The Proverbs of Administration Herbert Simon Summary

Table of contents

Bekki Drewlo Simon, Herbert A. (1946). The Proverbs of Administration. In J. M. Shafrits & A. C. Hyde (Eds. ), Classics of public administration (6th ed. ) (pp. 124-137). Boston, MA: Thompson Wadsworth.

Article summary

In Herbert Simon’s “The Proverbs of Administration” he begins outlining what he describes as the “accepted administrative principles” (p. 124). These principles state that administrative efficiency is increased by specialization of tasks among members of a group, unity of command, limiting the p of control at any one point in the hierarchy and by grouping the workers according to purpose, process, clientele and place.

He then goes on to detail specific examples of how each principle could be tested in real world administrative situations for validity. Simon subjects each principle in turn to a very critical analysis beginning with specialization. He describes specialization as a “deceptive simplicity” and conveys that the fundamental problem with specialization is that it is ambiguous and he leads the reader to determine that the principle of specialization is “of not help at all” in deciding how to specialize to improve efficiency (p. 25) Turning to unity of command, Simon points out that this principle is simply “incompatible with the principle of specialization” (p. 125). If using the specialization principal, then the specialist would be looked upon for the decisions, not the person in command as the unity of command principal would require. Span of control contradictions are highlighted by Simon by describing how both an increase and a decrease in the p of control could increase or decrease efficiency in an organization. Lastly, Simon evaluates organization by purpose, process, clientele and place.

In this principle, organization based on one aspect would be to the detriment of the remaining three. In each evaluation Simon provides either contradictory solutions that meet the requirement of the proverb in question or describes situations where adherence to the proverb could be inefficient if not irresponsible. Simon suggests rather that the “principles of administration” are merely “criteria for describing and diagnosing administrative situations”(p. 131). Finally, Simon relates that the proverbs of administration are in desperate need of empirical research and ultimately revision.

He states that efficiency should be a definition of what is “good” or “correct” administrative behavior rather than a principle of administration (p. 133). He goes on to describe an approach for a more scientific analysis of administrative principles that would allow one to easily choose between equally viable yet opposing solutions to a single administrative problem. He provides the road map by which he believes this could be accomplished, yet admits that it may even be a “quixotic” undertaking (p. 136).

The irony of this final contradiction is not lost on this reader.

Key Points:

  • The accepted administrative principles or proverbs are inherently flawed.
  • These principles are still of value by using them as “criteria for describing and diagnosing administrative situations”(pg 131).
  • Specialization
  • Unity of Command
  • Span of Control
  • Organization by purpose, Process, Clientele, Place
  • The accepted administrative principles or proverbs are in desperate need of empirical research and ultimately revision.


This article is relevant to students and practitioners of administration because it highlights the ongoing struggle with administrative theory. Simon highlights the contradictions inherent with the “accepted administrative principles” but leads the reader to understand that these principles are useful as tools in the practice of administration (p. 124). After evaluation of specialization, unity of command, p of control and organization by purpose, process, clientele and place, administrators can rely on experience to determine the appropriate behavior.

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