Embracing Complexity: Why is Studying Public Management Important?

What exactly is a MPA?  What do you do with it? These two questions are often asked of me by prospective students, friends and family, and even the occasional academic. Sometimes I give the canned answer: It’s like a MBA but for the public sector. Or the snarky answer: It’s a MBA with a conscience. Or the official answer: It’s a professional degree that will prepare you for public sector management. All are true to some degree. But there is a more important question we in the field should be answering: Why is a MPA important?

The PA Times recently published an interesting column on this very subject that is worth checking out. The piece got me thinking, especially where the author argues that MPA graduates are valuable because they are able to see the big picture. I agree. I’d argue that the complexity of the big picture is the defining difference between management in the private and public sectors.

This is not to say there is not a need to understand the big picture in private sector management. There is. However, the private sector has the distinct advantages of having an obvious monetary definition of profit, and a defined shareholder base. In the public sector the nature of profit is not so easy to define. It is value-laden and defined by the needs and wants of an incredibly diverse group of shareholders, i.e. the public. One of the reasons I enjoy teaching about and researching policy issues in Wisconsin is the state’s sharp political divide. Just about every significant public reform will be opposed by a large chunk of the electorate. This may be ok for politicians who need 50% + 1 of the vote to keep their job, but it is incredibly challenging for public sector managers who must implement programs in equitable ways despite a divided public. How do you maximize public good when there is widespread disagreement about what constitutes the public good!?!

I’d say you give it your best shot be utilizing the skills taught in a MPA program. One of these skills is asking what H. George Frederickson called “the second question.” The first question is “whether an existing public program or proposed program is effective or good.” The second question is “For whom is the program effective or good.” Simply, the public sector manager does not have the right to refuse service, and thus must consider things like equity that may reduce performance (as narrowly defined), but are still crucial considerations in government programming.

An illustrative example is public education. If I wanted to improve the performance of the American K-12 education system I could decide that certain students are not worth educating. I could do a cost/benefit analysis of the likelihood of a successful outcome, and direct tax dollars and capital to the students most likely to succeed. Test scores would skyrocket. It would also be unconscionable. Now if I was running a business, I would of course locate it and dedicate resources to the locations and clientele who are most likely to make my business successful. And there would be nothing at all wrong with doing that.

The reality is that public sector management is unique, and requires a different skill set. There is much that overlaps, but the value-laden complexities of managing public resources equitably in a society that embraces a diversity of values, goals, and needs, requires an ability to make sense of a big-picture that is always vague and ever-changing. It’s not easy to obtain and maintain that skill set, but it sure is important (and fun) to try. So there you go, that is why I think a MPA is important.

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