Is PA Research Useful to Government?


“Speak Your Mind” is a PAR webpage feature that allows you to offer insights about big questions in public administration. The responses serve as a community forum for discussion of specific editorial contributions, and the format provides a platform for exchange of different ideas about how we think of public administration as a professional and scholarly enterprise.

In a recent post to the PA Times1 Howard Risher PhD made the claim that most public administration research is unhelpful to those working in government.  Similar claims have also been made recently by other practitioners and scholars in posts to the PA Times 2 and Governing Magazine 3.  Consequently, in the newest contribution for Speak Your Mind,  Howard Risher PhD moderates an open discussion concerning the usefulness of public administration research to those working in government.  We appreciate your views on this issue.  Please read his questions below, and let us what YOU think.


Generally speaking, do public administration scholars produce research that is useful to those individuals leading and managing government organizations? If so, why is there such a strong perception that public administration scholarship is often unhelpful to those individuals? If not, what can public administration scholars do to produce research that is more useful to government?


Howard Risher has 40 plus years of experience as a consultant to clients in every sector. He has a BA in psychology from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. from Wharton. He is the co-author with Bill Wilder of the new book, It’s Time for High Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize and the Public Sector Workforce.




7 responses

  1. Far too often we do not produce research useful to the practitioner. As Donald Kettl articulated quite well, PA is both universal and context-bound. While I find my many mid-career MPA students understand this basic contradiction, our research agendas do not always reflect a similar understanding. Ours is a practical field. The whole point of studying Public Administration is to improve the performance of the public and nonprofit sectors. While it is interesting to explain and understand why organizations and people do the things they do, it would (to me) seem a pointless exercise if I could not use my research to improve practice. A cursory glance at the public service motivation literature shows people are drawn to public service precisely because they want to have an impact on their communities (however they define them).

    The question then, becomes how. At times the pressure to advance theory, or the need for academics to publish in top journals, can push research into the non-practical realm. This is not to say theory is unimportant. Far from it, it is the continuity of theories and their advancement that hold together any field, including Public Administration. Without them, we do not exist to inform practice. But we still nee do work deliberately to connect research and practice. So again, how do we do that?

    First, though I am biased having been a practitioner, it is important that there is opportunity for movement between the practitioner and academic world. It is good for a practitioner to become an academic, and for an academic to take time off from university life to be a practitioner. Often times such moves create prohibitive opportunity costs, which is unfortunate. You do see movement happen with the biggest names at the federal level, but it would make just as much sense for it to happen more often in local and state government.

    Second, academics need to involve practitioners in the early stages of our research. Rather than give practitioners answers to questions they may or may not care about, we should work with them in the development of our research questions. One great and frequently used way do this is to establish connections with professional membership organizations. These organizations represent practitioners, and can thus help get researchers in front of those who can most benefit from their research.

    Third is utilizing social media tools as an outlet for research. That may mean tweeting relevant audiences, blogging research results so that folks are not stopped by pay walls and/or academic jargon, or following key practitioners to stay in touch with their needs. Related, is the importance of publishing research summaries in non-academic outlets. While such publications to not always impress a tenure and promotion committee, they help bridge the practitioner-academic divide.

  2. Michael, I was led to expect push back but your response and others to the PA Times column and one on have been broadly supportive.

    My focus for some time has been performance and I am convinced people working in all sectors are not very different. I know from going in and out of organizations as a consultant that people in some organizations are very clearly better motivated. To use a word, they are committed.

    I have not found evidence that the PA community is interested in understanding what agencies can do to raise the level of commitment.

    The community could presumably help elected officials to understand how their words and behavior impact the organizations that presumably lead.

    I’m glad you responded.

    • Happy to respond Howard. I actually think the general sentiment among the ASPA crowd is there, the difficulty is operationalizing it so that the field can be more useful.

  3. You are in a much better position to judge the level of interest. Possibly someone should take the initiative and invite the “other side” to join in a discussion of what would contribute to better management. I’d certainly like to encourage the dialogue.

    I’m currently working with a large public employer where a recent Gallup survey places them at the 1st percentile. That to me is inexcusable.

  4. Hello Howard and Michael, I have to say this is really on the nose. I am currently an MPA student and I had a bit of a breakdown after class last week over this very topic. We read several in depth research papers by respected academics in the field but after hours of seminar and a couple more hours dissecting the data and conclusions, I was hot! At the end of class I brought up this disconnect with my professor and I went on for a while about how useless the research was, in that, it doesn’t help any practitioner (like myself) yet the papers dispense this “air” of relevance and advice. I mean really these are brilliant folk doing in depth work about nothing for nothings sake! Just to get published! Grrr I am getting mad all over again.

    I really would like to see a paradigm shift and it is my belief that this is the conversation that will renew and revitalize the MPA discipline and service.

    My ask to you is what can I do to help create this momentum shift?

    What can students/ advocates/academics/practitioners do? I did see your comment above about creating a dialogue but I believe this dialogue is already hooked up (both sides are ready), it just needs the power turned on… we need something to get behind… a rational process of thinking that can create this shift.

    Is there anything more important than stopping the “Publish or Parish” mentality? I believe this is the main problem…

    Thank you for listening to my rant and I eagerly await some advice!

  5. Matthew, you I am sure appreciate this is not a simple problem. I am not at all certain what you mean when you say both sides are ready. I have fully 35 years of experience as a consultant to public employers but I am still an outsider and only an observer to this debate.

    It would certainly be useful if government leaders invited the academic community to study existing problems. Of course they would have to anticipate that their involvement would be beneficial. Funding would also be needed but then foundations should be supportive of solving problems.

    I believe an element of the problem is that many government leaders seek public office because of an interest in public policy issues. Many have little or no prior experience managing large groups of employees. They need to understand why initiating changes in work management is needed.

    Another element is that, in contrast to the business world, I am not aware of publications like Harvard Business Review that focus on government management issues. HBR is not a purely academic journal but I am certain faculty believe publishing in the journal believe it will enhance a career. There are many other professional business journals. (I edited one for several years.)

    A great deal of the research in the business world is intended to evaluate new practices. That represents a chicken-and-egg situation since public employers would have to adopt a new practice and ‘live with’ it for period of time before it can be assessed.

    Jim Perry made me aware of the Nonprofit Research Panel run by the Truman School of Public Affairs.. Its a simple way that could be used to learn what works and what doesn’t. I have a tentative agreement with someone to try it with HR policies and practices in public organizations.

    Another straightforward idea is to work with ASPA to develop something similar to PA Times where success stories (no one wants to discuss failures) could be discussed. That could also be a theme at conferences. The purpose with both would be highlighting and promoting new proven practices.

    Change initiatives need a catalyst. This discussion could be useful.

  6. In general, I believe that most PA research/theories cannot be readily applied by practitioners. Although scholarship is important, there is a real disconnect with the application of many theories.

    As I pursue my second masters degree and work part time in the local government/planning environment, I always look for ways to apply my academic knowledge at work. In my opinion, the best way to apply theories and research is through decision-making tools (such as using the Logic Model or Edward de Bono’s Six-Thinking Hats).

    As an aspiring government professional, I am looking for such tools to help me analyze a problem, using a process-like approach, to develop different solutions. Research can help by providing the foundation for such decision-making tools. But, these tools need to be simple and tangible, preferably with illustrations to help guide an individual through the process.



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