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Capacity Building, Education and Professionalism in Rural Development

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Hatcher
November 14, 2014

In the past, I have used this column to discuss models and best practices for rural community development—in particular how creative class workers, entrepreneurial support and outdoor amenities encourage rural growth. However, rural public administration often presents a challenge for rural development. Rural governments often suffer from a lack of policy capacity (i.e., the ability and resources to tackle public problems) and professionalism (i.e., the necessary education and training to perform quality administration and ensure legal and ethical behavior in organizations). In such an administrative environment, assets-based development can be difficult.

This past week, I attended the 2014 conference for the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA). The conference is the annual meeting of the organization that is responsible for accrediting graduate programs in public policy, affairs and administration. A key part of the organization’s mission “is to ensure excellence in education and training for public service.”

At the conference, I presented, along with my colleague Dr. LeAnn Beaty, some of the lessons learned from the implementation of our online Master of Public Administration program at Eastern Kentucky University. While listening to the conference’s panels, I kept thinking about how NASPAA accredited online programs, like the one that we have at EKU, can help “ensure excellence in education” for public managers in the rural parts of the nation.

Policy Capacity, Professionalism and Trust

If we define community development as building local assets and strengthening social, economic and political institutions, local governments have a huge role to play in this process. In many of our nation’s rural communities, local governments, as noted, lack policy capacity and professionalism in administration. Rural public managers tend to have lower levels of advanced education, compared to their suburban and urban counterparts. And, due to smaller tax bases and less fiscal resources, policy capacity is also lower in rural communities, compared to more urbanized areas.

In the U.S., rural administration tends to be less transparent than urban governance. In many communities, few local citizens participate in public meetings. Coupled with the decline in the newspaper industry, few rural communities have robust local papers that hold officials accountable.

The lack of public participation and transparency in decision-making increased the incidences of political corruption. For example, in 2012, Governing used data collection by the U.S. Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section to identify the most corrupt states in the nation. Many of the states with high per capita convictions of public officials were rural states, with Louisiana having the highest rate. Peer-reviewed research has supported this finding. Research reported in Public Administration Review has also found corruption to be prevalent in many rural states.

Strengthening Rural Administration

Low policy capacity and issues of professionalism make it difficult for rural communities to solve public problems and engage in community development. Increasing the educational opportunities of our rural public and nonprofit managers will help increase policy capacity and strengthen professionalism in their communities. As noted, public managers in rural communities often do not have access to graduate education and training. For example, a few years ago, my colleagues Roberto Gallardo, Matt Oyer and I found only a few of Kentucky’s local economic developers possessed a master’s degree and even a smaller percentage of developers possessed the industry standard certification in economic development from the International Economic Development Council (IEDC).

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Online education is often met with resistance. Opponents worry about the quality of an online degree. However, research into the quality of accredited online programs has found no significant differences between online courses and traditional courses in student performance measured by grades.

Online MPA programs can help the field of public administration better serve our rural communities, and in doing so, improve rural governance and community development. Having public officials trained and educated in accredited online MPA programs means that we will have more managers focused:

  • The need for professionalism in administration.
  • The importance of long-term benefits, instead of short-term gains for building policy capacity in communities.
  • The need to create representative models of public engagement in community decision-making.
  • The need to ensure democratic values and fostering the public’s trust in government.
  • The importance of providing public goods, such as infrastructure, education and environmental protection.
  • Lastly, the need to have decisions based on the goals of efficiency, effectiveness and fairness, not just political concerns.

Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the department of government at Eastern Kentucky University. He can be reached at [email protected] (The opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of  his employer.)

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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