Speak Your Mind: Is PA Vanishing?

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“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 PAR Editor in Chief Jim Perry’s recent editorial, Is Public Administration Vanishing?, he contends that public administration may be vanishing based on three lines of argument: (1) failure of policy execution; (2) abandonment by higher education; (3) ideational inadequacy.

Here is a video excerpt of Perry’s claims.

Perry noted in his editorial that, “I suspect a public discussion of these questions would be lively and contested,” so Public Administration Review would like your feedback on this issue. Please respond to the following question in the comment box below in no more than a few paragraphs.

 

Is there truth to the assertion that public administration is vanishing? If you agree, then which of the senses discussed in the editorial most concerns you? Did the editorial miss something that you see as consequential for answering the question, “Is public administration vanishing?”

 

8 responses

  1. A very interesting essay and one that speaks to the fact that Public Administration always seems to be in crisis or at least some period of transition. I hope the field is not vanishing, but if so, the scholarly community needs to (in my opinion) look in the mirror. At the recent American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) conference I noticed a degree of separation in scholarly approaches to public administration. This divide is not new, but I am trying to wrap my head around it. Basically I see two research groups.

    The first group is characterized by:

    • Research questions inspired by practice;
    • An emphasis on context over generalizability;
    • More straightforward methods;
    • The embracing of case studies;
    • Focus on local and state government;
    • Impact on practice over theory;
    • Acceptance of the chaos of politics; and
    • An embrace of ambiguity.

    The second group is characterized by:

    • Research questions inspired by academic elites;
    • Experiments and more complex models;
    • An emphasis on generalizability over context;
    • A more international focus;
    • Emphasis on applying new methodologies to old problems;
    • Focus on theory over practice;
    • A desire to control for and/or operate outside the chaos of politics; and
    • Less tolerance for ambiguity.

    I think quality research can be done using both approaches, but I worry that the emphasis on the second group among scholarly outlets will limit the practical impact of the field (Full disclosure, I am a former practitioner). To put in the form of a question: Are PA scholars ceding the production of actionable research to less rigorous think-tanks and interest groups by prioritizing a more esoteric approach to research? I am painting a very broad brush here, and need to give it more thought, but fair to say the Perry piece is important for all of us.

  2. As both a member of the practitioner and academic world, the idea of the study of Public Administration being an “applied” endeavor has become less and less true in my eyes. The academic world of Pubic Administration is become irrelevant to the real world of administering public organizations.

    After being in a school of PA for quite some time and being heavily involved in the MPA program, I constantly ask myself the following questions:

    1. How can a research professor who has never worked outside of academia, let alone manage a public organization teach MPA students how to manage a public organization?

    2. Will a 20 page literature review give an MPA student the real-world skills they need?

    3. What is the value of journal articles if practitioners don’t read them and MPA students are bored to death by them?

    I see research faculty becoming more and more insulated and silo’d from the real world, thus becoming irrelevant. But the issue of relevance is not just a PA issue. It is the fundamental challenge to higher education. When most, if not all the information being taught in graduate programs in Public Administration is either theoretical or can be found for free online, what is the value-added by PA scholars?

    Public Administration AND PAR must reestablish their relevance in the real world. They must go out and investigate real phenomenon and abandon the temptation to merely exist as armchair scholars running regressions on data sets. Statistical significance does not mean that the research is significant.

    One potential solution – PA journals can require their submissions to include translational research. To be considered for publication, one must demonstrate how the research findings can be implemented in a public organization and how those findings will produce real, tangible results. We can no longer accept things that are simply nice-to-know.

    Then again, I need to publish to get tenure so maybe we should forget this ever happened.

  3. Following on the previous comment: the reason for the decline of PA as a field could well be its inattention to the big problems that governments face, in the US and abroad. For example, does PA as a field have any procedure for periodically considering what the major challenges confronting governments will be in the next twenty or thirty years, and whether academic effort is being invested appropriately? (Do we pose that question routinely at our conferences?) Do we even have the intellectual tools to pose and answer such questions in a deliberate way? And when we train the next generation of PA scholars, do we remind them of the importance of taking the long and broad view of what they are trying to do?

    Several scholars — including Don Kettl, Brint Milward and Bob Durant — address this subject in this just-published article: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gove.12201/abstract

    Don Kettl poses the question: “Are researchers spending far too little time on the really big questions in the field because of a growing instinct to drill ever deeper into ever smaller questions? Is public management neglecting the state and the large issues that are shaping governance throughout the world?”

    • Is the decline in research on the “big issues” a function of the need to continually publish? What are the incentives for PA scholars? I suspect the decision between taking a year or more to research a big issue vs taking a few months to research a small one is often a difficult one to make in the current academic/publication environment.

      I would suggest that the “publish or perish” model has pushed research into more and more niche territory and has created a glut.

  4. Bob Durant addresses incentives directly in this piece
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gove.12201/abstract

    He says: “Contemporary scholars in the United States face profoundly different professional incentive structures than those faced by Simon’s cohort or by scholars even two decades ago. These changed incentive structures militate against studying big questions and threaten to ‘hollow’ the study of public administration in the process.”

  5. In West Minister type of bureaucracies, media commentators joke that, standing in a line instantly brings out the passion for reforms in a retired bureaucrat. The debate about “whether public administration is dying?” makes one wonder about the timing of the debate.

    To be clear, I think the points make by people like R.F. Durant, J.Perry, Politt as well as Michael R. Ford above, are quite valid. But evidently, most tenured U.S. professors who make hiring decisions, publish prolifically in public administration journals and are not closer to retirement do not seem eager to acknowledge the problem or even join the debate.

    So, who should future scholars listen to? The above mentioned people or the silent majority who form the bulk of the reviewers of PA journals? It is easy to call for more practitioner relevant research, but harder to change incentives that privilege the existing methods and directions of research.

    One way I see this debate being useful is by asking the gatekeepers of knowledge starting from editors of peer reviewed journals to those who make faculty hiring decisions to signal more explicitly, what they think, are the benchmark metrics for research, that speaks to both academics as well as practitioners. It will be no small feat if this debate can evolve a basic consensus about small changes in incentive structures that a majority of gatekeepers of PA knowledge are willing to support to change course.

    • This is a great answer, and I agree that there is little incentive for young scholars to listen to anyone but “the silent majority who form the bulk of the reviewers of PA journals.”

  6. Good afternoon,

    This was a very interesting read and my perspective aligns mostly with comments already made. I am a new practitioner (economic development) and a current MPA student set to graduate this coming December.

    Whether the disconnect between academic research and practice is driven by institutional pressure to get published or a detachment from what academics are observing versus what practitioners need, the truth of the matter is PA research (again in my opinion) overwhelmingly produces results that practitioners cannot use realistically.

    It is very important to narrowly focus on all areas of PA and to examine elements such as efficiency and performance however much like academics feel pressure to consistently publish work, practitioners feel pressure to produce tangible initiatives and programs.

    For example, I recently read a publication that found different types of government structure can cause more or less conflict between city council members. The work was statistically significant, well written, and the evidence to support the findings were clear. The issue is, what can a practitioner realistically do with this? It was published in a respected journal however it means nothing, for example, to a local city manager. Should he or she restructure the government? Should they approach the findings by attempting to become a conflict mediator? If so, what does that look like? How do they use this information? Do they educate the council members?

    It seems a great deal of the research being published just simply identifies problems, but offers either no solutions or largely ambiguous suggestions. Practitioners are very well aware of issues they face, they understand policy decisions erode when council members are conflicted, they may not have quantified their observation, but they see it nonetheless. Practitioners need rational solutions to problems, not clarification that a problem exists.

    Other fields are also branching off to cover more ground; business-marketing scholars are producing public and nonprofit marketing literature. They specifically have begun doing research on how to market in public administration so instead of practitioners pulling PA research on improving citizen engagement, they are referencing marketing strategies. They offer solutions, program ideas, and successful initiatives, practitioners are given clear cut methods for success, not simply suggestions that, “citizen engagement increase organizational performance” findings. In my view, PA research needs to take a step further, identify trends and problems but also form competent suggestions for solutions. It is important to note that not all PA research is following this trend but it seems to be a cycle that other fields have noticed and overcome whereas our field seems to be trailing behind.

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