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From Maxwell Perspective...

Putting the Purpose in P.A.

Dwight Waldo’s death last fall prompted a reappreciation of the man’s impact on his profession. His calm but persistent suggestion that public administration is something more than a job ultimately won out.

By George Lowery

The country was on the brink of World War II, and there were no teaching jobs to be found, even for the holder of a Yale Ph.D. in political science. So he shelved his academic career temporarily, looking instead for work in Washington, the heart of American bureaucracy.

At first, the Civil Service Commission rejected him. A clerk determined that, his scholarly credentials in political science notwithstanding, he lacked traditional public administration courses. But he found work in the Office of Price Administration. Dwight Waldo would joke that he was the nation’s “funeral czar.” During an era of pervasive government price controls, the unintended bureaucrat found himself haunting casket companies and funeral homes and setting national funeral prices. Later, he would join the Bureau of the Budget, executive office of the president, as an administrative analyst.

Dwight Waldo imageThese four years in the trenches armed Dwight Waldo with insight about how public administration is performed. (Years later, when accused of being strictly a theorist, Waldo would invoke his funeral-czar experience: “You can hardly get more down to earth than that.”)

Soon he landed the faculty appointment that wartime had delayed, joining the University of California, Berkeley, as an assistant professor of political science. There he would rework his dissertation, incorporating the lessons of his brief bureaucratic career. It was published in 1948 as The Administrative State: A Study of the Political Theory of American Public Administration. Waldo’s book drew on the history of philosophy and challenged the then-popular notion that public administration is value-neutral and ought to be performed in a dispassionate, scientific, almost mechanical manner. In its assertion that public administration is, in essence, a higher calling, intricately serving democratic ideals, The Administrative State set a new tone and became a seminal work.

“Waldo focused his at­tention on public administration as a subfield of political science,” says former Waldo colleague H. George Frederickson, the Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at the University of Kansas, “and challenged some of the basic assumptions of the first 50 years of the field—particularly the assumption that public administration is the neutral and objective management of state affairs.”

Waldo was soon a central figure in an ongoing debate about political-versus-“scientific” administration. In 1968, as a faculty member at the Maxwell School, he would host a conference of young, progressive scholars hellbent on revolutionizing the field; even today, reference to the conference’s location, Minnowbrook, is shorthand for an entire school of thought.

Dwight Waldo died last October, at the age of 87. Since then, in the P.A. journals and elsewhere, colleagues and students of Waldo have memorialized his influence. He was a brilliant man and an unforgettable teacher. His fertile mind perfectly suited his eventual role. Public administration draws from political science, economics, the law, sociology, and other disciplines, and Waldo was at home in all of them.

“Maxwell is a school of social science, and Dwight represented the philosophy of thinking in broad cross-disciplinary terms,” says Ken Meier ’74 M.A. (P.A.)/’75 Ph.D. (Arts and Sciences), the Charles Puryear Professor in Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University. “The Maxwell idea is what Dwight stood for.”

But Dwight Waldo was more than a great thinker. He was a visionary. His determination to infuse public administration with democratic ideals and passion helped prepare the public sector for an increasingly complex model of how a citizenry depends on its government—a model we now take for granted.

Because of its polymorphous nature, no individual scholar can be said to be the “father” of public administration, but densely woven into the contemporary field’s DNA are innumerable strands of Waldonian paternity.

“He, far more than anyone in his generation, caused everyone in public administration to think more deeply about issues of democracy and bureaucracy. ” says Frederickson. “Contemporary government re­forms are still attempting to reconcile the challenges of effective public administration in the context of democratic self-government.”

“Public administration focuses upon the core of modern government,” Waldo would later write in Maxwell News and Notes. “It does this full time, unabashedly, with energy and dedication. It represents the polity and speaks for the res publica in an area and in a way no contender does. . . . It is at the center of an attempt to create a livable future.”

“Dwight represented the philosophy of thinking in broad cross-disciplinary terms. The Maxwell idea is what Dwight stood for.”

Waldo’s influence began with the basic assertion that the scientific method failed to reconcile administration with democratic values. Orthodox thought held that public managers should strive for a European ideal of detached, “scientific” administration, in which policies were to be implemented if not blindly, then without much thoughtful reflection. Waldo would argue that public servants should become active, informed, politically savvy agents of change, whose mission is to improve the human condition and strengthen democracy.

In The Administrative State, and throughout his career, he advanced four central ideas:

• First, there is an intrinsic tension be­tween democracy and bureaucracy that obliges career public servants to protect democratic principles.

• Second, the politics/administration dichotomy is false. Public servants hold political positions that require more than merely implementing policy set by elected officials.

• Third, public servants must negotiate efficiencies demanded by the scientific management movement with due process and public access to government.

• Finally, government cannot be run like a business. Honoring the Constitution and other democratic imperatives make managing a unit of the government far more challenging than a comparable private-sector organization.

Waldo also recognized that government managers, in effect, set policies of their own. “Waldo held that public servants are not robots or automatons who blindly implement policy,” says Rosemary O’Leary ’88 Ph.D. (P.A.), professor of public administration at the Maxwell School. “He advocated that government managers exercise thoughtfulness and deliberation, and think about their work in the context of our constitutional democracy.”

“This was a direct challenge to the logic of the politics/administration dichotomy,” Frederickson adds. “Waldo argued that politics and administration cannot be so easily unbundled, and that embedded in most administrative policies, procedures, and actions were political assumptions and preferences.

“He particularly challenged the logical positivist idea that facts and values can be clearly and cleanly distinguished. Because much of the scientific study of politics and political institutions was then being built on the logical positivist assumption, this was a considerable challenge to what became the dominant perspective (and still is) in political science.”

The Administrative State “was the core book, the opening salvo,” says Louis C. Gawthrop, professor of government and public administration at the University of Baltimore. “Dwight looked beyond the strict politics/administration dichotomy to recognize the unwritten aspect of public administration: You had to be a pragmatist. You had to play the political game to get things done. Public administration is hooked on the political system.”

Like any saga, Dwight Waldo’s story plays out in small details over years and decades, but is remembered by a few key events. In 1952, Waldo and Herbert A. Simon, author of the highly influential 1947 book, Administrative Behavior, clashed famously over scientific administration’s insistence on separating values from facts. The ex­change continued in the pages of the American Political Science Review. Both men rejected “classical” P.A., but from different perspectives.

The logical positivist Simon, who would win the Nobel Prize for economics in 1978, insisted that achieving maximum efficiency was possible only when facts, minus values, were involved. Among other things, Waldo argued that values are always involved, and public administrators cannot escape making value judgments. Simon accused Waldo of thinking in a “loose, literary, metaphorical style” and of “unrigor.” Opinions differ as to who “won” the debate—extended in the early 1970s when Waldo invited Simon to Maxwell to lecture—but the ongoing exchange provided for one of the most exhaustive examinations of modern public administration’s philosophical influences. (Simon, too, recently died, on February 9, 2001.)

Decades later, the Simon debate seems important for clearly delineating the battle lines. With the same ad­vantage of history, the 1968 Minnowbrook Conference signals the rise of the Waldonian perspective.

In September 1968, Waldo joined Maxwell as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Hu­manities, one of 10 New York State-funded “super professorships” that carried with it substantial funds for programming. (“I was a mini-foundation,” he once remarked.)

He used those funds to facilitate a meeting of the best young minds in public administration at Minnowbrook, Syracuse University’s conference center in the Adirondack Mountains. Limiting participation to people under age 35, Waldo had the future in mind. The conference’s goal: to establish new directions for the field in the context of social upheaval. Waldo consistently worked to keep lines of communication open, even among people with whom he disagreed. The assembled scholars and practitioners would attempt to reconcile public administration’s role with a society in chaos.

George Frederickson helped to organize the Minnowbrook conference. “Waldo essentially delegated everything to his junior colleagues,” he says. “He delighted in referring to himself as a ‘Minnowbrook voyeur.’ He wondered aloud whether there was anything to the ’60s fuss being made by young radicals and asked his young and sometimes radical colleagues to get together and try to make some sense out of their fuss.” (In an August 1968 memo to Maxwell faculty members, Waldo quipped, “Personally, I plan to live at nearby Hemlock Hall and come over for the working sessions as an auditor and observer.”)

Confident that the best ideas will out, and mindful that the theories of earlier generations had not served his generation well, Waldo greeted anti-establishment, anti-institutional sentiments with respect. The participants’ views were diverse, but many of those attending responded to the peace movement, student activism, the war on poverty, emerging counterculture, and diminishing respect for government of the times by advocating a new, activist public administration that embraced social equity and the people it served.

“Minnowbrook took a very clear direction that public administration would not be dichotomized,” says Louis Gawthrop. “The profession took a strong stand on humanistic administration by committing to make administration focus on serving the public. That meant literally getting into the streets and taking an active role. To suggest administrators were to become change agents was anathema to a lot of people. Minnowbrook enunciated and made explicit that public administrators should take an active role. These ideas scared some people, who tried to discredit them. Frankly, some of those people were put out that they hadn’t been invited to attend.”

Minnowbrook marked the beginning of the “New Public Administration.” The papers delivered expressed a variety of views. Some advocated confrontational decision-making. The need for “relevant” administration was a common theme. Ideas emerging from Minnowbrook were widely disseminated through conferences, workshops, retreats, articles, and books. Conference proceedings ap­peared as Toward a New Public Administration: The Minnowbrook Perspective in 1971.

Public administration began to emerge from its time of turmoil. In the Theory and Practice of Public Administration (1968), Waldo urged that the field regard itself as a profession that applied specialized knowledge to solve real problems in public administration. One year later Waldo again brought together young members of the field at the 1969 American Political Science Association convention. Papers collected from panels there, along with an essay of Waldo’s, were published as Public Administration in a Time of Turbulence (1971). The book advanced the “Minnowbrook idea,” albeit in a less shrill way, as its authors argued for greater decentralization and heightened public participation in government.

Throughout this pivotal period, Waldo served also as editor-in-chief of the Public Administration Review (from 1966 to 1977), and it is here that his influence was most pervasive. The disputes dividing American society extended to squabbles between academics and practitioners, and PAR’s scholarly content had suffered. As editor, Waldo redefined public administration as an autonomous field that merged academics and practice. His influence grew through his editorship, during which he elevated the discussion and demanded greater depth of analysis.

Louis Gawthrop succeeded Waldo as PAR editor in 1978. “Public administration is a unique field,” he explains. “We’re a mixed bag of political science, economics, and other fields, all of which are welcomed into the American Society of Public Administration. In his editorship and his scholarship, Waldo tried to bring it all together. He will be remembered for that peaceful coexistence.”

David Rosenbloom, distinguished professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University, edited PAR from 1991 to 1996. “Journal editors are usually viewed as gatekeepers,” he says. “Dwight was a ‘doorman’—he opened doors to new perspectives and researchers. He broadened the scope and range of materials published in Public Administration Review, and increased its readership as well. Several of the symposium issues published during his editorship retain their value as classic contributions to the field.

“He clearly raised PAR’s level and made it more exciting. He established much of the field’s intellectual agenda for more than a generation. . . . Dwight’s mission was to make the mainstream public administration community recognize the centrality of public administration’s political dimension. His editorship advanced that mission substantially and successfully."

Clifford Dwight Waldo traveled a long and unusual road to reach the apogee of public administration, and never was an insurgency led by such a temperate man. Raised on a hog farm in tiny DeWitt, Nebraska, Waldo throughout his life retained a Midwestern reserve that was lightened by his wry sense of humor. Job shortages during the Depression thwarted his early ambition to become an English teacher, and after finishing his master’s degree in political science at the University of Nebraska in 1937, Waldo won a scholarship to Yale. As noted, World War II also interrupted his track to a faculty post, but in 1946 Waldo joined Berkeley.

In 1959, after a year as a technical assistance advisor at the University of Bologna, Waldo became acting director of Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, which advised state and local governments

“When I was hired to come to Berkeley, I presumed I would be teaching political theory,” he once wrote, “which had been my area of concentration in graduate school. But postwar there was a flood of students and a shortage of teachers . . . . The result was that I taught in every division of the political science curriculum except political theory.

“I moved, by a series of accidents, into the field of public administration. My dissertation was a study of the political theory of the American literature of public administration. . . . So I came to regard public administration as my proper field. No regrets—I doubt I should have had anything new to say about Aristotle or Hobbes, and I found public administration challenging and rewarding.”

“Dwight was a theorist who thought of himself as more of a humanist than a social scientist teaching in a professional program,” says Ken Meier.

Berkeley was ground zero for the radical changes that shook American society and its institutions. From his office window Waldo could watch the birth of the free speech movement in 1964, large-scale student protests, and mass arrests. Seething tension was not the ideal setting for the highly purposeful Dwight Waldo.

George Frederickson characterizes his personal style: “Waldo was very deliberate and very organized. He was calm and scholarly in manner and style. Small talk was okay, but big talk seemed more interesting to him—the big ideas, the big problems. He would get most animated in such discussions. He could be very funny in a wry way. There was also a bit of Nebraska farm humor that would come through.”

Acrimony marched still closer when public administration faculty attempted to split from Berkeley’s political science department, which refused to house “voca­tional” training. Waldo resigned and received 14 offers of employment within two months.

Attracting public administration’s leading philosopher-historian-theoretician to Syracuse was a coup for the Maxwell School. In the dozen years he spent at Maxwell, Waldo used his Schweitzer funding to sponsor key events in public administration history and continued his influential writing, editing, teaching, and advising.

Early in his tenure at Syracuse, Waldo told the Daily Orange, “I take as working hypothesis and motivating idea that what we shall be able to achieve in the enterprise we call civilization is going to depend on increased understanding of formal organizations and, through increased understanding, increasing mastery.”

“When I came to Syracuse it was at the height of the disturbances of the 1960s, and this was a much disturbed place,” Waldo said at his retirement from the Maxwell School. “Yet it was a more civilized place than Berkeley. People could disagree about important things here without being enemies. I welcomed that change of climate.” Syracuse was “the right choice.”

Waldo made a lifelong impact on his students, many of whom are the leaders of today’s public administration. Ken Meier remembers, “Dwight’s philosophy of teaching was to challenge how you thought rather than what you thought. The idea was to consider ideas from other approaches, other countries, other disciplines, and build those ideas into how you assessed a problem. Dwight believed in teaching you how to think but believed that every student had to come up with his or her own answers. So this means that there is not a ‘Waldo student’ who resembles every other student of Dwight’s, but rather Waldo students are an extremely diverse group.”

Preparing for retirement, Waldo quipped, “It’s surprising how many people can get along without my advice.” In truth, he had achieved unrivaled eminence in the field of public administration and left a sweeping legacy. As Maxwell’s Rosemary O’Leary notes, “He’s become a god. It’s sort of like Elvis dying: The King is dead, and there’ll never be anyone else like him.”

In 1988 a second conference was held at Minnowbrook. In the book of essays arising from that meeting, Waldo noted revolt and reconstruction had characterized Minnowbrook I, while ambition and exploration described Minnowbrook II. Has Minnowbrook stood the test of time?

“Certainly the Minnowbrook social equity theme, which very much reflected the ’60s, is now standard fare in public administration,” says George Frederickson. “The ‘democratic administration’ theme in Minnowbrook is also evident in the modern field. Finally, the logic of a responsive, proactive, advocating, and non-neutral form of public administration is now also common. In many ways they all trace to Minnowbrook.”

Today Waldo’s influence on the Maxwell curriculum remains strong. The “Public Administration and Democracy” course required of all M.P.A. students trains them in the Waldo way of thinking about government. “He was a legend before he died in how he treated people and how he was so willing to give of his time,” says Rosemary O’Leary. “I think it’s very rare. He always brought up more ideas than one could possibly think about in one setting. Your brain was always brimming when you left a session with Dwight Waldo.”

Waldo returned to Maxwell in 1996 for a two-day symposium in his honor. Louis Gawthrop toasted him: “The history of public administration in America can certainly be viewed as an ongoing dichotomy between the art of governance and the craft of management. And, in this regard, Dwight Waldo clearly is a master artisan among the figures in the history of Western civilization who have dedicated their lives to the service of democracy. And to what higher calling can we aspire?”

George Lowery is a free-lance writer, specializing in higher education, based in Ithaca, N.Y.
This article appeared in the Spring 2001 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2001 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail