultant Slide 3

Slide 4

When discussing COVID, we cannot dismiss the realities of how politics played an important role in any decisions made by public administrators.  We all know that given the tumultuous climate since the pandemic first began, administrators faced uncharted territory.  Without any consistent message, it creates a murky situation. Also, it complicates decisions that many rely on for planning, executing, and managing.

If you allow the administrator to perform their duties separate from political intervention, which I understand is more theoretical than practical, the validity of data and decisions become verifiable.  Transparency also becomes a problem when the information disseminated from let’s just say a state agency is questionable. This is true given the fact a person lost their job as a result of ignoring requests to adjust the data.

Regardless of how one perceives truth versus fiction, we can ascertain one thing. A Florida department of health data scientist is no longer employed due to her refusal to adjust positive rates to expedite reopening the state.  Obviously, this information is from news sites. Thus, I have no way of independently verifying the information regarding the reasons why this employee was removed from her position. But it does present a challenge to the overall transparency of information and data reported on a state website.

Peter Melan - Municipal Consultant Slide 4

Slide 5

As public administrators, we should really focus on the managerial and legal aspect of our decisions.  Although, I think we can an all agree that politics play a significant role in our lives. And I am fully aware that ultimately, we are responsible for implementing decisions based on political ideologies. I wish we were in a room, so I could be able to see everyone do a hard eye roll or sigh when I made that statement. Trust me, in my alternate universe as an elected official, I see the other side of how politics plays a significant role in the city administrator’s decisions. And frankly, it’s frightening and disheartening.

The public looks at us for guidance.  We are the ones who are tasked with doing the work of our elected officials. And sometimes it worsens based on the party of a governor or mayor, which is obscenely irresponsible but that is just my own opinion.  The decisions we make at a local or county level rely on the expertise by administrators. They, in turn, receive their information from state or federal sources.  When we are providing bad information to the public, our authority becomes suspect. Therefore, chaos ensues with respect to implementing say a state guideline on allowing bars to open past 11pm where information is conflicting.  People need to rely on us for accurate information that is not only reliable but clear and concise.

Facing the Challenge

I think the biggest challenge we face as public administrators is the appearance of independence.  Let us refer to President Wilson and his theory that the practice of public administration is a business and is separate from politics. Thus, we could simply move on and perform our duties in a respectable manner.  Theory is different than reality and I can only hope that we are all in agreement on this fact.  It is easier to portray independence when the message is clear and concise across all levels of government.

Independence becomes problematic when officials make decisions that are suspect and require administrators to implement those decisions. As an example, let’s just mention Florida again. Specifically, let’s mention how the data scientist lost her job. The reason for it – refusing adjusting numbers to adjust the positive rate of COVID.  Public administrators in those types of positions do not maintain any sense of independence. Frankly, they don’t understand the consequences of being anything other than truthful with public data. Additionally, the public relies on that data to make their own informed decisions based on what they perceive to be independent and verifiable information.

Peter Melan - Municipal Consultant Slide 5

Slide 6

Therefore, public administration has to implement solutions that are challenging, to say the least.  If we look back at Woodrow Wilson and what he taught us, there should be little question as to our decisions and their separation from political influence. When I read about Rosenbloom in grad school, I had a completely different perspective on the field. He explained how the three administrative theories played a significant role and how we are governed by external and uncontrollable ideologies.

I wish we were able to remove politics from how we decide and implement solutions. Yet, I know for a fact that is impossible.  Looking at the managerial and legal approach as discussed by Rosenbloom, I view these two approaches as a foundation for how we perform.  There is no question to it. Political ideologies are in the back of our minds when we are contemplating a new policy to help cope with COVID.


Ultimately, any decisions will affect elected officials. Therefore, there must be careful consideration to both implementation and conveying the message. And I hope we all agree it is clear and concise. I cannot imagine a scenario where public administration will do something that jeopardizes both its reputation and jobs, as well as the lives of its elected board.  We must regain the trust of the public regardless of the consequences. This is how we maintain transparency and the reliance on accurate information, which is critical to our success.

Peter Melan - Municipal Consultant Slide 6

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