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Historical Roots of Public Administration: Development of the Interaction between Political and Administrative Officeholders

Journal Title Elgar Encyclopedia of Public Management
Published Date October 20, 2022
Research Type


Bureaucracy emerged in Antiquity as an instrument of and for those in power. Since the late 18th century it has become the dominating type of organization in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. In the public sector bureaucracy is often regarded as synonym to government, but that is not quite correct. Government includes elected officeholders and political appointees who serve at the apex of bureaucratic departments and agencies. Public bureaucracies are still serving those who - under democratic conditions - are elected into power, but they also serve the People in the latter's role as citizens. The disconnection of the state and its government from the person of a ruler, a process that started in the 17th century, has had a major consequence for the relation between elected officeholders and political appointees on the one hand, and career civil servants on the other. The career civil service or public bureaucracy has become the most important safeguard of modern, large-scale democracy. In the past 200 years it developed into a major safeguard for large-scale democracy for which there is no historical precedent. Increased partisanship and "nana-nana-boo-boo politics" in many Western countries have put pressure upon democracy. Weber's concern that bureaucracy would overshadow democracy can be put to rest, because it seems (especially in the USA) that bureaucracy buttresses democracy. Hence, public bureaucracy could not but become a political actor, and, most importantly, it is one that actually shows the self-restraint under which democracy thrives.