Without Practitioners, Public Administration Risks Irrelevancy

William Earle Klay has a great new column up at PA Times on the lack of diversity of recent faculty applicants to his school, Florida State University. The whole piece is interesting, but these two paragraphs say it all:

Less than half of the applicants had any more practitioner experience than required for a typical MPA internship. Twenty-five applicants had one or more years of this experience but very few had five or more. A majority had never done anything more than a brief internship.

The dramatic decline in the number of ASPA’s practitioner membership is due mainly to a wide practitioner/academic gap in our field. The future of ASPA depends on bringing relevance to practice. If we do not encourage—and enable—our young scholars to link what they do to practice, the future of our field is likely to be a shallower one.

It is a problem I highlight on the blog frequently, and one that is self-perpetuating. I have had both formal and informal conversations with folks from PA schools (that shall remain nameless) who actually view practitioner experience as a potential negative for new hires! Why? Look through some of the pages of our top journals. With some notable exceptions, there is a lot there that is not of use to the practitioner. In my experience many former practitioners in the PA field are hesitant to apply the most rigorous methodological approaches, i.e. those that will get you into top journals, if they do not see the result as useful, or the methodology itself as appropriate for addressing the reality of the issue. This is a bit too simplistic, but someone with no practitioner experience is more likely to focus on methods over context and applicability, where the former practitioner will look first at context and applicability, and then choose a method.

An example from my own career…one area I study is board dynamics. I favor survey methodology. I am frequently criticized or questioned for not measuring dynamics like conflict and cooperation objectively. I always get the suggestion to look at divided board votes as a superior measure of conflict. I argue this misses the point. If you have served on or worked with governing boards you know A) Perceptions are reality in a human governance situation, and B) Unified votes are often a formality, and do not signify an absence of conflict.

A couple quick examples illustrate my point. I once served on a board where a single member was convinced everyone was out to get him. We were not. Objectively, there was no malice towards this individual. But he perceived it, and we spent significant time and effort addressing his perception to the determinant of organizational progress. Perception impacted performance, not objective reality.   Or look at the recent Big 12 decision not to expand. It was a unanimous decision! So no conflict, right? If you follow conference realignment you know how ridiculous that conclusion would be.

Back to the point. There is a place for folks with no practitioner experience (or experience outside of academia) in PA. My point is not to denigrate these academics or the value they bring. Methodological rigor is a good thing. New questions and advancement of theory are good things. Necessary things. Some of the best minds in the field were never practitioners. In no way can or should PA give that up. But my worry is the gap identified by Klay is getting perilously close to a tipping point. What happens after we reach that point? We risk becoming a field where the hiring committees, journal editors, peer reviewers, conferences organizers, etc. are all scholars with no practitioner experience. We risk, as Klay stated, irrelevancy as a practical science.   Lest you think I do no more than complain, I have shared ideas before on how to address this here, here and here. I think it is imperative that the issue is addressed, and that our efforts to date are not solving the problem.

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