Administration of the WPA Program

In carrying out its program, the WPA operated as an independent agency of the Federal Government until July 1939, when it was incorporated as a unit of the Federal Works Agency.

Harry L. Hopkins was Administrator of the WPA from July 1935 through December 23, 1938; Colonel Francis C. Harrington was Commissioner of Work Projects from December 24, 1938 through September 1940; Howard O. Hunter served as Acting Commissioner from October 1940 through June 1941 and then as Commissioner until April 15, 1942; Francis H. Dryden was Acting Commissioner from April 15, 1942 through July 1942; and Major General Philip B. Fleming was Acting Commissioner and George H. Field was Deputy Commissioner through June 1943.

Table 1.—Number of WPA Administrative Employees, Quarterly, September 1935-June 1943.

Table 1.—Number of WPA Administrative Employees, Quarterly, September 1935-June 1943. Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-43, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1946. GGA Image ID # 153a7ca8c4

  1. Data given here do not include persons employed in surplus clothing warehouses July 1938 through June 1939; persons employed during the period February through May 1939 in connection with the review of need required by Public Resolution No. 1, 76th Cong., Feb. 4, 1939; and persons employed during the period April through June 1940 to permit reduction of annual leave. Number of such persons employed were Sept. 30, 1938—772; Dec. 31, 1938—992; Mar. 31, 1939—5,221: June 30, 1939—9; June 30, 1940—436.
  2. includes central administration, field employees representing the central administration, and field finance offices. Regional offices were abolished in August 1942, and field finance offices were set up in September 1942.

From the beginning, the WPA functioned at four levels: namely, (1) the central administration in Washington, (2) the regional offices, (3) the State administrations, and (4) the district offices.

WPA officials at each level were under the direct authority of the administrative head of each level. This basic organization was maintained to the end of the program.

The special responsibilities at these administrative levels were:

  1. The central administration had the responsibility for the determination of WPA policies in accordance with law and the regulation of all WPA activities in accordance with these policies. [Note 1]
  2. The regional offices had the responsibility for the direction and coordination of the program in the States of each region in accordance with policies and regulations prescribed by the central administration.
  3. The State administrations were each responsible for the general administration of the WPA program within the State, including the securing of Federal approval and funds for project operations and the authorization of such project operations in accordance with local needs.
  4. The district offices were responsible for the direct management of project operations and of related activities, including the processes of assigning certified workers to projects; timekeeping; scheduling the initiation, termination, and completion of projects; and cooperation with local sponsors in the timing and management of project operations.

At the peak of the WPA program, in the fall of 1938, nearly 36,000 persons were on the administrative staff in the central, regional, State, and district offices. For the number of administrative employees at various periods during the existence of the WPA program, see table 1.

Table 2.—Amount of WPA Funds Obligated for Administration of WPA, by ERA Act, and by Major Classification [a] Through June 30, 1943.

Table 2.—Amount of WPA Funds Obligated for Administration of WPA, by ERA Act, and by Major Classification [a] Through June 30, 1943. Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-43, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1946. GGA Image ID # 153ad4e0d5

  1. Includes central administration and field offices.

Source: Based on reports of the U. S. Treasury Department and the Work Projects Administration.

Beginning with the ERA Act of 1939, the amount of WPA funds to be used for administrative purposes was limited by Congress. The amount of WPA funds obligated for administration is shown by ERA acts in table 2.

The Central Administration

The WPA was headed by the Commissioner of Work Projects, who was assisted by a deputy commissioner and several assistant commissioners in carrying on the policy making and regulatory function of the central administration.

Each assistant commissioner was responsible for one or more of the divisions among which the functions of the central administration were distributed.
The divisions, each usually headed by a director, were organized into sections, which were concerned with distinct but related functions, each under a section chief.

The commissioner, deputy commissioner, and assistant commissioners made use of the knowledge and experience of the regional offices, state administrations, and district offices, in establishing WPA policies within the limitations of the various emergency relief appropriation acts under which the program operated.

The regulatory responsibilities of the central administration were distributed among the assistant commissioners and the various divisions and their sections.

The number of assistant commissioners and the number of divisions varied from time to time as new functions were set up or as other functions were combined.

The important divisions maintained in the central administration in the course of the eight years of operation of the WPA were: (1) Engineering and Construction, (2) Service Projects, (3) Training and Reemployment, (4) Finance, (5) Employment, (6) Management or Administration, (7) Statistics, (S) Research, (9) Investigation, (10) Information, and (11) Legal.

The Division of Engineering and Construction was responsible for the regulation of construction projects, for the engineering review of applications for such projects, and for the recording and control of all project applications submitted to the WPA.

It was also responsible for the regulation and promotion of Hip WPA safety program and for the administration of the supply function, both of which served all WPA operations.

The Division of Service Projects was responsible for the regulation of projects which provided employment for women and for professional, technical, and clerical workers and which were designed to assist public agencies in maintaining community services.

It was responsible also for the review of project applications for all service projects. For additional information on the responsibilities of the Division of Service Projects.

The Division of Training and Reemployment was established in 1941 after the WPA was given legislative authority to assist in the training of workers for employment in defense industries.

It was responsible for the planning and regulation of WPA training projects and the coordination of such activities with those of other Federal agencies dealing with the manpower problem.

The Division of Finance was responsible for the recording and reporting of all transactions involving an obligation against funds appropriated to the WPA; the processing of documents for payment; the recording of all property owned by, or in the custody of, the WPA; and the regulation of all fiscal functions of the organization.

The Division of Employment was responsible for the regulation of employment activities, such as the eligibility, classification, assignment, and termination of workers; the wages and hours of project and supervisory employees; and the conduct of labor relations.

The Division of Management or Administration was responsible for analyzing the organizational and operating methods of all parts of the administrative organization, in addition to having the responsibility for procedures, personnel, administrative budgets, administrative property, microfilming and disposition of records, and office service functions.

The Division of Statistics was responsible for the compilation, interpretation, and publication of statistics concerning WPA employment, expenditures, and accomplishments; and it was responsible for the regulations concerning the collection of these statistics.

All of the above divisions functioned in the regional offices and in the State administrations as well as in the central administration. All except the Divisions of Management and Statistics also functioned at the district level.
Several other divisions (the Division of Research, the Division of Investigation, the Division of Information, and the Legal Division) were organized only at the central administrative level.

The Division of Research was responsible for the pursuance and publication of research studies concerning unemployment and need, public works and services, and other matters affecting the WPA program.

The Division of Investigation was responsible for the investigation of alleged dishonest practices in, or affecting, WPA operations. The field staff of this Division functioned through separate field offices covering the same states as the WPA regional offices.

The Division of Information was responsible for the preparation of informational material concerning the WPA for use in response to requests from newspapers, public officials, and citizens, and for dissemination in reports, pamphlets, articles, public speeches, and radio broadcasts.
It was responsible for the regulation of such activities at all other administrative levels, where informational activities were handled in the office of the administrative head of the regional, State, and district organizations.

The Legal Division rendered opinions on legal mutters arising in the administration of the WPA, including the legality of projects; prepared and reviewed from a legal standpoint proposed rules and regulations; and determined the appropriate legal action in suits involving the WPA or its officers or employees.

The WPA organization did not maintain a legal division below the central administration. A field staff was not necessary because the WPA was not authorized to purchase or own land or to enter into construction contracts, and because the sponsors of WPA projects were responsible for the design, location, maintenance and operation, and all legal matters affecting the projects they sponsored.

Regional Offices

The WPA regional offices were established as a field organization operating between the central administration and the State administrations. The number of regions, the States included in each region, and the location of the regional offices, varied during the period of the WPA program.

In 1939, nine regional offices were in operation. Each regional office was headed by a regional director who was responsible directly to the Commissioner of Work Projects.

The regional director, through his staff of regional officers, directed and coordinated, rather than administered, the program within the States of the region, in accordance with law and with the policies, regulations, and special instructions prescribed by the Commissioner or under his authority.

The Divisions of Engineering and Construction, Service Projects, Training and Reemployment, Finance, Employment, Management or Administration, and Statistics were all represented at the regional level.

The division heads of the regional staff were administratively responsible to the regional director for the functions of their respective divisions. Instructions concerning the technical and professional procedures of each division were received from the respective divisions in the central administration.

The staff of the regional office was responsible, among other things, for interpreting or obtaining authoritative interpretations of the policies, rules, regulations, and instructions of the central administration.

The regional office made recommendations to the central administration concerning changes and revisions of general policies or procedures, approval or disapproval of project applications, monthly employment authorizations for States of the region, State budgets for project payrolls, nonlabor expenses, and administrative costs.

It represented the Commissioner of Work Projects in conferences with heads of governmental subdivisions and civic organizations in regard to employment problems, project sponsorship, and WPA policies.

The regional office also called and conducted conferences of State administrative officials, approved the location or relocation of State and district offices, recommended to the Commissioner or to the assistant commissioners the appointment of all State division heads, approved the appointment of district administrative heads, and, where necessary, issued instructions to the State administrations supplementing the rules and regulations of the central administration.

State Administrations

With the exception of California and New York, the WPA State administrative jurisdiction were coterminous with State boundaries.

For administrative convenience, separate State administrations (so designated) were established for Northern California and Southern California, and for New York City and New York State.

WPA activities in the District of Columbia, until late in the program, were administered under a separate "State administration." The WPA as established in Puerto Rico was also termed a "State administration."
Each State administration was headed by a State administrator who was responsible to the Commissioner of Work Projects for the operation of the WPA program within the State under his jurisdiction.

The headquarters of the State administration was located in the State capital or in one of the larger cities of the State. In the larger States, the State administrator was assisted by a deputy administrator.

In all States, State directors of the divisions corresponding to the divisions in the central administration assisted the State administrator in the performance of his functions.

The divisions organized at the State level were those concerned with engineering and construction, service projects, training and reemployment, finance, employment, management or administration, and statistics.
The divisions at the State level were organized in sections which corresponded functionally to sections or divisions of the central administration.

The State Divisions of Engineering and Construction, Service Projects, and Training and Reemployment were the operating divisions responsible for the organization and administration of projects in their respective fields.

The State Division of Finance was responsible for the control of WPA financial activities within the State and for the timekeeping, record keeping, and various reporting and fiscal functions at the State administrative level.

The State Division of Employment was responsible for the organization and administration of employment activities.

The State Division of Statistics was responsible for the collection of statistics derived from reports of activi- ties of the various divisions and for their transmission to the central administration.

The State Division of Management or Administration was responsible for procedures, administrative budgets, administrative personnel, office services, and other functions required by the State administrator. All informational activities at the State administrative level were carried on by the State administrator or by a small staff in his office.

Just as the Commissioner of Work Projects was responsible for all WPA activities generally, so was the State administrator responsible for all WPA activities within the State.

But, while the Commissioner and his administrative staff were especially responsible for the policies and regulations of WPA activities, the State administrator and his staff were especially responsible for the initiation, organization, and operation of WPA projects.

At the beginning of the program, the State administrations had the difficult task of developing a large number of worthwhile projects in every community in order to provide Immediate employment for the needy unemployed persons certified to the WPA by the State or local referral agency.

As the program progressed, one of the chief responsibilities of the State administrations was the development of an adequate reserve of worthwhile approved projects that could be put into operation from time to time as the need for them arose.

It was the State administrator who signed the project applications that were sent to the central administration. Each application was a request from a State or local governmental agency for the Federal funds specifically required for labor and nonlabor costs in addition to sponsors' funds needed in carrying on the project.

After project applications had been approved by the central administration in Washington and by the President, it was the State administrator who, in agreement with the sponsor, initiated operations on each project by assigning supervisors and workers to the project and authorizing the expenditure of Federal funds within the specified amounts of the approved project authorization.

In order to obtain Federal approval of any State or local project, a variety of conditions had to be met, including the securing of an adequate sponsor's contribution. The State administration was responsible for making sure that all conditions required by law or by WPA regulations were properly met.

The distribution of WPA employment quotas within the State, the apportionment among projects of the total Federal contributions to nonlabor costs, and the appointments of administrative and supervisory personnel within the State, were other important responsibilities of the State administration.

All of these and other duties were performed largely through the divisions in which the state administration was organized.

District Offices

In most States, project operations were administered from district offices. It was at this level that the sponsors of projects, the supervisors of projects, the local govern- mental agencies involved in the WPA program, and the general public were brought together.

Each district office was in the charge of a district manager and was organized in divisions similar to those In the State administration. The Divisions of Engineering and Construction, Service Projects, Training and Reemployment, Finance, and Employment were all represented at the district level.

The district offices were located in the larger cities of the State; the number of counties included in each district was determined on the basis of geographical area, transportation facilities, and the distribution of unemployment within the State.

The district manager and his staff were the responsible representatives of the Works Projects Administration within the territory comprising the district. The actual measure of administrative and technical authority delegated to the district manager and to his divisional beads was determined by the State administrator with the approval of the regional office.

In the larger districts, certain administrative or general project supervisors of the Division of Engineering and Construction, the Division of Service Projects, and the Division of Finance, operated from subdistrict offices which were often called area offices.

In States with small WPA employment, the State administration performed the functions of the district offices, and the administrative and supervisory employees in the area offices reported directly to the State administrations.

The district offices had the responsibility of performing the various administrative functions that were finally involved in the planning and execution of projects and in the employment of needy unemployed persons on such projects.

The politics of the WPA organization were carried into practical effect at the district level through the actual application of the rules and regulations the central and State administrations.

At the district level, the various divisions were engaged in the review and approval of certifications of needy workers, the assignment of workers to projects, the management of project operations, the general supervision of finance functions, and the carrying on of day-to-day relationships with sponsors of projects, agencies of local government, and private organizations concerned with civic or economic interests.

These district activities represented the final application of administrative decisions and technical instructions which resulted in the provision of work for the needy unemployed, and the provision, through such work, of public works and services for communities.

Project Organization

The headquarters office of each project was the basic or primary operating unit of the Work Projects Administration. [ ]

The project superintendent or supervisor was the executive head of each project and reported directly to the district operating division under whose jurisdiction the project was approved for operation.

These operating divisions were the Division of Engineering and Construction, the Division of Service Projects, and the Division of Training and Reemployment.

The project superintendent or supervisor was responsible for coordinating and supervising every phase of project activity within established WPA rules and regulations.

In the actual production of work on the project, the project superintendent or supervisor was assisted by engineers, technicians, foremen, and other subordinate supervisory employees.

He was assisted in all cases by a finance officer or timekeeper who performed the finance functions on the projects in accordance with the technical procedures and instructions of the Division of Finance.

In most cases the project finance officer or timekeeper also executed all details in connection with the supply and the accountability of Federal property. On larger projects, he was assisted by a project employment officer who carried out the detailed procedures prescribed by the Division of Employment.

The actual scope of project organization and the relationship of the project to the sponsor's staff and organization were determined for each project in accordance with the number of employees working on the project, the technical features of the project, the time schedule for operations or completion of the project, and various other factors.

The central administration delegated all responsibility for the organization and operation of projects to the State administrations.

Although the State administrations, in cooperation with the district control of the actual conduct of project operations, the project organization on large projects, and the general rules, regulations, and procedures governing project operations, the project operations were reviewed by engineers, consultants, and other administrative employees of the regional offices and the central administration.

The need for delegating a large measure of responsibility to the State administrations and to the district offices was recognized by the central administration from the beginning of the program.

Among the reasons for the delegation of responsibility was the fact that State and local laws, regulations, and practices varied greatly. Moreover, employment varied widely on individual projects, ranging from less than 10 workers on small projects to more than 20,000 persons on large projects.

The Lines of Administrative Control and Supervision

At each level of administration, the offices were under the direct administrative authority of the administrative head at that level. Two types of relationship existed be- tween offices at different levels of administration, the line of administrative or direct authority and the line of technical instruction and advice.

The lines of administrative authority prescribed by the Commissioner extended (1) from the Commissioner through the assistant commissioners (a) to the central administrative divisions, (b) to the regional directors, and (c) to the State administrators; (2) from the regional directors (a) to the regional divisions and (b) to the State administrators; (3) from the State administrators (a) to the State divisions and the sections in the State administrative offices and (b) to the district managers; and (4) from the district operating divisions to the project superintendents or supervisors.

The lines of technical instruction and advice prescribed by the Commissioner extended (1) from the central administrative division to the corresponding regional and State divisions and sections of the State administration; (2) from the regional office divisions to the corresponding State divisions and sections of the State administration; and (3) from the district divisions to those in charge of corresponding functions at each project headquarters.

The State administrator prescribed the lines of administrative authority from the State administration to the district offices, from the district offices to the district divisions, and from the district offices to project headquarters.

The technical forms and procedures developed in the central administration were, in part, mandatory procedures for use in State administrations and district offices and, in part, recommended procedures for use at these levels.

The line of technical authority was thus different from the line of administrative authority. The State di- rector of employment, for example, although administratively responsible to the State administrator, was at the same time technically responsible to the assistant commissioner in charge of the Division of Employment in the central administration.

End Notes

Note 1: See WPA Manual of Rules and Regulations, Vol. I, "Organization and Administration.

Note 2: See WPA Manual of Rules and Regulations, vol. II, "Project Planning and Operation.


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WPA / Works Progress Administration
GG Archives

Brochures, Booklets, & Pamphlets


Farmers on Relief and Rehabilitation - WPA - 1937

Inventory: An Appraisal of Results of the Works Progress Administration - 1938

Rural Families on Relief - Research Monograph XVII - 1938

Rural Youth: Their Situation and Prospects - Research Monograph XV - 1938

Rural Youth - Their Situation and Prospects - Conclusions - 1938

New Deal for Youth - The National Youth Administration (NYA) - 1938

1935-05 The Drought and Current Farm Imports

1936-10-15 Report on Progress of The Works Program

Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-43

Handbook of Proceedures - 1937

Report on Progress of WPA Program - 1942

Other Information

WPA Reference Section