Does Public Administration Research Matter?

How is that for a broad question? A couple things that occurred in the past few weeks have me thinking about this. Public Administration is (should be?) a practical field, but as scholars get more esoteric and experimental there is the risk of losing touch with the normative history and aims of Public Administration. It is imperative that we as a field do not let this happen.

I first started thinking about this question while discussing Charles Lindblom with my undergraduates, specifically the root vs. branch decision-making methods. A student asked me, in reference to the root method, “If it doesn’t reflect reality why are we studying it?” I think there is a good answer to that…to understand its shortcomings…but it was a provocative question nonetheless. It made me wonder, why is so much public management research disconnected from practice?

Then I saw this piece in Education Next, where Thomas J. Kane wrote about the disconnect between education research and practice, concluding that “part of the blame rests with the research community for its failure to connect with state and local decision makers.” I think there is truth to that, particularly given the incentives in higher education, where you often publish a work and move on to the next publication or risk falling behind in the tenure/promotion battle.

But it also might be that researchers are not asking the right questions, and therefore not aligning our work with the needs of practitioners. Back in my practitioner days I rarely if ever used or read academic research because I never found a need to. Frankly, I wanted information that was actionable, and most of what I read was not. It bothered me then and it bothers me now. So what can be done about it? Does public management research matter?

Perhaps I am biased, but yes, of course it matters. We all give up freedom and treasure to be part of a governed society, and we all should expect public services to be implemented efficiently and equitably. Asking and answering relevant research questions designed to inform practice can help make that happen. Later this week I head out to the annual meeting of the American Society for Public Administration. I have my eyes open for actionable research, I am hopeful I will find it!


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