The State of Public Administration: Reflecting on the Challenges, Harnessing Opportunities

Scholars and practitioners in the field of public administration are continually working to meet the ongoing challenge of providing public services in an efficient, effective, and equitable matter. H. George Frederickson (2005) described this challenge as addressing both “whether an existing public program or proposed program is effective or good,” and “[f]or whom is the program effective or good” (35). Frederickson’s two questions continue to present a simple framework for understanding the complex challenges, both external and internal, facing the field of public administration.

Many of the external challenges, i.e. those originating outside the field, are familiar. The first is legitimacy. While elected officials can point to election results as evidence of their leadership mandate, those within the bureaucracy must legitimize their actions through professionalism, merit, and performance. And even then, members of the public may deem administrative actions illegitimate. The second external challenge is political gridlock. Though gridlock is arguably ingrained in American government as a result of the the basic contradictions present at the founding of the American republic (see Stillman, 1999), paralysis in congress and/or state legislatures feeds into the perception of a generally ineffective or incompetent government. Such a perception breeds general distrust in government, and hurts recruitment of the next generation of effective public servants. The third challenge is the blurring of lines between the public and nonprofit and private sectors. Partly a reaction to the fiscal stresses faced by government, the blurring of sectors can undermine traditional approaches to transparency, accountability, and government responsiveness by diffusing responsibility and regulation. In addition, movement toward multi-sector network governance changes the core-competencies needed in an effective public manager.

The two prominent internal challenges, i.e. those originating in the field, are also familiar. First is the basic question of how best to define the scope of public administration. As government structures and needed public management competencies evolve, theory development and standardized learning outcomes must also evolve if the academic field of public administration is to keep up with practice. This leads to the second internal challenge, which is connecting public administration research to practice. As the techniques deployed in the academic field of public administration become more sophisticated, there is the risk that research supported practices become either inaccessible, or impractical to the practitioner.

Together, the challenges facing the field stem from the difficulty of answering Frederickson’s two questions in a diverse democratically governed society. Simply, the perceived effectiveness, and the perceived beneficiaries of a government action or program are likely dependent on one’s personal preferences, political ideology, or demographics. Hence, easy answers to Frederickson’s questions will be fleeting. However, the field today is full of opportunities that can aid the effective, efficient, and equitable provision of public services and goods.

The first opportunity is the development of new technologies that enhance communication between administrators, and between administrators and citizens. Managers overseeing complex governing networks can communicate electronically with human capital regardless of geographic location, or deployment in the field. In addition, management dashboards such as those described by Edwards and Thomas (2005) can give managers and staff real-time financial and performance data that can be used to improve performance. In addition, social media tools allow government organizations to communicate directly with their citizens, provide real-time service updates, and provide a venue for direct communication between bureaucrat and citizen. These opportunities can improve performance, and help bureaucracies overcome the previously mentioned legitimacy challenge.

The second opportunity is the greater understanding of the human element within public administration. Gabris and Nelson (2013), Grissom (2014) and others, have built on the foundations of the human relations school in public administration by demonstrating how governance teams can improve organizational performance through improved group dynamics. Thus, simple steps like minimizing conflict and working to build trust can improve overall performance. The further development of this line of research can show what steps all public service organizations can take to improve their performance regardless of the context in which they are operating.

The third opportunity is the expanding networks of nonprofit organizations and social entrepreneurs actively involved in public administration. While the blurring of sectors brings challenges as mentioned, it can also yield new innovative governance approaches stemming from previously untapped resources. The growth of networks can also bring the financial resources of private foundations to policy areas where government support is waning. Overall, networks can, as articulated by O’Toole (1997), bring a larger plate of solutions to bear on entrenched public problems.

Frederickson’s framework brings to light the inherent difficulty of defining effectiveness and ensuring equity in the field of public administration. However, because all citizens sacrifice freedom and treasure to participate in a governed society, working towards the goals of effectiveness and equity is a moral imperative. Thus, the greatest asset for the field of public administration is the large number of scholars and practitioners working everyday to find new approaches for addressing the complex challenge of implementing the public interest. This body of competence, when bound with the academic roots of public administration through the continuity of theory, has the opportunity to provide research-supported solutions to the challenge of public governance.

Works Cited

Edwards, D., & Thomas, J. C. (2005). Developing a Municipal Performance‐Measurement System: Reflections on the Atlanta Dashboard. Public Administration Review65(3), 369-376.

Frederickson, H. G. (2005). The State of Social Equity in American Public Administration. National Civic Review (Winter), 31-38.

Gabris, G. T., & Nelson, K. L. (2013). Transforming Municipal Boards into Accountable, High-Performing Teams: Toward a Diagnostic Model of Governing Board Effectiveness. Public Performance & Management Review, 36(3), 472-495.

Grissom, J. A. (2014). Is Discord Detrimental? Using Institutional Variation to Identify the Impact of Public Governing Board Conflict on Outcomes. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 24(2), 289-315.

O’Toole, L. J. (1997). Treating networks seriously: Practical and research-based agendas in public administration. Public Administration Review, 57(1): 45-52.

Stillman, R. J. (1999). Preface to Public Administration (2nd ed.). Burke, VA: Chatelaine Press.

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Technology, our Humanity, and the Fate of Public Administration

Back in my graduate school days I designed a course focused on technology and its impacts on the urban environment and the general social fabric of society. Students read some pretty heavy material, including Lewis Mumford and Neil Postman. If you are a good urbanist you already know Lewis Mumford, but you may be less familiar with Postman’s work. I am simplifying his argument, but Postman worried that the balance of technology was shifting from a place where humans used technology to better serve human needs, to a place where humans lived to serve the needs of technology. He called this state technopoly, which he defined as such:

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs.

I pondered Postman’s work after I watched Jake Tapper’s Stephen Miller interview Sunday morning. My first instinct was to see how Twitter would react. My actual thought process was, “What will Twitter think of this?” Breaking this down, I pretty much realized Postman’s worst vision. One, I ceded my own thoughts for those of others. Rather than think about what I just watched and form an opinion based on my own humanity, I went looking for the instant reaction, which inevitably clouded my judgment. Two, I humanized a computer program. I did not think about a specific person on Twitter, but Twitter itself. Three, I used technology to find my satisfaction, I did not engage the humans around me, or my own brain, but rather an interface where ideas from total strangers dominate.

So my thought today is what heck is wrong with me?!! Or more to the point, is technology poisoning our social fabric and changing not only how we discourse, but who we are? Here are two more relevant paragraphs from Postman:

The relationship between information and the mechanisms for its control is fairly simple to describe: Technology increases the available supply of information. As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained. Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information. When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures

One way of defining Technopoly, then, is to say it is what happens to society when the defenses against information glut have broken down. It is what happens when institutional life becomes inadequate to cope with too much information. It is what happens when a culture, overcome by information generated by technology, tries to employ technology itself as a means of providing clear direction and humane purpose.

Reading that makes me shiver, as there is a whole lot of evidence that society has reached a point where “defenses against information glut have broken down.” I have a paper under review right now (fingers crossed) that argues one must understand the importance of perceptions if they are to truly understand the state of modern governance. There is strong evidence (in my informed opinion) to support my hypothesis, and accordingly I think it is essential that the field of public administration places renewed focus on the concept of public acceptance and Herbert Simon’s notion of decision-premises.

But what if our decision-premises are so clouded by inhumane technological forces that our zones of acceptance are determined not by ideas and experience, or really our very humanity, but rather platforms like Twitter and Facebook? How can public administrators and policymakers govern in an environment where public acceptance is increasingly divorced from humanity?

Per usual, I have no good answers to these questions, but it is making me think about new paradigms for understanding governance and public administration. It is also making me think about my own use of social media platforms and how it is impacting by critical thinking patterns. Of course the irony is that I am tweeting this out, but I do love vagueness and contradictions. But for now, I think it is time to reread Postman, and perhaps dig a littler deeper into the relationship between Postman’s thinking and public administration theory.

Reflecting on my 2017 in academia

All in an all it was a busy year for me professionally, many highlights and a few lowlights. First the good.

In 2017 I was able to finish and publish my first book entitled The Consequences of Governance Fragmentation. It was a very fun project to work on, and I learned a heck of a lot that will help me with the next one. I was also happy to get a nice write-up in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; there really is nothing better than getting ideas that mean something dear to you into the public debate. I was also happy to keep up a nice academic publication pace in 2017, writing about education policy, nonprofit governance, group dynamics, and local government. All of these projects fall into my broader governance research agenda, and I am feeling good about its progression. I am also feeling good about my engagement in the community and the broader world of PA this past year. From serving on boards and commissions to writing for the PATimes, I feel like I am doing more than talking when it comes to bridging the academic-practitioner divide. I am also most pleased to have good colleagues and a growing body of diverse students that both challenge and enlighten me in the classroom. A lot of good stuff in 2017.

I of course also had my share of not-so-good stuff. The usual journal and grant rejections that come in this line of work, as well as job-market frustrations. Part of being in academia is keeping an open mind to opportunities, and I am genuinely humbled when friends and scholars I respect think I would be a good fit for something. That said, I think it is safe to say I am done testing the waters, my goal this year is to appreciate being where I am wanted and happy as opposed to seeking out an R1. I had a particularly frustrating experience at a conference where a well-known and accomplished governance scholar told me my work really did not matter; it was weird for someone to try to delegitimize me like that and brought on some soul-searching this past fall.

Did I really want to stay in academia? If my work was really seen as widely irrelevant because of who or where I was, or where I came from in the academic hierarchy, how could I ever make the positive impact I strive to make? I had a nice practitioner career prior to joining the academy and I really did consider returning to it in 2017. I would be lying if I said that was not still on my mind at times. That said, I love what I do. I love teaching, I love writing, and I love finding new ways to get my work out there. But the frustrations are real, and I cringe at what others must face given my position of relative privilege.

So now the professional goals for 2018:

  • Get all my tenure documents in successfully;
  • Further and fully embrace where I am;
  • Finish book number two, (two and three are in progress!);
  • Keep the publication train moving at a steady clip;
  • Work with my PhD bound students to get their publication trains moving;
  • Keep up the public engagement;
  • Bring a planned research center into reality; and
  • Keep making new academic friends and connections.

Will I accomplish all of these? Probably not, but a little bit of reflection and planning is unavoidable this time of year. With that, I have four courses I need to plan! Cheers.

Using Charter School Boards as an Accountability Bridge Between Schools and the Public

When we talk about charter schools and governance and we tend to think of charter policy itself as a governance innovation. Anyone following education policy is aware of the debate over the portfolio model of schools, the issue of charter management organizations, and the diversity of charter school laws and authorizers. And yes, charter policy is itself a governance innovation. However, a charter school policy is only as good as the quality of schools enabled by it, and can only be successful if the public accepts charter schools as a legitimate provider of public education. Thus, if charter policies are to be effective at scale we must:

  1. Understand what makes individual charter schools successful; and
  2. Develop ways to ensure public acceptance of charter schools and policies.

In a new paper in Education and Urban Society, Doug Ihrke and I take up the second point by explaining how charter school board members approach the issue of accountability, and then by using their answers to inform suggestions on how charter boards can serve as an accountability bridge between their schools and the public at-large. First, some background. My interest in public sector accountability stems, in part, from frustrations with some of the accountability work in the public administration and education policy literatures. There is so much theorizing, but surprisingly little actionable information regarding accountability. I see value in public administration theory, I enjoy reading it, but I also want to know how it matters. With that in mind Doug and I created a radical new methodology that involves asking those charged with holding public organizations accountable how they define accountability. Simple? Yes…but also very fruitful.

In this specific study we asked 215 charter school board members in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin how they defined accountability in their charter school. We then coded their open-ended answers using the categories below:

  1. Test scores. Responses coded “test scores” reference standardized test scores or high-stakes testing. An example answer in our data is “Standardized testing.”
  2. Responses coded “staff” reference teachers or the school principal. An example answer in our data is “Teachers need to meet instructional targets. Failing to do so may result in dismissal.”
  3. Responses coded “board” explicitly reference the board itself. An example answer in our data is “Our success and failures are directly related to the board being within our roles as governing members.”
  4. Responses coded “authorizer” reference either the charter contract or the authorizer. An example answer in our data is “Our expectations are stated clearly in the Charter Contract.

As you can see in the figure below, respondents gave diverse answers, with test scores and staff being the most prominent.

chart

However, as we state in the paper, “[n]ot one survey respondent mentioned the taxpayer, citizens, or any external constituency; indeed, board members either looked downward at student and staff performance (test scores and staff accountability), inward at the board itself, or upward at their authorizer.” This poses a legitimacy challenge and speaks, we argue, to the heart of criticism questioning the very publicness of charter schools. Simply, charter schools are a step removed from the direct public accountability traditionally associated with public education. Now, certainly the wisdom of the traditional school board governance model and the effectiveness of democratic accountability in education can be debated, but that does not change the reality of public expectations for accountability. As we conclude: “[T]he absence of outward looking accountability definitions on charter boards is further evidence of the legitimacy challenge facing the charter model of school governance.”

So what can be done? We offer five basic suggestions that can empower charter school board to serve as the accountability bridge between their schools and the public.

  1. Elected Charter School Board Members: Opening up a set number of seats on charter school boards for direct election can bring increased balance to, and representation on, charter school boards. While elections could lead to board members hostile to charter school policy, the potential for any citizen in a school’s catchment area to serve on charter boards brings a level of direct electoral accountability that is currently lacking.
  2. Board Member Term Limits: Though hardly an innovative idea, staggered term limits can ensure an evolving group dynamic.
  3. Board Member Listening Sessions: Charter boards have nothing akin to a standard agenda item for public input. Allowing open comment and questioning at one or more points throughout the year would allow the public to voice their concerns directly to a school’s governing body.
  4. Mandated Board Member Training: Another obvious suggestion, but one that would aid members nonetheless.
  5. The Creation and Dissemination of a Board Accountability Plan: What does accountability mean to board members and how do they plan to actualize the concept? Creating a plan forces board members to be aligned with one another, and also creates a written contract between the board and the public.

There is of course a lot more detail in the paper so please feel free to contact me at fordm@uwosh.edu if you would like a full copy. My hope is that this project, which is ongoing, will continue to yield actionable insights into how governance impacts both the performance and legitimacy of public and nonprofit organizations.

So is my kid’s school good or not?

The new round of Wisconsin school report cards are out and, if you are like me, you may be a bit confused. There are some mixed messages out there. So are our schools more or less meeting expectations? Are private schools accepting vouchers outperforming public schools? Are gains this year a statistical outlier? Is this whole thing silly? As I wrote last year, people tend to weaponize these report cards to support their views on education policy, but they are nonetheless important. A couple points worth making.

First, never forget these are human-designed accountability systems. Groups of humans are making decisions about what is measured, how it is measured, and how important each area is to the entire accountability system. Perhaps you have heard the cliché that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Well the report cards are a camel. Any attempt to take everything that occurs in a school and boil it down to a single number will be a flawed exercise. I urge parents and policymakers alike to review schools by looking at the detailed report card, not the simple overall score.

Second, DPI should be commended for their work on this. It is awesome to see how much data is available on Wisconsin schools compared to when I began working in this area a dozen years ago. This is a difficult bureaucratic exercise (especially when we constantly change the report card), yet DPI pulled it off.

Third, this is the second year of the new accountability formula. Two years does not make a trend, so if your child’s school made improvements or scored lower, do not rush to judgment.

Fourth, it is great to see more demographic data available for private schools in choice programs. We are getting closer to the day where data systems are aligned between public and voucher schools, which is a huge development that will help us better understand the choice sector. That said, keep in mind that private schools have two sets of report cards; one optional for all students, and one required only of voucher students. Also keep in mind that the Milwaukee, Racine, and statewide voucher programs are different animals with different regulations and characteristics. Finally, keep in mind that Milwaukee’s education challenges will not be solved by simply concluding one sector is better than another. That is a flawed premise in my opinion (hey, buy my book to learn more!).

Now the nitty gritty, what is going on with Emmeline Cook, my sons’ school? Last year the school met few expectations with a total score of 54.3. This year the school meets expectations with a 66.9. What gives? Perhaps my parenting skills simply vaulted the school now that my oldest is in a tested grade. I joke of course. A closer look reveals what changed:

  • In 2015-2016 the school had very low growth scores in math, and extremely low gap-closing scores in English and math. These low scores were driven by low scores in the sub-categories of low-income, and ELL students.
  • This year the school’s math growth scores, and English and math gap closing scores increased considerably. If you look a bit closer you see the value-added growth for low-income pupils improved considerably, as did the math achievement scores for low-income pupils.
  • I also note the percentage of ELL students in the school decreased by about 4 percentage points. This cohort was struggling according to last year’s report card, so this demographic change had the likely impact of increasing growth scores, particularly in math.

To put it all together, the increased accountability score is a function of 1) Improved math growth scores for low-income pupils, 2) Improved gap-closing in math and English for low-income pupils, and 3) A reduction in the total number of ELL pupils.

So back to my original question, is my kid’s school good or not? Well, I do not think the accountability score in this report card can tell me that. But it does contain good information that helps parents, policymakers, and school leaders better understand what is working and what needs improvement, and for whom. Data like theses should be a tool, and a valuable opportunity to better understand what is going on in your child’s school.