Luther Gulick

Donald F. Kettl, University of Maryland

We’re creeping up on the 70th anniversary of an important milestone in public administration—the Brownlow Committee’s recommendations to strengthen the executive office of the president.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt juggled an alphabet soup of new programs to recover from the Great Depression, he was handicapped by an antiquated executive establishment. How to fix it, he wondered? Roosevelt turned to three of public administration’s most-distinguished scholars: Louis Brownlow, director of the University of Chicago’s Public Administration Clearing House; Charles Merriam, a University of Chicago political scientist widely viewed as one of the nation’s most-distinguished political scientists (yes—in the 1930s, public administration was central to political science and its foremost scholars were revered in the field!); and Luther Gulick, president of New York City’s Institute of Public Administration.

“The president needs help,” the committee concluded, and then laid out the framework for what we now recognize as the modern presidential establishment. Subsequent legislation gave the president the power to hire half a dozen staffers and to reorganize the executive branch.

This is just one nugget in the vast lode of contributions that Gulick made throughout his remarkable career. And it’s just one reason why the online release of his papers at the new Institute of Public Administration online collection is such a treasure.

More than most scholars often realize, today’s study and practice of public administration builds on Gulick’s work. His Papers on the Science of Administration, edited with Lyndall Urwick (1937) and assembled for the use of the Brownlow Committee, are not only a great snapshot of the field as it helped the federal government pivot to a robust administrative state. His own opening chapter in the book, “Notes on the Theory of Organization,” is one of public administration’s real classics.

Here, in one place, is a simply marvelous collection of the field’s basics. We divide up work and specialize, he explains, because not everybody can do everything, because the same person “cannot be at two places at the same time,” because the same person “cannot do two things at the same time,” and because no person can possibly know everything. From these basic propositions flows an entire argument about dividing up work and bringing it together into a whole.

Following that is a great discussion of “span of control”—the question of how many individuals a supervisor can effectively supervise, which in turn is the foundation for all modern discussions about flat organizations and employee motivation. He writes about the “one master” principle—that each subordinate should report to only one supervisor to prevent confusion—which frames the modern issues of networked management. And he warns, tongue in cheek, about “caveamus expertum”—beware the experts!, and the risks of bureaucrats’ belief in omniscience for government’s accountability and performance.

Then there’s his classic POSDCORB acronym, which lays out the fundamental functions of public administration (planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, and budgeting). His seven letters provide an easy-to-remember primer on the field’s foundations.

There’s much more, including one of my personal favorites: his argument that there are four basic strategies for organization—major purpose, process, person/thing, or place. It’s a powerful guide for setting up new organizations, reorganizing existing ones, and avoiding the traps that policy planners too often fall into. Gulick suggests that planners need to pick one of the strategies; understand that each strategy provides important virtues but sacrifices the advantages of the others; and that the key is picking the one that provides the benefits the leader most wants and compensating for the other potential advantages left behind.

It’s a lesson that President Obama learned the hard way, when he struggled to make a joke in his 2011 State of the Union address about the way the government was organized to deal with salmon:

The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater.  (Laughter.)  I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.  (Laughter and applause.)

When he set out to reorganize the Commerce Department to solve this problem, he ran into a buzzsaw on Capitol Hill, as members of Congress fought to protect their jurisdictions. Obama could have saved himself a lot of grief—and maybe could have found a better joke—if his policy people had read Gulick. The sage could have warned him in advance that the government isn’t organized for the sake of the salmon (the thing dealt with), but to benefit those who catch them (more focused on place). The reorganization plan solved the wrong problem.

This all points to the extraordinary wealth of intellectual capital that lies in the new online collection of Gulick’s work. He continues to have a lot to teach us—and those who dig into this treasure will have a lot to teach both the policy makers and students who will set the future course of policy implementation.

Editor’s note: For more on Luther Gulick’s ideas, see: Ode to Luther Gulick



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