The Proverbs of Administration by Herbert Simon — A Summary

Herbert A. Simon, “The Proverbs of Administration,” Public Administration Review 6, no. 1 (1946): 53–67.

Such a badass title!

Proverbs are useful for persuasion especially when used retrospectively. One can always find a proverb to prove one’s point — or the opposite point for that matter. But when they are used in scientific theories, they are less useful and more harmful. Given their very nature they can both prove or disprove anything. If Newton had announced that all matter both attract and repulse each other, he would not have contributed anything useful. But sadly, most of the propositions of administrative theory today possess that property of proverbs. The paper will substantiate this sweeping criticism.

Some Accepted Administrative Principles

Among the common accepted “principles” of administration are:


Administrative efficiency is increased by a specialization of the task among the group.

But does any increase in specialisation lead to increase in efficiency?

Consider two plans of nursing the first of which requires nurses to specialise by place — nurses are assigned to districts and do all the work in that district — and the second of which requires nurses to specialise by function — nurses are assigned to specific functions, TB nursing for example, which they perform in multiple districts.

The proverb of specialisation is useless in helping decide which of these alternatives should be chosen. As it turns out, specialisation is not a condition of efficiency but is the inevitable result of all group activity for the simple reason that a person cannot be doing two different things at the same time.

Unity of Command

Administrative efficiency is increased by arranging the members of the group in a determinate hierarchy of authority.

This proverb requires that a subordinate should not have multiple superiors from whom he receives orders. This is clear enough.

However, if unity of command is observed strictly, there will be inefficiency in situations that require multiple forms of specialised expertise. For example, should the accountant in a school department who is subordinate to an educator never listen to the orders of the finance department regarding the technical aspects of his work? Of course, some irresponsibility and confusion will ensue if unity of command is not followed. What is needed is a principle that helps weigh the advantages and disadvantages of both courses of action.

Span of Control

Administrative efficiency is increased by limiting the span of control, at any point in the hierarchy to a small number.

But administrative efficiency is also enhanced by keeping at a minimum the number of organizational levels through which a matter must pass before it is acted upon. This equally plausible proverb contradicts the other proverb.

In large organisations, restricting the span of control inevitably creates excessive red tape as more levels are added to the organisational structure. But increasing the span of control beyond a certain point will weaken the authority of the supervisor. Where then lies the appropriate span of control lie? The proverbs are useless again in providing an answer to this critical question.

Organization by Purpose, Process, Clientele, Place

Administrative efficiency is increased by grouping the workers, for purposes of control, according to (a) purpose, (b) process, (c) clientele, or (d) place.

As is clear from the discussion on specialisation, these purposes of control are contradictory and the achievement of the first kind of specialisation can come only at the cost of the other three. It is also naïve to see the kinds of specialisation as separable. On examination, it will be found that the difference between “process” and “purpose” is only one of degree. Purposes are generally arranged in a hierarchy and the purpose of one process may be the process for another higher purpose and so on. Consider a typist who moves his fingers in order to type; types in order to reproduce a letter; reproduces a letter in order that an inquiry may be answered. “Clientele” and “place” are part of purpose, not apart from it. Any complete statement of purpose will have to specify “place” which integrates “clientele” with it. The purpose of a fire department, for instance, would have to include the area (the place) served by it which would necessarily include the people living in the area (the clientele).

It is therefore not legitimate to speak of a “purpose” organization, a “process” organization, a “clientele” organization, or an “area” organization. The same unit may be any of these depending on the nature of the larger organisational unit where it is located. It is correct only to say a certain bureau is a process bureau within a certain department. Even when the ambiguities with the usage of the terms are clarified, the “principles” of administration, needless to say, give no guide as to determining which of the competing bases of specialisation is applicable.

The Impasse of Administrative Theory

The problem with the “principles” is that they are treated as such when they are actually only criteria for describing and diagnosing administrative situations. Closet space is an important criteria for the design of a house but a design made on the principle of having maximum closet space will be quite unbalanced.

In administration, it is necessary that “all the relevant diagnostic criteria be identified; that each administrative situation be analysed 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”.

The Description of Administrative Situations

Just as the concepts of “acceleration” and “weight” were developed before a law of gravitation could be intelligibly formulated, administrative theory needs to develop operational concepts — that is, terms whose meanings correspond to empirically observable facts or situations — before it can recommend sweeping principles.

Most descriptions of organisations in administrative theory fall short of scientific standards by confining themselves to “allocation of functions and the formal structure of authority”. A description of the functions — generally, that a bureau performs this function while another performs that function — provides little to no information about the manner in which the organisations work.

“Administrative description suffers currently from superficiality, oversimplification, lack of realism.” Until it undertakes the tiresome task of studying actual allocation of decision-making functions, there is little hope for rapid progress towards identifying and verifying valid administrative principles.

A purely formal description of administrative organisation might be impossible for the simple reason that real-world content plays a greater role in the application of administrative principles than formal precepts.

The Diagnosis of Administrative Situation

Propositions of administrative theory are concerned with the “principle of efficiency” — that is, the greatest accomplishment of administrative objectives for a given level of expenditure or the minimum expenditure of resources for achieving a given objective.

But the “principle” of efficiency should be considered not as such but only as a definition because it does not tell how the accomplishments are to be achieved but only that maximisation is the aim of administrative activity.

How to attain the level of efficiency or maximise the attainment of administrative objectives? Consider a single member of the organisation and see what the qualitative and quantitative limits to his output are. He may be limited by skills, habits, and reflexes that are not in his consciousness — for instance, manual dexterity, strength or reaction time. He may further be limited in his decisions by his values and his conceptions of what the purpose of the organisation is — his greater loyalty to the bureau may compel him to make decisions that are inimical to the larger organisation. He may also be limited by the extent of his knowledge of things relevant to his job. The first is a limit on his ability to perform and the other two are limits on his ability to make rational decisions. There may be other limits too but the point is that administrative theory must consider such limits as are present and come up with valid and non-contradictory principles. Only the first, thanks to the Scientific Management of Frederick Taylor, has been satisfactorily examined.

The limits of rationality are variable and may be influenced by consciousness of that very limitation. Rationality makes sense only when seen in terms of the larger objectives of the organisation and not the specific objectives of the individual administrator. Also, administrative theory is concerned with the non-rational limits to rationality. The greater the rationality, the lesser the importance of the exact form of organisation.

Assigning Weights to the Criteria

First, an operational (see under The Description of Administrative Situations) vocabulary for describing administrative organisations must be developed. Second, the limits of rationality in making decisions must be studied to understand the criteria that have to be weighed in evaluating an administrative organization.

It is not enough to identify the criteria (that the span of control must be decreased). But it is more important to weigh its benefits with the possible adverse effects it might bring about (how adversely will reducing the span of control affect the culture of contact between higher and lower ranks of the hierarchy?). This can only be possible through empirical research and experimentation.

How may this research proceed? First, administrative objectives must be concretely defined. Second, sufficient experimental control must be exercised to isolate the problem are from disturbing factors. These two requirements have rarely been fulfilled in so called “administrative experiments”.

“Perhaps the program outlined here will appear an ambitious or even a quixotic one. There should certainly be no illusions, in undertaking it, as to the length and deviousness of the path. It is hard to see, however, what alternative remains open. …

It may be objected that administration cannot aspire to be a “science”; that by the nature of its subject it cannot be more than an “art”. … [But] even an “art” cannot be founded on proverbs.”

Published by


I am a chronic procrastinator.