Shoghi Effendi wrote that the Bahá'í Administrative Order incorporates within its structure certain elements which are to be found in each of the three recognized forms of secular government: autocracy, aristocracy and democracy. His objective in effectively designing the Bahá'í Administrative Order was to embody, reconcile and assimilate within it "such wholesome elements as are to be found in each one of them..." while excluding the "admitted evils inherent in each of these systems..." such that it "cannot ever degenerate into any form of despotism, of oligarchy, or of demagogy which must sooner or later corrupt the machinery of all man-made and essentially defective political institutions." 
Bahá'u'lláh commended the British system of government that enhanced kingship through consultation with the people:
"The system of government which the British people have adopted in London appeareth to be good, for it is adorned with the light of both kingship and of the consultation of the people."
But Bahá'u'lláh was not specifically endorsing parliamentary democracy, viz:
"Although a republican form of government profiteth all the peoples of the world, yet the majesty of kingship is one of the signs of God. We do not wish that the countries of the world should remain deprived thereof. If the sagacious combine the two forms into one, great will be their reward in the presence of God."
These statements praise the principles of kingship and consultation with the people as principles for civil government. The Bahá'í Administrative Order concerns the system of administration within the Bahá'í Faith rather than civil government. This difference is highlighted in a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi concerning the future world government foretold by Bahá'u'lláh and outlined by Shoghi Effendi:
"As regards the International Executive referred to by the Guardian in his "Goal of a New World Order", it should be noted that this statement refers by no means to the Bahá'í Commonwealth of the future, but simply to that world government which will herald the advent and lead to the final establishment of the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. The formation of this International Executive, which corresponds to the executive head or board in present-day national governments, is but a step leading to the Bahá'í world government of the future, and hence should not be identified with either the institution of the Guardianship or that of the International House of Justice."
In keeping with the Bahá'í principle of obedience to government, Bahá'í Administration is seen as subordinate to civil government.
Let them proclaim that in whatever country they reside, and however advanced their institutions, or profound their desire to enforce the laws, and apply the principles, enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh, they will, unhesitatingly, subordinate the operation of such laws and the application of such principles to the requirements and legal enactments of their respective governments. Theirs is not the purpose, while endeavoring to conduct and perfect the administrative affairs of their Faith, to violate, under any circumstances, the provisions of their country’s constitution, much less to allow the machinery of their administration to supersede the government of their respective countries.
There are two distinct elements to the Bahá'í administration, the elected and appointed. The highest elected body is the Universal House of Justice, which possesses "the exclusive right to legislate on matters not explicitly revealed in the Most Holy Book." The highest appointed authority is the Institution of the Guardianship, which is a hereditary authority and has the exclusive "right of the interpretation of the Holy Writ solely conferred upon him." (God Passes By) These two institutions are described in `Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament as having divine authority:
"...The Guardian of the Cause of God, as well as the Universal House of Justice to be universally elected and established, are both under the care and protection of the Abhá Beauty... Whatsoever they decide is of God. Whoso obeyeth him not, neither obeyeth them, hath not obeyed God" 
The same Will appoints Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian, and gives further details about the structure of the administration, including election and appointment processes. Shoghi Effendi worked throughout his life to establish the necessary secondary institutions that were required for the election of the Universal House of Justice, which was first elected in 1963.
Having no ordained, professional priesthood, Bahá'ís operate through a type of non-partisan democratic self-government. The traditional functions of community leadership and moral leadership are not vested in individuals, but in an institutional framework with two main branches.
Sometimes referred to by Bahá'u'lláh as "the Rulers", Bahá'ís elect members to councils which are vested with the authority of the community. The members of these councils, themselves, have no individual authority. When duly constituted, however, and specifically when deciding matters as a body, these councils act as the heads of the community. Bahá'u'lláh envisioned a Supreme House of Justice, with local Houses of Justice in every community where nine or more adult Bahá'ís reside. `Abdu'l-Bahá unveiled the "Secondary", or National House of Justice in his will. Seen as embryonic institutions, national and local Houses of Justice are currently given the temporary appellation of "Spiritual Assemblies" and are expected, over time, to mature into fully functional Houses of Justice.
The Universal House of Justice is seen as morally infallible, though this belief has subtleties, in that the Universal House of Justice can both make new Bahá'í law and repeal its own laws. It may not alter the scriptural laws defined by Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá. National and Local Spiritual Assemblies are seen as requiring deference and obedience, but can be overruled by a superior elected institution. All decisions by these bodies must be made, and are considered valid if, and only if the body is duly constituted, and meeting as a body with a quorum of members present. These decisions are made through a specific process of consultation.
The Universal House of Justice is the supreme governing body of the Bahá'í Faith. The Bahá'í writings affirm that its decisions are "the source of all good and freed from all error". It is elected every five years, and currently sitting members of all National Spiritual Assemblies act as delegates to its election.
A National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) normally represents a country, although sometimes regions are assigned their own NSA (e.g. Alaska). Sometimes several countries are grouped together into a single Assembly, for instance the Baltic States, or (originally) Canada and the United States. These boundaries are subject to the discretion of the Universal House of Justice, and can obviously change, Canada and the USA now having their own individual National Assemblies. These assemblies are elected annually through locally elected delegates.
Regional Bahá'í Councils (RBC) have also been established in several larger national Bahá'í communities. They act under the direction of a National Spiritual Assembly and are elected by members of the local Spiritual Assemblies in their jurisdiction. They are increasingly taking on community growth and development activities, and provide guidance and structure for local communities' coordination on these.
A Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA) represents a town, city, or county, and are elected annually by direct election. If a locality only has nine Bahá'ís, then no election process is necessary. The Local Assemblies govern Bahá'í community life at the local level, and administer the affairs of the entire community, including coordinating the Nineteen Day Feast, holy day observances, funeral services, marriage counselling and many other tasks, though these are generally done through committee appointment.
Bahá'u'lláh makes reference to "the learned" among his people. These are seen to take the moral leadership role often occupied by a professional priesthood, though without any temporal authority. The functions of this branch were originally carried out by the Hands of the Cause of God appointed by Bahá'u'lláh, `Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. When it was determined that no more "Hands" could be appointed, the Universal House of Justice formed the Institution of the Counsellors to fulfill their duties. The appointed members act as individuals. While they have no authority to command or rule on matters, they are "the learned" and individuals and institutions are morally obliged to consider their opinions. These individuals inspire, encourage, enjoin, and make the community aware of relevant scripture and guidance from the central institutions. Their function is loosely defined, though their duties are divided into the two general categories of protection and propagation of the Bahá'í Faith. The learned have a similar geographic hierarchy.
The International Counsellors are nine individuals appointed to the International Teaching Centre, which is a body that directly assists the Universal House of Justice at the Bahá'í World Centre. They advise Bahá'ís at the international level and coordinate the efforts of the Continental Counsellors.
Individual Counsellors are assigned to continental boards, where they interact directly with several National Spiritual Assemblies. They often act in an informational capacity, communicating the direction and discussions at the World Centre to national communities. They will often focus their work on one or a set of countries within their jurisdiction.
Auxiliary Boards are appointed by the Continental Counsellors to assist them on a smaller geographic scale. They work with any Local Spiritual Assemblies, Regional Councils, and individuals within their jurisdiction. There are typically two boards in a single geographical region, one responsible for protection, and one for propagation of the community, though these functions often overlap. Both boards report to the Continental Board that appointed them, regardless of their focus.
Auxiliary Board Members appoint "assistants" that operate on their behalf at the grassroots level. These assistants often meet with Local Spiritual Assemblies, speak at events, and are sought for advice by individual community members. They will sometimes have a very localized mandate, such as to focus on youth in a particular city, or they can be appointed broadly. Their role is as flexible as their Auxiliary Board Member feels is appropriate.
While most of the above have been in place for decades or more, in recent years with the institution of the Bahá'í institute process a number of other possible positions have been named: Regional Institute Boards, Area Teaching Committees, Cluster Growth Facilitators, Cluster Institute Coordinators, Cluster Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Programme Coordinators, and Cluster Children's Class Coordinator being examples.
Bahá'ís consider their electoral process to be a sacred act, essential to the health of the community. Great effort is spent on organizing elections to meet with the exacting standards set by Shoghi Effendi.
Bahá'í elections use what is described as a three-stage councilor-republican system to determine electors. Who the electors are and who the eligible members are depends on the scope of the election. At all levels, only residents within the jurisdiction of the body being elected are eligible for membership. In general, adult Bahá'ís in good standing resident in the jurisdiction are both the electorate (either directly or through delegation) as well as the pool of potential members to serve on the body being elected.
Voting itself is held using a system similar to the multiple member first past the post voting system. In the typical case, there are nine members on an Assembly or House of Justice, and therefore voters vote for nine individuals. Electors write the individual names of exactly nine eligible Bahá'ís, without repeating. The nine Bahá'ís with the most votes are elected. In cases of tie votes for the ninth-least-populous vote (for example), a run-off election is held (unless one of the tied candidates is a member of a minority in the community and is deemed elected).
Bahá'í elections do not include any sort of constituency for members - all members are considered to be at-large. Members are chosen by the electorate based on Shoghi Effendi's stated criteria consisting of five qualities:
"Let us recall His explicit and often-repeated assurance that every Assembly elected in that rarefied atmosphere of selflessness and detachment
is in truth, appointed of God, that its verdict is truly inspired, that one and all should submit to its decision unreservedly and with cheerfulness ... the elector ... is called upon to vote for none but those whom prayer and reflection have inspired him
to uphold... Hence it is incumbent upon the chosen delegates to consider without the least trace of passion and prejudice, and irrespective of any material consideration
, the names of only those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience
... Nothing short of the all-encompassing, all-pervading power of His Guidance and Love can enable this newly enfolded order to gather strength and flourish amid the storm and stress of a turbulent age, and in the fullness of time vindicate its high claim to be universally recognized as the one Haven of abiding felicity and peace."
The Universal House of Justice further clarified that the elector, having determined those who meet these qualifications, should give "due consideration. . . to such other factors as age distribution, diversity, and gender."
Shoghi Effendi sternly deprecated partisan politics and certain other practices current in western democracies, such as campaigning and nomination. As a result:Nominations and campaigning are prohibited. Bahá'ís should not seek to promote themselves as candidates.
Voters are urged not to consult with each other about the suitability of individuals.
Voters are strongly encouraged to study and discuss, in abstract, the qualities named by Shoghi Effendi as being necessary in those elected to serve, without reference to individuals.
Individuals should be selected only on the basis of their qualities, without reference to material means or other characteristics, except insofar as they provide insight into their qualities.
Those elected are expected to serve, though, in cases of extreme personal difficulty, such a member may request that the body to which they are elected excuse him or her.
In the event of a tying vote for the last places, if one of these individuals is a member of a minority, this individual is automatically awarded the position. (In the US, this refers to racial minority.) If this is unclear, or if there is disagreement as to whether the minority rule applies, a run-off election is held in which votes are cast only for one of those tied.
Shoghi Effendi saw these (and other) aspects as essential to preserving the full rights and prerogatives of the electors, guarding them against manipulation.
At the local (city, town, county) level of administration, the nine-member Local Spiritual Assembly is elected by adult Bahá'ís in that particular locality once a year during their Annual General Meeting on the First Day of the Ridvan Festival (the 13th day of the month of Glory, about April 20 or 21).
In the United States, Canada, and India, Regional Councils are elected by members of these Local Spiritual Assemblies in an election often conducted by mail. Again, no nominations occur, and each Local Spiritual Assembly member is directed to vote for those individuals who are resident in the region they feel are best suited to serve.
The selection of the National Spiritual Assembly is indirect using an electoral-unit delegation method. The nation is divided into voting districts or units. In each district the members are charged with selecting one or more delegates who will attend the annual national convention and vote for the members of the National Spiritual Assembly. The members at the local level are free to vote for any adult Baha’i(s) in the district or unit in good standing, keeping in mind the guidance from Shoghi Effendi that the individuals should, “combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience...” The delegates elected at the local level have two principal duties to carry out at the national convention – to elect the National Spiritual Assembly and to make recommendations to that body on issues relevant to it. In a process parallel to the one at the local level, the delegates to the national convention are free to vote for the nine individuals who they feel will best carry out the duties of the National Spiritual Assembly. They are also free to voice any relevant concerns they have to the delegation and to the outgoing and incoming Assemblies. While the delegates can certainly convey to the convention the concerns of those in their district, they are in no way obligated to represent those who elected them. In addition, no input is provided to the delegates, either at the local or national levels, on whom to vote for in the national election. The number of delegates per country is determined by the Universal House of Justice according to the size of the national community; the National Spiritual Assembly determines the geographic area covered by each unit/district.
Every five years from 1963, members of all National Spiritual Assemblies are called to vote at an International Convention at the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa, Israel for members of the Universal House of Justice. These members act as delegates in a manner similar to National Bahá'í elections. Those who are unable to attend send postal ballots.
Bahá'ís may, depending on circumstances, serve on multiple institutions. Members of National Spiritual Assemblies have served on Local Spiritual Assemblies, and assistants within the appointed institutions may serve on Local Spiritual Assemblies. However, beyond this there are several practical limitations. National Spiritual Assemblies may ask Local Spiritual Assemblies to excuse those who are members of both bodies from executive positions, to free their time to do the work of that National Spiritual Assemblies. Members of the Auxiliary Boards appointed by the Counsellors who are elected to such an institution are asked to choose to serve either in their elected or appointed capacity, but not both. Members of the Universal House of Justice do not simultaneously serve on other elected bodies, though this may not be a formal policy.
The earliest depiction of the administration currently at work within the worldwide Bahá'í community can be found in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh. Founded upon the belief that God guides humanity through messengers, many of whom have prophesied a "Kingdom of Heaven on earth", and the belief that Bahá'u'lláh's revelation is the fulfillment of such prophesies, Bahá'ís see in his writings a system both of God and of the people.
Though Bahá'u'lláh intimated, earlier, many of the policies that would form the basis of the Bahá'í administrative system, his Kitáb-i-Aqdas provides the most solid initial glimpse of this system:
"The Lord hath ordained that in every city a House of Justice be established wherein shall gather counsellors to the number of Bahá, and should it exceed this number it doth not matter. They should consider themselves as entering the Court of the presence of God, the Exalted, the Most High, and as beholding Him Who is the Unseen. It behoveth them to be the trusted ones of the Merciful among men and to regard themselves as the guardians appointed of God for all that dwell on earth. It is incumbent upon them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God, for His sake, even as they regard their own interests, and to choose that which is meet and seemly. Thus hath the Lord your God commanded you. Beware lest ye put away that which is clearly revealed in His Tablet. Fear God, O ye that perceive."
This House of Justice is described as being in concert with Baha'u'llah and the Aghsán, his descendants, but with the responsibility for creating and abrogating laws not explicitly revealed in the sacred scripture.
Over time, these concepts were clarified initially in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, and then in those of his eldest son and successor, `Abdu'l-Bahá.
It was `Abdu'l-Bahá who clarified the differing roles of Supreme/Universal (global) vs. the local Houses of Justice. During `Abdu'l-Bahá's life, he oversaw and encouraged the establishment of many elected local councils, calling them "Spiritual Assemblies". He wrote many clarifying letters, giving instructions to various Spiritual Assemblies, inspiring the Bahá'í world. The Tablets of the Divine Plan stand out, however, and formed a great part of the early goal setting and planning processes of the nascent spiritual community. This plan opened up whole new geographic regions to the Bahá'ís, `Abdu'l-Bahá encouraging Bahá'ís to connect with the peoples of all races and cultures.
One of his greatest legacies to the development of the Bahá'í administrative system, however, was his will and testament, wherein he describes several new institutions. Clarifying Bahá'u'lláh's comments about his descendants and authority, he described the Institution of the Guardianship, which he saw as functioning in concert with the Universal House of Justice - one bearing responsibility for interpretation of scripture, the other as legislator of new law not covered by existing scripture. To these he commanded the obedience of the Bahá'ís.
"The sacred and youthful branch, the Guardian of the Cause of God, as well as the Universal House of Justice to be universally elected and established, are both under the care and protection of the Abhá Beauty, under the shelter and unerring guidance of the Exalted One (may my life be offered up for them both). Whatsoever they decide is of God. Whoso obeyeth him not, neither obeyeth them, hath not obeyed God; whoso rebelleth against him and against them hath rebelled against God; whoso opposeth him hath opposed God; whoso contendeth with them hath contended with God; whoso disputeth with him hath disputed with God"
In this document, `Abdu'l-Bahá also:appointed his grandson Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian of the Cause of God
established criteria for the appointment of future Guardians.
defined a new scope of elected institution he called the "Secondary House of Justice", the first of which were elected under the administration of Shoghi Effendi.
enjoined the believers to shun Covenant-breakers - Bahá'ís who opposed the head of the faith and attempted to create a split or faction.
defined some of the conditions for the future development of the Bahá'í administration.
clarified the institution of the Hands of the Cause, and clarified the requirements for their appointment.
Under Shoghi Effendi, the Bahá'í Faith underwent its most dramatic shift in shape and process. While evolving from the skeletal structure established by Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi instituted large-scale campaigns of administrative consolidation, established practices and procedures for Bahá'í administrative bodies, appointed more Hands of the Cause, secured the legal position of the Bahá'í Community both in Haifa, but also, working with newly formed National Spiritual Assemblies, with many national governments. Over this period, Bahá'í institutions and inter-institutional collaboration became clearer, many finer points of Bahá'í law were explained, and the faith was spread to most of the globe. Bahá'í marriages became recognized in their own right in several regions and the Bahá'í Faith was recognized as an independent religion by many nations and religious courts, including Islamic religious courts in Egypt. Shoghi Effendi described the death of `Abdu'l-Bahá and the start of his own administration as the end of the "Heroic age" and the start of the "Formative" age of the Bahá'í Faith.
Shoghi Effendi died in 1957 with no children, and no will could be found. The 27 living Hands of the Cause, appointed for life by Shoghi Effendi and referred to by him as "the Chief Stewards of Bahá'u'lláh's embryonic World Commonwealth" signed a unanimous proclamation on November 25, 1957, shortly after the death of Shoghi Effendi, stating that he had died "without having appointed his successor", and leaving further decisions about the Guardianship to the Universal House of Justice which had yet to be elected. When, shortly after its ultimate election in 1963, this body examined the question of the succession of the Guardian it determined that there was no way to satisfy the provisions of the will and testament of `Abdu'l-Bahá, and that, therefore, no successor to the Shoghi Effendi could be named. Creating a constitution for itself that incorporated obedience to the body of Shoghi Effendi's writings, and to those of `Abdu'l-Bahá and Bahá'u'lláh, the Universal House of Justice assumed full authority over the affairs of the Bahá'í community.
In 1968, the Universal House of Justice, in collaboration with the Hands of the Cause of God determined that only a Guardian of the Cause could appoint the Hands of the Cause, and decided to create the Continental Boards of Counsellors, to continue and assist in the work of the Hands. In 1973 the International Teaching Centre was established and the Hands were instructed to act as liaisons between the Counsellors appointed to it and the House of Justice. That same year the Auxiliary Board members were authorized to name "assistants" to act on local levels. All Hands have since died.
100 Years after Bahá'u'lláh's death, the Bahá'ís celebrated a "holy year", during which the fully authorized translation of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Most Holy Book) was published. Coinciding with this was a process of re-examination of intra-Bahá'í administrative and community action, the implementation of Bahá'í law in greater degrees among non-Iranian Bahá'ís, and the maturation of the Spiritual Assemblies.
Through a series of plans, the Universal House of Justice refocused the Bahá'í community on community development, and systematization of best-practices, hoping to reduce the "boom and bust" cycles of community growth encountered in the previous century. The Bahá'í community began to incorporate more active service, socio-economic development efforts ballooned in number, and local and national communities became more focused on examining the needs of their wider non-Bahá'í communities, to see how the faith could aid them. The earliest days of the 21st Century saw the Bahá'ís begin to pare down their administrative structures, appoint fewer committees, and focus on very specific goals outlined by the Universal House of Justice - namely the creation of small grass-roots study groups, the creation of more neighbourhood-centric children's classes, and the increase in the spiritual character of the community through small devotional gatherings. The Bahá'ís were encouraged not to see these "core activities" as simply Bahá'í activities. Rather, these were to be seen as activities which were open to the wider community, but would be characteristic of a Bahá'í's community life.
This period also saw the establishment of regional councils, who form a level of administrative action more specific than a National Spiritual Assembly, but broader than the civic locality, a boundary which almost always defines the jurisdictions of Local Spiritual Assembly. These seem to be evolving and assuming many growth and consolidation and educational functions of Local Spiritual Assemblies, allowing these local bodies to meet the more personal needs of their community members.
The present-day Bahá'í local, national and international communities experiment with community development methods, and seem to be attempting to harness the administrative structure to canalize grass-roots initiatives, rather than have higher institutions dictate highly specific plans and practices.