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Herbert Simon’s Skepticism: Science of Public Administration and Lessons learned from “Proverbs of Administration”

A key focus in the scholarship of public administration sought to accomplish a task and carry out the will of the people. The early writers, including but not limited to Max Weber, Frederick Taylor, and Luther Gulick, sought to understand organization and how to best manage it. All three understood that their work was to be scientific in nature and an objective best way – but, as Herbert Simon will argue, they too have fallen into the same traps of non-scientific thinking they wanted to escape. Although Weber, Taylor, and Gulick made great strides toward the goal of an understood and effective organization, Simon acts as a check on their systems by bringing them back to the scientific process of thought and away from what Simon calls the proverbs of administration.

Max Weber sought to form an ideal bureaucracy that was totally rational and professional – he even saw bureaucracy as a major component to a rational and modern world. His ideal bureaucracy sought to break from arbitrary and remove the “displacement of magical elements of thought” of the time and into the modern era of knowledge and reason – meaning administration needed to remove heredity from the process and keep politics out of administration of governance (Fry & Raadschelders, 2014, p. 30 – 32). Additionally, Weber took to supporting specialization and a division of labor to assign tasks and create professionals to replace those who are simply in power for hereditcal or charismatic reasons (Shafritz, et al., 2004). The three identified benefits of Weber’s ideal bureaucracy are the changes in hierarchy, specialization, and delimited authority with rationality “successful management would be the necessary result” (Martinez, 2009, p. 60). 

Max Weber’s principles did much to clear the way for better and more efficient methods which, of course, it did to a great extent with Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management. Taylor took these principles to create an effective process to benefit the organization. Scientific Management or Taylorism created what would be identified as an assembly line-type work where workers would specialize specific duties and perform them to the exact movements and specifications laid out (Shafritz, et al., 2004). The principles create for Taylorism to work include the development of the science of management for the task, selection and training of the workers, bringing the science and workers together, and equal division of work and responsibility for management and workers – Taylor also emphasized accountability within management as well as wage incentives for good work, but his methods were not taken to due to its dehumanizing repetitive nature (Fry & Raadschelders, 2014). 

Although the principles so far vary in some respects, similarities can be found in their focus on hierarchy and specialization of labor. Luther Gulick, too, adds to the study and coordination of organizational hierarchy when he develops his integrated executive structure. Gulick observed that “the effective span of control at each level of the organization is limited by the knowledge, time, and energy of the supervisor” but this span of control can be relieved through routine, specialized work with a single-focused leadership coordination  (Fry & Raadschelders, 2014, p. 126). The method he created is more famously known as POSDCORB – or planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, and budgeting – and had the purpose of creating a more efficient and effective bureaucracy and prompt scientific methods to perform the various tasks within POSDCORB. 

In all cases of Weber, Taylor, and Gulick specialization and hierarchy (being unity of command, span of control, and coordination) is a necessary component to their methods – all thinkers even agree that science-minded decision making is important. These three will inevitably be grouped together in what is described as “writers of the principles movement” who sought to lay down the law in hopes of establishing a concrete method of administration – in their journey to create objective standards to organizational management, they were “willy-nilly applying a series of proverbs without any thought to whether their prescriptions would solve the problem” (Georgiou, 2013, p. 1016). This willy-nilly description Herbert Simon tacks onto them is one that seeks to revisit the “flaws in the principles approach” and “demonstrated the contradictions inherent in the principles” (Ibid., p. 1017). 

Herbert Simon seems to have a firm grasp of fact, objectivity, and reason and applies them to decision making, “the acquisition of knowledge about public administration, according to Simon, should be based in facts empirically derived, measured, and verified” in what he called “the necessity of objectivity” (Riccucci, 2010, p. 9). Simon explains that “logical positivism will be accepted as a starting point” in this endeavor to discover objectibility so that falsifiability can be established, “in principle, factual propositions may be tested to determine whether or not they are true or false” – exactly what the writers of the principles movement did not (Simon, 1997, p. 55).

In his 1946 essay “The Proverbs of Administration”, Herbert Simon finds that many of these principles and proverbs laid down by Weber, Taylor, and Gulick were deeply flawed. The specific accepted administrative principles Simon lists are namely increase specialization, hierarchy, and span of control (Shafritz & Ott, 1996, p. 112). Specialization is a widely accepted idea in the workplace and comes with the assumption that it will  increase efficiency, but Simon begins his criticism asking “is this intended to mean that any increase in specialization will increase efficiency?” and continue to explain that specialization on it’s own is not sufficient without coordination – meaning one should “specialize in that particular manner and along those particular lines” that will lead to greater efficiency (Georgiou, 2013, p. 1018; Shafritz & Ott, 1996, p. 113). Unity of command, according to the criticism, is far too broad a term and ignores the scope of managerial oversight as well as individual decision making, “the decisions of a person at any point in the administrative hierarchy are subject to influence through only one channel of authority” leading to multiple authorities and making a unity of command “incompatible with the principle of specialization” (Georgiou, 2013, p. 1021). His criticisms of the channel of authority also leads into Simons critique of the span of control – there is simply not enough “sufficient scientific study to furnish a final answer” and when discussing large complex organizations, span of control and unity of command creates “a restricted span of control” with more red tape, uncertainty, and less communication (Ibid., p. 1024; Shafritz & Ott, p. 116). 

Although Gulick took a lot of flack from Simon, he is seen to be without the sort of scientific evidence Simon is seeking. While Gulick may have been simply offering theories, they were accepted at face value as if principles of the field which is what Simon took to in his criticism. As expressed at the start of his work, “administrative science is an incremental and evolving field” and as he rightly sees empirical, positivist study as the only way to discover objective truths, Simon seeks to apply this standard to the new field to ensure proverbs are not just declared and accepted without honest and solid empirical study (Little, 2019) Simon’s main concern, as with any skeptic or one concerned with the truth, is that there are principles and rules that are being laid down and being accepted with little to no scientific testing. 


Fry, B. R. & Raadschelders, J.C.N. (2014) Mastering public administration: From Max Weber to Dwight Waldo (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. 

Grorgiou, I. (2013). A blast at the past: An inquiry into Herbert Simon’s arguments against the principles. Public Administration, 91(4), 1015 – 1034. DOI:10.111/padm.12001.

Little, D. (2019, June 19). Herbert Simon’s theories of organizations. Understanding Society Blogspot. Retreived from

Martinez, J. M. (2009). Public administration ethics for the 21st century. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC. 

Riccucci, N. M. (2010). Public administration: traditions of inquiry and philosophies of knowledge. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. 

Shafritz, J.M. & Ott, J.S. (1996). Classics of organization theory (4th ed.). New York, NY: Wadsworth Publishing Company. 

Simon, H. (1997). Administrative behavior: A study of decision-making processes in administrative organizations (4th ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.


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