Thoughts on Connecting Research to Practice

An oft-stated goal in the field of Public Administration is connecting research to practice. The reason this is desirable is fairly intuitive. Ours is a practical field. The whole point of studying Public Administration is to improve the performance of the public and nonprofit sectors. While I find it interesting to explain and understand why organizations and people do the things they do, it would seem a pointless exercise if I could not in turn use what I find to improve practice. I am alone here, a cursory glance at the public service motivation literature shows people are drawn to public service precisely because they want to have an impact on their communities (however they define them).

The question then, becomes how. At times the pressure to advance theory, or the need for academics to publish in top journals, can push research into the non-practical realm. This is not to say theory is unimportant. Far from it, it is the continuity of theories and their advancement that hold together any field, including Public Administration. Without them, we do not exist to inform practice. But we still nee do work deliberately to connect research and practice. So again, how do we do that?

First, though I am biased having been a practitioner, it is important that there is opportunity for movement between the practitioner and academic world. It is good for a practitioner to become an academic, and for an academic to take time off from university life to be a practitioner. Often times such moves would create prohibitive opportunity costs…which is unfortunate. You do see movement happen with the biggest names at the federal level, but it would make just as much sense for it to happen more often in local and state government.

Second, academics need to involve practitioners in the early stages of our research. Rather than give practitioners answers to questions they may or may not care about, we should work with them in the development of our research questions. One great and frequently used way do this is to establish connections with professional membership organizations. These organizations represent practitioners, and can thus help get researchers in front of those who can most benefit from their research.

Third, though I am a late-arrival on this, is utilizing social media tools as an outlet for research. That may mean tweeting relevant audiences, blogging research results so that folks are not stopped by pay walls and/or academic jargon, or following key practitioners to stay in touch with their needs. Related, is the importance of publishing research summaries in non-academic outlets. While such publications to not always impress a tenure and promotion committee, they are no less impactful.

I was thinking about this today because I was thrilled to see some work I had done discussed in the Wisconsin Association of School Board’s monthly magazine. While the article referenced may not be in a journal with the highest impact factor, its discussion in front of the relevant practitioner audience will help it have a real-world impact.

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