Life in a Small MPA Program

The Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE) has an excellent symposium up focused on the trials and tribulations of administering small MPA programs. Though all the articles are interesting, I particularly like Hatcher, Meares, and Gordon’s survey of small MPA programs. I am, of course the target audience. Our MPA program’s enrollment has ups and downs, but generally we are under 75 students (63 MPA students last semester and growing!). The JPAE symposium has be thinking about a few things I have observed regarding life in a small MPA program.

You get to jump right in. One of the opportunities of a small MPA program is that a new faculty member instantly has quite a portfolio. I have had chances to influence our core curriculum and mission that I doubt would be possible in a place where I had more than two other colleagues. I am pleased that we now offer a course on public/private partnerships and networks, and a nonprofit emphasis. I helped push for both of these because I think they are essential for a modern MPA program, and pay dirt came quickly.

You have to jump right in. Establishing a research agenda, getting familiar with your new surroundings, and developing a good rapport with students is difficult with heavy teaching loads. It just is. In four years I have developed ten different courses. I do not know any differently, but that feels like a lot. Though I technically have a reduction to a 3/3 load, teaching 4 classes a semester is not a rare occurrence.   Service responsibilities are also high. When you have three faculty members committees tend to be populated by the whole department. Again, it gives new faculty members a major voice in their programs, which is awesome, but it is a challenge.

Freedom to pursue a relevant research agenda. Like all places my small MPA program demands an active research agenda. I love this part of my work and feel lucky to be given a lot of freedom regarding what research is deemed relevant. I have a broad agenda and like that the expectation is not that I only publish in budgeting, or nonprofit, or even public administration journals. Ours is a diverse field, and having a diverse course load allows for a diverse impactful research agenda.

Good relationships. I could not imagine being in a department of three if I did not work well with my colleagues. There is no room for coalitions here, and there is dedication all around. Good stuff.

The NASPAA question. We have a quality long-established MPA program that prepares our students for public service. I am proud of our program and our results. We are not NASPAA accredited. We all wish we were, but the killer is always the same: “Programs should also have a nucleus faculty of at least 5 full-time faculty members.” Though money is always an issue, I feel that is one that can be resolved through creativity and hard work. The faculty question is harder. I am curious to hear what other smaller programs have done to address this question. I wish there was some alternative we could pursue that demonstrates our quality to a broader external audience.

Overall my four years here leave little to be desired. Small MPA programs are not for everyone, but it is (in my opinion) a nice niche in which an academic can make a positive impact.

Let’s Run Government Like a Business!

Last week at a government meeting something very familiar happened. Someone at the meeting made a quiet aside about how a certain action of government would never be tolerated in the business sector. Several people nodded their heads in agreement. I had to shake mine.

First off, I get it. People use what they know as a benchmark, and sometimes government can be incredibly frustrating. When I began in the public sector I felt (and continue to feel) some of the same frustrations. Things can be maddeningly slow. Bad ideas and bad opinions seem to get the same level of consideration as good ones. There are times where process seems to take precedent over outcomes. And my personal favorite, in the public sector I find myself doing things that are, to quote myself in moments of frustration, “stupid.”

The thing is, however, the very things that frustrate me about the public sector are the things a democratic society needs. Things move slow for a reason. Making rash decisions without allowing time for public feedback and expert analysis can lead to unintended consequences that alienate citizens, i.e. the owners of government. In business a major decision would not be made by a CEO without proper consultation with stakeholders. The difference is public organizations have a heck of a lot more stakeholders, and hence more formal processes by which to consult with them.

Now about those bad opinions. I am fond of telling my students that we all give up some treasure and freedom to be part of a governed society. You own a share of government that has the same value as mine. Perhaps I think my opinions are more informed than yours. Perhaps my opinions are objectively more informed than yours. It does not mean my share of government is worth more than yours. We should hash it out via public debate and civic engagement, not by degrading democracy.

And process is important to ensure that our government institutions are stable and equitably serving all citizens. Creating a process that is transparent and applied equally to everyone codifies the equal share of government idea. My formal interactions with public organizations and institutions should not differ from yours because of who I am or who you are. Process and policies serve to promote equity. It does mean our policies and process are perfect (they are not), but they serve a purpose.

Finally, in regards to the stupid things government does. It is up to us, scholars and practitioners, to be honest about what is actually stupid or redundant, and what serves a legitimate purpose. If I am being honest I would put the stupid to useful split of things I find stupid to be 40% stupid 60% useful (which means its probably more like 20% to 80%).

So no, government should not be run like a business. Government is more complicated, lacks the profit motive, is value-driven, and structurally committed to serving the paradoxical desires of all citizens. In other words the public and private sectors serve different purposes and one should not be run like the other. But something tells me the calls to run government like a business will continue.

Should School Referenda be Limited?

I say no.   The Wisconsin Association of School Boards has a nice summary of proposed legislation that would restrict the ability of school districts to go directly to the voters for permission to exceed state imposed revenue caps. As I detailed last summer, Wisconsin is experiencing an uptick in both the number and success of school district referenda. The likely reason is the fiscal stress facing many Wisconsin school districts. The move to restrict referenda is a backlash to the willingness of school districts to go repeatedly to their voters to as for more revenue.

First some quick background on how revenue limits work:

“Since 1993 Wisconsin schools have been subject to [revenue] limits, which are exactly what they sound like. Every year school districts are allowed to raise additional state and local revenues by a set capped dollar-amount per-pupil. For example, if a district raised $10,000 for a pupil in year 1, and the legislature increased revenue limits by $200, the district could raise up of $10,200 in year 2 (The LFB informational paper is a great resource for less-simplified information on this).”

Districts can make the decision, however, to ask the voters directly for permission to exceed revenue limits. The premise behind Wisconsin’s school funding system is that the state legislature controls annual funding increases, but local residents reserve the right to raise taxes on themselves. Is this a perfect system? Not at all. It creates inequities and uncertainty for school districts. But it is a system that, at the very least, has some consistency. School districts can expect limited revenue increases, and can plan to ask voters for permission to raise more revenue as desired.

Thus the problem with the movement to limit referenda. It is a perversion of local control that limits one of the only tools school districts have to address revenue concerns. Supporters of limiting referenda argue that school districts use scare tactics, target low-turnout elections, or repeatedly go to voters in an effort to subvert the intent of Wisconsin’s revenue limit/referendum system. To that I say yes, school districts do in fact play politics with spending referendum. Why do they do it? Well, it is the system set up by the state legislature. Requiring districts to ask voters for spending permission by definition turns spending decisions into political battles. I cannot blame school districts for participating in this democratic process.

If the state legislature does not want local control and/or local politics determining education spending decisions Wisconsin should revamp the revenue limit system. I argue one cannot distinguish between good and bad local control from afar, either local voters should be empowered via the political process (however messy) or they should not.

Reflections from MPAC 2017: The Importance of Humility

I am getting ready for my trip home from the 4th annual Midwest Public Affairs Conference (MPAC), eating breakfast, and reflecting a bit on the last three days. First off, the conference was planned well and everything about the University of Nebraska-Omaha was impressive. The campus, the venue, and people all indicate a place whose positive (and growing) reputation is well earned.

The research presentations were also highly encouraging. I have, in the past, expressed worry on this blog that academic PA is becoming dominated by a handful of schools and the favored methodologies of those schools’ scholars. I fear that this isomorphism may stifle creative thought and enforce a methodological rigidity that threatens the practicality of our field. If all we do are experiments related to federal government, what is the appeal of academic PA to the thousands of municipalities who also need good governance? Well, MPAC is a great reminder that my fears are overblown. Scholars from PA departments of all stripes presented diverse practically relevant work on state and local governance issues. Not once did I walk out of a presentation with that “who cares?” question rattling in my head. It was refreshing (and from a selfish standpoint what I needed after a particularly tough semester).

But there was something else going on at MPAC that took a bit of reflection to conceptualize in my brain. Humility. I have to give credit to Rick Hess for writing extensively about the need for humility in the education reform world. The same holds true in PA. We do not have all the answers and we should not pretend that we do. One methodology is not intrinsically better than another; it depends on the research question being explored. The failures and shortcoming of our government are not all the fault of politics, lack of funding, and/or citizen misconceptions. No, we as PA scholars do not know what we do not know, and it is fine to embrace that. What I experienced in the presentations and conversations at MPAC was a community of scholars who are actively embracing research agendas driven by their humble desire to improve governance in their communities. Any hint of methodological or ideological pretension was refreshingly lacking. Heck, people even had am open-mind about what qualifies as Midwest.

All in all a great conference that reinforced what attracted me to PA in the first place. If you have not yet experienced MPAC, be sure to join us next summer in Chicago.

Yes, We are Kind of Having a Constitutional Crisis

Rational bureaucratic systems tend to work well until actors refuse to play by the established rules of the bureaucracy. Students of Public Administration likely have read the case “How Kristin Died,” which details exactly how bureaucracy can fail despite the good intentions and competence of those operating within complex systems. In the case-study a known dangerous domestic abuser eventually murders his ex-girlfriend despite the fact that the system was dealing with the situation as it knew how.   The problem was the criminal did not accept nor play by the rational rules of society.

We are seeing something similar happening in the executive branch today. The U.S. government is a complex rational bureaucratic system that moves slow (at times frustratingly slow) by its very design. The president is demonstrating, through his actions and statements, that he does not accept the rational bureaucratic premise of our system. His refusal to state he would accept the results of the elections, his false statements about being bugged, his relentless attacks on the media, and his consistent lying to the American people about things both trivial and serious all demonstrate this. But the treatment of James Comey crosses yet another line. The firing, the request of a loyalty oath, and now the public twitter threat are all remarkable actions. One justification I have heard, that because he is not a career politician he does not see what the big deal is and was not prepared for the backlash, is ridiculous. Being in the private sector does not make you stupid. Unless he is completely incompetent, he knew the optics of firing the FBI director.

The more likely explanation is that he just does not care. And this, in my opinion, is why nobody quite knows how to handle Trump. When the media catches him in a lie, Trump just doubles down. The media for their part do what they know how to do, cover a story and bring in commentators on both sides. Congressional Republicans do what they know how to do, push the Republican agenda and defend the new president. The Democrats do what they do as the opposition party – throw bombs. The American people do what we do best, complain and watch, but assume we will figure it out because we are the United States and that is what we do.

But I for one am worried. This is something I have not seen before. Our institutions are fragile. They are dependent on the willingness of stakeholders and decision-makers to abide by institutional authority and accept institutional norms. What happens when the head of the executive branch knowingly and willingly flaunts our system’s norms? Consider what Trump did this week. He fired the head of the FBI, and then directed his spokespeople to lie to the American people about the reason why. Now he is publicly threatening Comey. Trump is playing a very different game by very different rules than those charged with holding the executive branch accountable, i.e. the media, the courts, congress, and citizens.

So yes, we are kind of having a constitutional crisis. The traditional checks on presidential power are being rejected by the president and nobody quite knows what to do about it. What I do know is that the more Trump keeps getting away with the discarding of institutional norms and limits, the more he will test them. It is happening gradually, but we are at risk of the U.S. system becoming something very different and in my opinion very scary. I am being a bit hyperbolical, but it is much easier to stop the slide away from constitutional norms early in the process. But how? I think the key is Paul Ryan and Congressional Republicans.   They have the power to break from their traditional role of loyalty to the president and become the greatest check on his power. It starts with a public denouncement of his actions and statements. Right now I am afraid they are just trying to manage something that is unmanageable.