What Public Administration conference is best positioned for improvement? Andy Whitford posed this question recently on his blog and on Twitter, and the responses were eye-opening. My opinion being the outlier, there was a degree of pessimism regarding the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) conference. Concerns were raised about the small size and low-acceptance rate of the Public Management Research Conference (PMRC). Other conferences, like NASPAA, were correctly pegged as serving very specific audiences. What to make of all this?
My takeaway, from both the thread and my four years of experience as a junior faculty member, is that there are some obvious cleavages in academic Public Administration (PA). The first cleavage is over the role of the practitioner. I know I have had academic papers rejected for being too practitioner-focused (from journals that say they want practitioner-focused research no-less!). Though attempts are made at ASPA and elsewhere to strengthen practitioner-academic relationships and relevance, they are at times clumsy. I struggle with this issue. If we are not relevant to the practitioner, what is the point of academic PA? What are we researching for if not improved governance? At the same time, if I am practitioner focused, what am I doing in academia in the first place? The incentive structures are way out of whack, and I think most of us do the best we can to muddle through. My hope is that journals, conferences, and individual academics can work to better understand what they are and who their audience is.
The second cleavage is between the top handful of research universities and the rest of us. A great deal of the universe of MPA programs are housed in non-flagship institutions, are not attached to Ph.D. programs, and are staffed by faculty with higher teaching loads, less travel money, and fewer resources for research. Though I feel my smaller MPA program provides me with great research opportunities and masters students that are second to none, I’d be lying if I said I did not feel like at an outsider at PMRC. I cannot put my finger on what exactly it was (could have been me), but it was one of those moments where I felt like the affiliation on my name tag really mattered. My experience is just an anecdote (And I hope to go back and have a better experience), but I am seeing more separation between the haves and have nots in academia generally, and this is not healthy for diversity (research and otherwise) or scope of impact. This problem goes beyond PA, but surely there is some way PA can increase the diversity of our research and researchers without sacrificing rigor.
The third cleavage is a tribal mentality. Here I am guilty, in Andy’s twitter feed my reflexive response was to defend and promote ASPA. Why? I like ASPA, I am involved with ASPA, I feel welcome at ASPA, I know great people at ASPA. Other might defend NASPAA, PMRC, ICMA, the Academy of Management, etc. for the same reasons. There are places for all of these conferences and value in having each carve out their unique place in the PA landscape. A first step is recognizing the strengths and flaws of each as they exist today. I think that it was Andy’s post got us all to do, so kudos for that.