Accepted administrative principles

Among the more common “principles” that occur in the literature of administration are these:

  1. Administrative efficiency is increased by a specialization of the task among the group.
  2. Administrative efficiency is increased by arranging the members of the group in a determinate hierarchy of authority.
  3. Administrative efficiency is increased by limiting the span of control at any point in the hierarchy to a small number.
  4. Administrative efficiency is increased by grouping the workers, for purposes of control, according to (a) purpose, (b) process, (c) clientele, or (d) place. (This is really an elaboration of the first principle, but deserves separate discussion.)

Since these principles appear relatively simple and clear, it would seem that their application to concrete problems of administrative organization would be unambiguous, and that their validity would be easily submitted to empirical test. Such, however, seems not to be the case.

1. Specialization

Administrative efficiency is supposed to increase with an increase in spe- cialization. But is this intended to mean that any increase in specialization will increase efficiency? If so, which of the following alternatives is the correct application of the principle?

  1. A plan of nursing should be put into effect by which nurses will be assigned to districts and do all nursing within that district, including school examinations, visits to homes or school children, and tuberculosis nursing.
  2. A functional plan of nursing should be put into effect by which different nurses will be assigned to school examinations, visits to homes of school children, and tuberculosis nursing. The present method of generalized nursing by districts impedes the development of specialized skills in the three very diverse programs.

Both of these administrative arrangements satisfy the requirement of specialization: the first provides specialization by place; the second, spe- cialization by function. The principle of specialization is of no help at all in choosing between the two alternatives.

It appears that the simplicity of the principle of specialization is a deceptive simplicity—a simplicity that conceals fundamental ambiguities. For “specialization” is not a condition of efficient administration: it is an inevitable characteristic of all group effort, however efficient or inefficient that effort may be. Specialization merely means that different persons are doing different things—and since it is physically impossible for two persons to be doing the same thing in the same place at the same time two persons are always doing different things.

The real problem of administration, then, is not to “specialize,” but to specialize in that particular manner, and along those particular lines,

open its fundamental ambiguity: “Administrative efficiency is increased by a specialization of the task among the group in the direction that will lead to greater efficiency.”

Further discussion of the choice between competing bases of special- ization will be undertaken later, but must be postponed momentarily until two other principles of administration have been examined.

2. Unity of Command

Administrative efficiency is supposed to be enhanced by arranging the members of the organization in a determinate hierarchy of authority in order to preserve “unity of command.”

Analysis of this “principle” requires a clear understanding of what is meant by the term “authority.” A subordinate may be said to accept authority whenever he permits his behavior to be guided by a decision reached by another, irrespective of his own judgment as to the merits of that decision.

In one sense the principle of unity of command, like the principle of specialization, cannot be violated; for it is physically impossible for a man to obey two contradictory commands. Presumably, if unity of command is a principle of administration, it must assert something more than this physical impossibility. Perhaps it asserts this: that it is undesirable to place a member of an organization in a position where he receives orders from more than one superior. This is evidently the meaning that Gulick attaches to the principle when he says:

The significance of this principle in the process of coordination and organization must not be lost sight of. In building a structure of coordi- nation, it is often tempting to set up more than one boss for a man who is doing work which has more than one relationship. Even as great a philosopher of management as Taylor fell into this error in setting up separate foremen to deal with machinery, with materials, with speed, etc., each with the power of giving orders directly to the individual workman. The rigid adherence to the principle of unity of command may have its absurdities; these are, however, unimportant in comparison with the certainty of confusion, inefficiency and irresponsibility which arises from the violation of the principle.2

Certainly the principle of unity of command, thus interpreted, cannot be criticized for any lack of clarity or for ambiguity. The definition of “authority” given above should provide a clear test whether, in any concrete situation, the principle is observed. The real fault that must be found with this principle is that it is incompatible with the principle of specialization. One of the most important uses to which authority is put in organization is to bring about specialization in the work of making decisions, so that each decision is made at the point in the organization where it can be made most expertly. As a result, the use of authority permits a greater degree of expertness to be achieved in decision-making than would be possible if each operative employee had to make all the decisions upon which his activity is predicated. The individual fireman does not decide whether to use a two-inch hose or a fire extinguisher; that is decided for him by his officers, and the decision communicated to him in the form of a command.

However, if unity of command, in Gulick’s sense, is observed, the decisions of a person at any point in the administrative hierarchy are subject to influence through only one channel of authority; and if his decisions are of a kind that requires expertise in more than one field of knowledge, then advisory and informational services must be relied upon to supply those premises which lie in a field not recognized by the mode of specialization in the organization. For example, if an accountant in a school department is subordinate to an educator, and if unity of command is observed, then the finance department cannot issue direct orders to him regarding the technical, accounting aspects of his work. Similarly, the director of motor vehicles in the public works department will be unable to issue direct orders on care of motor equipment to the fire-tmck driver.3

Gulick, in the statement quoted above, clearly indicates the difficulties to be faced if unity of command is not observed. A certain amount of irresponsibility and confusion is almost certain to ensue. But perhaps this is not too great a price to pay for the increased expertise that can be applied to decisions. What is needed to decide the issue is a principle of administration that will enable one to weigh the relative advantages of the two courses of action. But neither the principle of unity of command nor the principle of specialization is helpful in adjudicating the controversy. They merely contradict each other without indicating any procedure for resolving the contradiction.

If this were merely an academic controversy—if it were generally agreed and had been generally demonstrated that unity of command must be preserved in all cases, even with a loss in expertise—one could assert that in case of conflict between the two principles, unity of com-mand should prevail. But the issue is far from clear, and experts can be ranged on both sides of the controversy. On the side of unity of command there may be cited the dicta of Gulick and others.4 On the side of specialization there are Taylor’s theory of functional supervision, Mac- Mahon and Millett’s idea of “dual supervision,” and the practice of technical supervision in military organization.5

It may be, as Gulick asserts, that the notion of Taylor and these others is an “error.” If so, the evidence that it is an error has never been marshaled or published—apart from loose heuristic arguments like that quoted above. One is left with a choice between equally eminent theorists of administration, and without any evidential basis for making that choice.

What evidence there is of actual administrative practice would seem to indicate that the need for specialization is to a very large degree given priority over the need for unity of command. As a matter of fact, it does not go too far to say that unity of command, in Gulick’s sense, never has existed in any administrative organization. If a line officer accepts the regulations of an accounting department with regard to the procedure for making requisitions, can it be said that, in this sphere, he is not subject to the authority of the accounting department? In any actual administrative situation authority is zoned, and to maintain that this zoning does not contradict the principle of unity of command requires a very different definition of “authority” from that used here. This subjection of the line officer to the accounting department is no different, in principle, from Taylor’s recommendation that a workman be subject in the matter of work programming to one foreman, in the matter of machine operation to another.

The principle of unity of command is perhaps more defensible if nar- rowed down to the following: In case two authoritative commands conflict, there should be a single determinate person whom the subordinate is expected to obey; and the sanctions of authority should be applied against the subordinate only to enforce his obedience to that one person.

If the principle of unity of command is more defensible when stated in this limited form it also solves fewer problems. In the first place, it no longer requires, except for settling conflicts of authority, a single hierarchy of authority. Consequently, it leaves unsettled the very important question of how authority should be zoned in a particular organization (i.e. the modes of specialization), and through what channels it should be exercised. Finally, even this narrower concept of unity of command conflicts with the principle of specialization, for whenever disagreement does occur and the organization members revert to the formal lines of authority, then only those types of specialization which are represented in the hierarchy of authority can impress themselves on decision. If the training officer of a city exercises only functional supervision over the police training officer, then in case of disagreement with the police chief specialized knowledge of police problems will determine the outcome while specialized knowledge of training problems will be subordinated or ignored. That this actually occurs is shown by the frustration so commonly expressed by functional supervisors at their lack of authority to apply sanctions.

3. Span of Control

Administrative efficiency is supposed to be enhanced by limiting the number of subordinates who report directly to any one administrator to a small number say six. This notion that the “span of control” should be narrow is confidently asserted as a third incontrovertible principle of administration. The usual common-sense arguments for restricting the span of control are familiar and need not be repeated here. What is not so generally recognized is that a contradictory proverb of administration can be stated which, though it is not so familiar as the principle of span of control, can be supported by arguments of equal plausibility. The proverb in question is the following:

Administrative efficiency is enhanced by keeping at a minimum the number of organizational levels through which a matter must pass before it is acted upon.

This latter proverb is one of the fundamental criteria that guide administrative analysts in simplifying procedures. Yet in many situations the results to which this principle leads are in direct contradiction to the requirements of the principle of span of control, the principle of unity of command, and the principle of specialization. The present discussion is concerned with the first of these conflicts. To illustrate the difficulty, two alternative proposals for the organization of a small health department will be presented—one based on the restriction of span of control, the other on the limitation of number of organization levels:

  • The present organization of the department places an adminis-

ther fact that some of the staff lack adequate technical training. Consequently, venereal disease clinic treatments and other details require an undue amount of the Health Officer’s personal attention.

It has previously been recommended that the proposed Medical Officer be placed in charge of the venereal disease and chest clinics and all child hygiene work. It is further recommended that one of the inspectors be designated chief inspector and placed in charge of all the department’s inspectional activities; and that one of the nurses be designated as head nurse. This will relieve the Health Commissioner of considerable detail and will leave him greater freedom to plan and supervise the health program as a whole, to conduct health education, and to coordinate the work of the department with that of other community agencies. If the department were thus organized, the effectiveness of all employees could be substantially increased.

  • The present organization of the department leads to inefficiency and excessive red tape by reason of the fact that an unnecessary supervisory level intervenes between the Health Officer and the operative employees, and that those four of the twelve employees who are best trained technically are engaged largely in “overhead” administrative Consequently, unnecessary delays occur in securing the approval of the Health Officer on matters requiring his attention, and too many matters require review and re- review.

The Medical Officer should be left in charge of the venereal disease and chest clinics and child hygiene work. It is recommended, however, that the position of chief inspector and head nurse be abolished, and that the employees now filling these positions perform regular inspectional and nursing duties. The details of work scheduling now handled by these two employees can be taken care of more economically by the Secretary to the Health Officer, and, since broader matters of policy have, in any event, always required the personal attention of the Health Officer, the abolition of these two positions will eliminate a wholly unnecessary step in review, will allow an expansion of inspectional and nursing services, and will permit at least a beginning to be made in the recommended program of health education. The number of persons reporting directly to the Health Officer will be increased to nine, but since there are few matters requiring the coordination of these employees, other than the work schedules and policy questions referred to above, this change will not materially increase his work load.

The dilemma is this: in a large organization with interrelations

carried upward until a common superior is found. If the organization is at all large, this will involve carrying all such matters upward through sev- eral levels of officials for decision, and then downward again in the form of orders and instructions—a cumbersome and time-consuming process.

The alternative is to increase the number of persons who are under the command of each officer, so that the pyramid will come more rapidly to a peak, with fewer intervening levels. But this, too, leads to difficulty, for if an officer is required to supervise too many employees, his control over them is weakened.6

Granted, then, that both the increase and the decrease in span of control have some undesirable consequences, what is the optimum point? Proponents of a restricted span of control have suggested three, five, even eleven, as suitable numbers, but nowhere have they explained the reasoning which led them to the particular number they selected. The principle as stated casts no light on this very crucial question.

4. Organization by Purpose, Process, Clientele, Place

Administrative efficiency is supposed to be increased by grouping workers according to (a) purpose, (b) process, (c) clientele, or (d) place. But from the discussion of specialization it is clear that this principle is internally inconsistent; for purpose, process, clientele, and place are competing bases of organization, and at any given point of division the advantages of three must be sacrificed to secure the advantages of the fourth. If the major departments of a city, for example, are organized on the basis of major purpose, then it follows that all the physicians, all the lawyers, all the engineers, or all the statisticians will not be located in a single department exclusively composed of members of their profession, but will be distributed among the various city departments needing their services. The advantages of organization by process will thereby be partly lost.

Some of these advantages can be regained by organizing on the basis of process within the major departments. Thus there may be an engineering bureau within the public works department, or the board of education may have a school health service as a major division of its work. Similarly, within smaller units there may be division by area or by clientele; e.g., a fire department will have separate companies located throughout the city, while a welfare bureau will have intake and casework offices in various locations. Again, however, these major types of specialization cannot be simultaneously achieved, for at any point in the organization it must be decided whether specialization at the next level will be accomplished by distinction of major purpose, major process, clientele, or area.

Competition Between Purpose and Clientele. The conflict may be illustrated by showing how the principle of specialization according to purpose would lead to a different result from specialization according to clientele in the organization of a health department.

  • Public health administration consists of the following activities for the prevention of disease and the maintenance of healthful conditions: (1) vital statistics; (2) child hygiene—prenatal, maternity, postnatal, infant, pre- school, and school health programs; (3) communicable disease control; (4) inspection of milk, foods, and drugs; (5) sanitary inspection; (6) laboratory service; (7) health education.

One of the handicaps under which the health department labors is the fact that the department has no control over school health, which is an activity of the county board of education, and there is little or no coordination between that highly important part of the community health program and the rest of the program, which is conducted by the city- county health unit. It is recommended that the city and county open negotiations with the board of education for the transfer of all school health work and the appropriation therefor to the joint health unit.

  • To the modem school department is entrusted the care of children during almost the entire period that they are absent from the parental home. It has three principal responsibilities toward them: (1) to provide for their education in useful skills and knowledge, and in character; (2) to provide them with wholesome play activities outside school hours; (3) to care for their health and to assure the attainment of minimum standards of nutrition.

One of the handicaps under which the school board labors is the fact that, except for school lunches, the board has no control over child health and nutrition, and there is little or no coordination between that highly important part of the child development program and the rest of the program, which is conducted by the board of education. It is recommended that the city and county open negotiations for the transfer of all health work for children of school age to the board of education.

Here again is posed the dilemma of choosing between alternative,

are fundamental ambiguities in the meanings of the key terms: “purpose,” “process,” “clientele,” and “place.”

Ambiguities in Key Terms, “Purpose” may be roughly defined as the objective or end for which an activity is carried on; “process,” as a means of accomplishing a purpose. Processes, then, are carried on in order to achieve purposes. But purposes themselves may generally be arranged in some sort of hierarchy. A typist moves her fingers in order to type; types in order to reproduce a letter; reproduces a letter in order that an inquiry may be answered. Writing a letter is then the purpose for which the typing is performed; while writing a letter is also the process whereby the purpose of replying to an inquiry is achieved. It follows that the same activity may be described as purpose or as process.

This ambiguity is easily illustrated for the case of an administrative organization. A health department conceived as a unit whose task it is to care for the health of the community is a purpose organization; the same department conceived as a unit which makes use of the medical arts to carry on its work is a process organization. In the same way, an education department may be viewed as a purpose (to educate) organization, or a clientele (children) organization; the Forest Service as a purpose (forest conservation), process (forest management), clientele (lumbermen and cattlemen utilizing public forests), or area (publicly owned forest lands) organization. When concrete illustrations of this sort are selected, the lines of demarcation between these categories become very hazy and unclear indeed.

“Organization by major purpose,” says Gulick,8 “serves to bring together in a single large department all of those who are at work endeavoring to render a particular service.” But what is a particular service? Is fire protection a single purpose, or is it merely a part of the purpose of public safety? Or is it a combination of purposes including fire prevention and fire fighting? It must be concluded that there is no such a thing as a purpose, or a unifunctional (single- purpose) organization. What is to be considered as a single function depends entirely on language and techniques.9 If the English language has a comprehensive term which covers both of two sub-purposes it is natural to think of the two together as a single purpose. If such a term is lacking, the two sub-purposes become purposes in their own right. On the other hand, a single activity may contribute to several objectives; but since they are technically (procedurally) inseparable the activity is considered as a single function or purpose.

The fact mentioned previously that purposes form a hierarchy, each sub- purpose contributing to some more final and comprehensive end, helps to make clear the relation between purpose and process. “Organization by major process,” says Gulick,10 “. .. tends to bring together in a single department all of those who are at work making use of a given skill or technology, or are members of a given profession.” Consider a simple skill of this kind—typing. Typing is a skill that brings about a means-end coordination of muscular movements, but brings it about at a very low level in the means-end hierarchy. The content of the typewritten letter is indifferent to the skill that produces it. The skill consists merely in the ability to hit the letter t quickly whenever t is required by the content, and to hit the letter a whenever a is required by the content.

There is, then, no essential difference between a “purpose” and a “process,” but only a distinction of degree. A “process” is an activity whose immediate purpose is at a low level in the hierarchy of means and ends, while a “purpose” is a collection of activities whose orienting value or aim is at a high level in the means-end hierarchy.

Next consider “clientele” and “place” as bases of organization. These categories are really not separate from purpose, but a part of it. A complete statement of the purpose of a fire department would have to include the area served by it; “to reduce fire losses on property in the city of X.” Objectives of an administrative organization are phrased in terms of a service to be provided and an area for which it is provided. Usually, the term “purpose” is meant to refer only to the first element; but the second is just as legitimately an aspect of purpose. Area of service, of course, may be a specified clientele quite as well as a geographical area. In the case of an agency which works on “shifts,” time will be a third dimension of purpose—to provide a given service in a given area (or to a given clientele) during a given time period.

With this terminology, the next task is to reconsider the problem of specializing the work of an organization. It is no longer legitimate to speak of a “purpose” organization, or a “process” organization, a “clientele” organization, or an “area” organization. The same unit might fall into any one of these four categories, depending on the nature of the larger organizational unit of which it was a part. A unit providing public health and medical services for school-age children in Multnomah County might be considered as (1) an “area” organization if it were part of a unit providing the same service for the state of Oregon; (2) a “clientele” organization if it were part of a unit providing similar services for children of all ages; (3) a “purpose” or a “process” organization (it would be impossible to say which) if it were part of an education department.

It is incorrect to say that Bureau A is a process bureau; the correct statement is that Bureau A is a process bureau within Department X.11 This latter statement would mean that Bureau A incorporated all the processes of a certain kind in Department X, without reference to any special sub-purposes, sub-areas, or sub-clienteles of Department X. Now it is conceivable that a particular unit might incorporate all processes of a certain kind, but that these processes might relate only to certain particular sub-purposes of the department purpose. In this case, which corresponds to the health unit in an education department mentioned above, the unit would be specialized by both purpose and process. The health unit would be the only one in the education department using the medical art (process) and concerned with health (sub-purpose).

Lack of Criteria for Specialization. Even when the problem is solved of proper usage for the terms “purpose,” “process,” “clientele,” and “area,” the principles of administration give no guide as to which of these four competing bases of specialization is applicable in any particular situation. The British Machinery of Government Committee had no doubts about the matter. It considered purpose and clientele as the two possible bases of organization and put its faith entirely in the former. Others have had equal assurance in choosing between purpose and process. The reasoning which leads to these unequivocal conclusions leaves something to be desired. The Machinery of Government Committee gives this sole argument for its choice:

Now the inevitable outcome of this method of organization [by clientele] is a tendency to Lilliputian administration. It is impossible that the specialized service which each Department has to render to the community can be of as high a standard when its work is at the same time limited to a particular class of persons and extended to every variety of provision for them, as when the Department concentrates itself on the provision of the particular service only, by whomsoever required, and looks beyond the interest of comparatively small classes.12

The faults in this analysis are clearly obvious. First, there is no attempt to determine how a service is to be recognized. Second, there is a bald assumption, absolutely without proof, that a child health unit, for example, in a department of child welf are could not offer services of “as high a standard” as the same unit if it were located in a department of health. Just how the shifting of the unit from one department to another would improve or damage the quality of its work is not explained. Third, no basis is set forth for adjudicating the competing claims of purpose and process—the two are merged in the ambiguous term “service.” It is not necessary here to decide whether the committee was right or wrong in its recommendation; the important point is that the recommendation represented a choice, without any apparent logical or empirical grounds, between contradictory principles of administration.

Even more remarkable illustrations of illogic can be found in most discussions of purpose vs. process. They would be too ridiculous to cite if they were not commonly used in serious political and administrative debate.

For instance, where should agricultural education come: in the Ministry of Education, or of Agriculture? That depends on whether we want to see the best farming taught, though possibly by old methods, or a possibly out-of-date style of farming, taught in the most modem and compelling manner. The question answers itself.13

But does the question really answer itself? Suppose a bureau of agri- cultural education were set up, headed, for example, by a man who had had extensive experience in agricultural research or as administrator of an agricultural school, and staffed by men of similarly appropriate background. What reason is there to believe that if attached to a Ministry of Education they would teach old-fashioned farming by new-fashioned methods, while if attached to a Ministry of Agriculture they would teach new-fashioned farming by old-fashioned methods? The administrative problem of such a bureau would be to teach new-fashioned farming by new-fashioned methods, and it is a little difficult to see how the departmental location of the unit would affect this result. “The question answers itself’ only if one has a rather mystical faith in the potency of bureau shuffling as a means of redirecting the activities of an agency.

These contradictions and competitions have received increasing attention from students of administration during the past few years. For example, Gulick, Wallace, and Benson have stated certain advantages and disadvantages of the several modes of specialization, and have considered the conditions under which one or the other mode might best be adopted.7 All this analysis has been at a theoretical level—in the sense that data have not been employed to demonstrate the superior effectiveness claimed for the different modes. But, though theoretical, the analysis has lacked a theory. Since no comprehensive framework has been constructed within which the discussion could take place, the analysis has tended either to the logical one- sidedness which characterizes the examples quoted above or to inconclusiveness.

5. The Impasse of Administrative Theory

The four “principles of administration” that were set forth at the beginning of this paper have now been subjected to critical analysis. None of the four survived in very good shape, for in each case there was found, instead of a univocal principle, a set of two or more mutually incompatible principles apparently equally applicable to the administrative situation.

Moreover, the reader will see that the very same objections can be urged against the customary discussions of “centralization” vs. “decentralization,” which usually conclude, in effect, that “on the one hand, centralization of decision-making function is desirable; on the other hand, there are definite advantages in decentralization.”

Can anything be salvaged which will be useful in the construction of an administrative theory? As a matter of fact, almost everything can be salvaged. The difficulty has arisen from treating as “principles of administration” what are really only criteria for describing and diagnosing administrative situations. Closet space is certainly an important item in the design of a successful house; yet, a house designed entirely with a view to securing a maximum of closet space—all other considerations being forgotten—would be considered, to say the least, as somewhat unbalanced. Similarly, unity of command, specialization by purpose, decentralization, all are items to be considered in the design of an efficient administrative organization. No single one of these items is of sufficient importance to suffice as a guiding principle for the administrative analyst. In the design of administrative organizations, as in their opera-tion, over-all efficiency must be the guiding criterion. Mutually incompatible advantages must be balanced against each other, just as an architect weighs the advantages of additional closet space against the advantages of a larger living room.

This position, if it is a valid one, constitutes an indictment of much current writing about administrative matters. As the examples cited in this chapter amply demonstrate, much administrative analysis proceeds by selecting a single criterion, and applying it to an administrative situation to reach a recommendation; while the fact that equally valid, but contradictory, criteria exist which could be applied with equal reason, but with a different result, is conveniently ignored. A valid approach to the study of administration requires that all the relevant diagnostic criteria be identified; that each administrative situation be analyzed in terms of the entire set of criteria; and that research be instituted to determine how weights can be assigned to the several criteria when they are, as they usually will be, mutually incompatible.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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