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How MPA Programs Can Better Prepare Students to Succeed as Public Agency Leaders
By Troy Holt
Graduate public administration programs turn out well educated and technically skilled members of the public sector workforce. From budgeting, public policy, program evaluation and public law, today’s graduates of Master of Public Administration programs learn the hard skills necessary for careers in the government sector. But is this enough to become truly successful leaders?
Why is Organizational Culture Important?
Edgar Schein, in his 2010 book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Fourth Edition, writes, “Culture is to a group what personality or character is to an individual” and “[t]he essence of a culture is the paradigm by which people operate.” A great organizational culture produces engaged employees who are invested in their jobs and committed to their employers. They are significantly more productive and they drive higher citizen satisfaction ratings. Leaders who understand this can foster a culture of self-discipline, empowerment and a motivation for employees to proactively take leadership roles to solve problems and move toward common goals.
The Dichotomy of Organizational Culture Education
The dichotomy of organizational culture education is that this critical element of success is not taught in most graduate programs that pride themselves on preparing students to succeed in public service careers. Without proper academic training in organizational culture, it becomes something to which new managers are exposed, without an understanding, in the working environment. They do not know how to identify the underlying causes of both good and bad cultures and more importantly, they are unable to develop solutions. New graduates just entering the workforce may be fortunate to work for an agency with a great organizational culture. However, they may not recognize the fundamental elements that make a good culture and thus may not learn how to preserve that culture or replicate it elsewhere. Worse, a new graduate may enter an organization with a dysfunctional or toxic culture and have no knowledge or skills in the methods to improve that culture.
Organizational Development and Analysis is Not Organizational Culture
Some MPA programs teach courses in personnel management, organizational development, organizational analysis and labor relations, but not organizational culture. Understanding how to analyze an organization and knowing how an organization cycles through change is very important but is not the complete picture. Progressive leaders will often separate the responsibility of maintaining organizational culture from standard human resource functions. Human resource managers are skilled in the processes and procedures of personnel management, from grievance processing to labor negotiating. Yet they often they lack an understanding of, or the time to concentrate on, the learning and implementing of long-term (and often painfully slow) solutions for deep organizational culture problems.
Science Behind Organizational Culture
MPA programs that strive to produce public service leaders should teach the science behind organizational culture. Students should have at least one class that explores the neuroscience behind human motivation. An awareness of how our brains perceive social situations and the climate in the workplace is crucial to understanding how to create a positive organizational culture. Building a team environment where each employee is valued and his/her input is appreciated is essential. When a team member senses that he/she is not a respected part of the organization, he/she may feel the social rejection and pain described by Naomi Eisenberger in her article, Why Rejection Hurts. The limbic system in the team member’s brain will perceive the rejection, identify a threat and cause a reaction that surges from the brain stem. He/she may become defensive, reactive, less engaged and as a result will experience a loss of productivity, diminished morale and an inability to engage in higher level thinking.
Understanding how the brain processes workplace interactions is vital for leaders who want to create a positive organizational culture. The SCARF model of social rewards and threats provides a framework for understanding how interactions between team members affect each person in very deep ways. SCARF is an acronym for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. These five elements are environmental factors that the brain is always monitoring, mostly below conscious awareness, and they activate either the “primary reward” or “primary threat” circuitry in the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks as a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same circuitry as receiving a monetary reward.
Entrepreneurial Government and Matrix Teams
How many MPA programs are teaching their students to be entrepreneurial? According to economist Jean-Baptiste Say in A Treatise on Political Economy, or, the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Wealth, the definition of entrepreneur is one who “shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.” In their book, Reinventing Government, Ted Gaebler and David Osborne write that entrepreneurial governmental institutions habitually act this way – they constantly use their resources in new ways to maximize productivity and effectiveness.
The entrepreneurial approach requires a consistent search for better ways to utilize existing resources in order to create superior outcomes in the delivery of services, enhancement of revenues and increased return on public dollars spent. This approach allows for greater development and leveraging of resources to meet community needs.
Working in a true entrepreneurial environment can be invigorating and exciting for employees. Through the use of tools such as matrix teams, public agencies can capitalize on the knowledge and skills of employees to allow for intellectually stimulating opportunities and maximization of creativity. Matrix teams also allow for human capital to be continually redeployed in ways that are creative, make the most use of all positive attributes of each staff member and allow for the continual improvement in the utilization of all available talents in an organization.
Matrix teams create a culture and an environment that ultimately leads to a greater empowerment of employees and preparation for greater leadership roles in an organization. Matrix teams maximize the problem solving capability of an organization while at the same time encourage employees in a supportive environment, to grow in their own capacities, skills and leadership talents. Matrix teams also provide a mechanism to continually redeploy the skills and abilities of all team members in new and creative combinations to better achieve the goals of the organization.
The Importance of Soft Skills
Frank Benest, with the International City/County Management Association’s Preparing the Next Generation (PNG) program, states in his report, “A Guide for Current and Future Local Government Managers,” that it is important for emerging public sector leaders to learn both hard skills (e.g., budgeting and project management) as well as soft skills (e.g., team building, motivation, and organizational culture). Benest advises, “Hard technical skills are necessary, but these soft skills are often more critical for aspiring managers because others in the organization will always have more technical expertise than you do. Successful city managers aren’t technicians. They are leaders who use their judgment, vision, and people skills to set the organization’s direction and help it stay on track.” MPA programs would better serve their students if they developed competencies in the soft skills that are required of public agency leaders.
The emphasis of many MPA programs is on public policy, not public management. For students entering the field, it may be difficult to discern the difference, and to appreciate the relative uselessness of the former to their future career. Few public administration scholars conduct research in areas that are directly connected to the effectiveness of public sector leaders and managers. Most research is focused on policy (much of it at the federal level), or the political environment in which government managers work. MPA programs should include instruction in the practical skills needed by public agency leaders, and chief among those skills is the ability to cultivate a great organizational culture that produces a high yield on the tax dollars that citizens invest in their government.
ASPA member Troy Holt, MPA, has twenty-five years of public agency management experience in departments ranging from Police, Public Works, Transportation, Administrative Services and the City Manager’s Office. He is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, and he is currently the Director of Communications and Government Relations for the City of Rancho Cordova, CA, the first local government agency to earn the distinction as a Fortune Great Place to Work. He is also a member of the ICMA Advisory Board on Graduate Education and can be reached via email at [email protected], followed on Twitter at @TroyGHolt, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/tgholt.