What are the Big Questions facing Public Administration Scholars?

Public Administration Review (PAR) kicked off a new “Speak Your Mind” feature on their blog by inviting reaction to a PAR editorial entitled “Is Public Administration Vanishing?” Some two-bit academic kicked off the discussion, and some quality answers followed. In the discussion, attention was brought to another piece in Governance relating to the big questions in Public Administration, and why they are not being addressed.

All of this has the gears turning in my head. Our government has immense capacity to improve or degrade our society, and I believe a credible, effective, thoughtful public sector (however broadly defined) is what leads to societal improvement rather than degradation. And yes, from time to time the big issues need to be discussed, lest we academics get bogged down in specifics while the castle burns.

So what are the big questions for Public Administration (PA) scholars? There are of course, the ongoing ones. How can PA be relevant? Is PA still a unique field of study? Are scholars exploring the right topics? Is academic PA useful to practitioner PA? I actually think all of these questions overlap, so I will boil them down to one question: How can PA scholars be a force for positive change? That is the question, in my opinion, that unites academics and practitioners.

How can we be agents of positive change? This past Saturday I spent 7 hours teaching research methods to a good mix of pre- and mid-service students. From my perspective, I am being an agent of positive change by sharing my methodological training with current and future practitioners. I find my most effective teaching involves using real world examples from my practitioner career, and real data from my academic career, to demonstrate how quantitative methods can be applied to consequential public management decisions. In other words, I am being a change-agent by expanding the tools in my students’ toolboxes. They in turn are being change-agents by taking these tools and using them to improve the performance of public and non-profit organizations.

Seeing students complete projects that result in performance gains in workplace, and hearing from graduates about how they applied knowledge learned in our MPA program, is the most satisfying part of my job. The beauty of teaching in a MPA program is knowing that the professional successes of our graduates translate into societal improvement. I am getting a bit off track here (it is not my fault, I love this stuff!).

Last month, at the American Society for Public Administration conference, an audience member at a plenary session bemoaned the state of American politics, declaring that PA is not the problem, politics is the problem. I disagree, or more accurately, I think blaming the failures of PA on politics is a cop out. No matter how broken our politics, it is up to professional public servants to be creative and proactive in administering the public good in an equitable, economic, and efficient manner. If you re-read Woodrow Wilson’s seminal essay, you will see that democratic politics has always and will always be messy. PA scholars and practitioners cannot control politics, nor should we try. But that does not mean we cannot be effective.   Politics is messy and the will of the people will change. But by focusing on the core concepts of equity, economy, and efficiency, while cultivating thoughtful creative public servants, PA scholars can be instruments of positive change no matter the political climate.

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