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Is Public Administration Research Adequate?

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

By John Pearson
October 14, 2016

This column is in response to the March/April 2016 Public Administration Review (PAR) editorial that considers whether public administration may be “vanishing” due to a lack of “robustness of public administration theory and scholarship.” The editorial says some make the argument that “Knowledge generated by the scholarly community is not up to the challenges of public service.”

Strategic goal #4 for the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) is: Provide cutting edge knowledge and research to ASPA members and the broader public administration community.

There are millions of public employees and contractors involved in U.S. public administration. Worldwide there are many more millions of employees and contractors. How many of them rely on public administration research (specifically research published in PAR) to a significant degree?

I have reviewed numerous articles from recent PAR issues. My impression is that some PAR articles designed to address practitioner issues could provide findings of greater value to practitioners. Here are some “practitioner points” from recent PAR articles:

“Good governance requires clarity of purpose and a focus on execution.” Comment: Believe this finding is self-evident to practitioners.

“Performance management is present in a wide variety of policy arenas. Ideas and best practices can be gleaned from many experiences.” Comment: A very high level, almost self-evident finding of questionable value to practitioners.

“Using an experimental design, we find that public organizations are perceived as less efficient than similar private organizations simply because they are public.” Comment: Not a surprising finding. Practitioners need research to help them BE more efficient not a finding that the public thinks they are inefficient. 

“Public service motivation research has increased dramatically over the past 25 years and is becoming more international, multidisciplinary and multi-sectored.” The authors state there is a huge volume of such research but “it is not there yet.” Comment: Are we sure practitioners value such an intense research effort on this topic? Believe most managers try to select the best person for a job; public service motivation might be factored into the decision. 

“Effective administrative practices are more important than years of experience as an assessment executive.” This was a 15-year study of local tax assessors. Comment: Not a surprising finding to most practitioners. Length on the job doesn’t always mean better performance. 

“Leadership training and development programs that combine coaching, classroom instructions, feedback, and experiential training can improve the performance of leaders.” This conclusion was based on the experience at one Department of Defense installation.

Comment: Agree this issue is extremely relevant to practitioners in both public and private administration, considering the billions that are expended on leadership training. But it would seem we should know by now a lot more about effective leadership training than this. Which programs are most effective? How long do programs have to be? Are other combinations of delivery modes effective? Is there any estimate of return on investment?  

“As federal managers experience the routines established by the Modernization Act – routines of goal coordination, goal clarification and data-driven reviews – they report higher performance information use.” The study’s purpose was to determine if performance information use has increased because of the Modernization Act. Comment: This appears to be a useful finding about the GPRA Modernization Act. 

Here are some thoughts to help strengthen the relevance of public administration research:

1. For research designed to help practitioners, consult with practitioners before undertaking the research to be sure it will have high value. Practitioners would include politicians and public administrators or any subset of either group.

2. For research that practitioners agree is useful and is sufficiently validated, suggest greater prominence, including featuring the results on ASPA’s website.

3. Don’t hesitate to compile useful information from existing sources including other disciplines such as business administration, human resources and economics. Scholarship doesn’t have to require statistical analysis or experimental design to be useful. The classification of plants is useful so people know what plants are out there. There could be useful information on hundreds or thousands of public administration topics so that practitioners would think of ASPA as a good place to locate information. For example, a web page summarizing the Hatch Act or Freedom of Information Act and providing links to related documents might be very useful.

4. Conduct research to determine if research findings have had a positive effect on practitioners.

5. Be as objective as possible. There are numerous scholars studying governmental issues who work for think tanks or other organizations with an agenda. There shouldn’t be an agenda for ASPA scholars except to discover the facts about public administration, including topics that overlap with private administration.


Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His [email protected]

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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.

One Response to Is Public Administration Research Adequate?

  1. Pingback: Suggested Topics for Public Administration Research | PA TIMES Online

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