The Suspect Handmaiden: The Evolution of Politics and Administration in the American State


Donald P. Moynihan is an associate professor in the La Follette School of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin– Madison. His research examines the application of organization theory to public management issues such as administrative reform, performance management, and employee behavior. His book The Dynamics of Performance Management won the best book award from the Public and Nonprofit Division of the Academy of Management in 2009.

Patricia W. Ingraham is the founding dean of the College of Community and Public Affairs at Binghamton University. Her research interests focus on organizational change and reform and on human resource management issues. Her most recent book is Comparative Administrative Change and Reform: Lessons Learned (with Jon Pierre, McGill Queens University Press, 2010).


Scholars of an earlier era predicted a more secure role for the administrative state in American political culture. This vision overlooked a historical irony that governs the relationship between politics and administration. For American society, the administrative state is a suspect handmaiden. Citizens have looked to public administration to enable extraordinary growth while simultaneously distrusting it. In recent decades, these contradictory trends have grown. The growth of the state, increased polarization, and political attacks on government have produced a set of values, perspectives, and capabilities that often do not mesh with one another or with many governmental activities. As a result, we find outdated mechanisms of accountability, politicization, and a broader illegitimacy that threatens the capacity of the state to act effectively.

Guest editors’ note: In 1942, the University of Chicago Press published a book edited by Leonard D. White titled The Future of Government in the United States. Each chapter in the book presents predictions concerning the future of U.S. public administration. In this article, Donald P. Moynihan and Patricia W. Ingraham examine the predictions of V. O. Key in his famous essay on politics and administration published in that book, comment on whether Key’s predictions were correct, and look to the future to examine public administration in 2020.