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By William Hatcher
This is the first installment of a monthly column dedicated to exploring the connections between public administration and community development. Through this column, I hope to highlight the work in public administration that is focused on development and encourage our scholars to be engaged with other fields doing community development research. Community development is a broad area. A normal workday may have a community developer working on downtown revitalization in the morning and affordable housing by the afternoon. A community developer’s professional life is filled with diverse tasks; so, this column will also cover many topics. Future installments will explore how public administration scholars can help guide practitioners on issues of infrastructure capital, financial capital, cultural capital, and political capital in their communities. But first, we need to define community development and make a short case for its importance as an area of interest in public administration.
What is community development?
Community development is about the betterment of social, political, and economic institutions in our nation’s communities. When measured in spending and employment, community development is a significant function of our state and local governments:
However, these numbers do not adequately capture the work that is being done to develop our communities. For one, a great amount of community development work is done by nonprofits. The federal government plays a large role as well by funding a significant portion of development in our nation. Since 1974, the Community Development Block Grant (GDBG) program has represented a commitment to improving our communities. Today, the program totals around $5 billion each fiscal year. These grants send funds to many areas of local government, with most of the spending going to infrastructure and housing. Most importantly, however, is the fact that a majority of the expenditures of our governments, from public safety to transportation, are related to community development in some manner. If development is viewed as the betterment of communities, this encompasses most, if not all, areas of government, especially at the local level.
A Role for Public Administration
Even with community development so intertwined with our public organizations, public administration has largely allowed economics, sociology, urban planning, and other disciplines to dominate the community development discussion. We in public administration should be more involved in moving the scholarship and practical discourse concerning development. Public administration, for instance, can add to the discussion by offering our understanding of administrative design and implementation.
Like many governmental functions, community development is often done in networks. Public administration has developed a wealth of literature on how networks function. But, the tool of network analysis is not well known among many scholars and practitioners. Public administration has been one of the most active fields at devising network theories of governance, and these theories can help community developers. In a 2005 article in Public Administration Review, Keith Provan and his coauthors argue that network analysis can help communities deal with administrative issues in the areas of health care, social services, human resources, and economic development—all areas that deal with the betterment of communities. Within the area of economic development, work by Roberto Gallardo uses network theory from public administration to better understand the role of government in regional development. Public administration, by playing a larger role in the community development discussion, can bring its valuable network research into the conversation. To do this, we need to talk more with community development specialists in other fields.
Many practitioners are already doing this, and viewing their work as public administration. For instance, in a recent article published in The Review of Regional Studies, my colleagues and I found that a large plurality (47%) of the directors of local economic development organizations in Kentucky viewed their jobs as public administration not business administration. Scholars, teaching future public managers, are also realizing the importance of community development to public administration. Many Master of Public Administration (MPA) programs, accredited by the National Association of Schools in Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA), have community development concentrations as part of their curricula. In my MPA program at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), we have had such a concentration for years, and we teach in community development in a holistic way by encouraging our students to think on the connections with other fields of study. In order to prepare future managers, we need to encourage more community development course offerings in our MPA programs and more scholarship on the topic.
The Start of a Discussion
My main goal for the column is to hopefully start a discussion in our discipline, among practitioners and scholars, about the future of community development and how we can advance a multiple discipline approach for studying development. We are living in an era of declining budgets with significant declines in public employment, especially at the state and local levels, and this austerity is harming vital local government services. President Obama, who has a background as a community organizer, along with Congress has cut funding for key development programs, such as Community Development Block Grants. But given his campaign rhetoric, Governor Romney, if elected today, would also pursue fiscal policies that would take funds away from our community development programs. In a situation of such fiscal uncertainty, it is time that public administration claims a greater role in community development to help this vital function survive and better our communities. Next month, we will continue the discussion by examining the assets model of community development and the ways that public administration can contribute to this normative approach. In the meantime, please leave comments, so we can start the discussion on public administration and community development today.
William Hatcher is an assistant professor of political science in the Department of Government at Eastern Kentucky University where he teaches courses in the department’s Master of Public Administration program. His research concerns implementation effectiveness of community planning, fiscal planning at the local government level, and general issues in community development. He is the current Chair of the Board of Adjustment for Richmond, Kentucky.