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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Ben Tafoya
March 24, 2017
For most of the past ten years, I have been actively engaged in the academic side of public administration as an instructor and then administrator. Coming to this work as a practitioner helped inform my conceptualization of what specific skills are necessary for success in the public sector. Remarkably, as I examined those requirements, I found them not much different than the broad skills necessary for success in the private sector — where I spent almost 20 years as a manager before my academic work. One of the great management thinkers of the last century, Peter Drucker, wrote about both public and private management challenges. Not surprisingly many of our discipline’s graduate programs had their roots in schools of management.
The following is a list of job related skills I have found public administrators need at the introductory level:
At the American Society for Public Administration 2017 National Conference, a half day of sessions on public administration education drilled down in some of these areas. The first section of the afternoon was a panel of practitioners including leaders of public sector organizations from state, local and nonprofit sectors talking about critical skills they see the need for in new employees. The second portion was a group discussion lead by academic leaders with ties to public administration programs. Prior to the sessions, the speakers sent out talking points related to the most important issues they identified in the field of professional public administration education.
The speakers gave recommendations for skills training that go from the basic to the more advanced. From an academic perspective the talking points from the practitioners could be categorized from the undergraduate to graduate levels. For example, one local official emphasized the capability of reading a government report such as a city council meeting agenda, public budget, bid document or audit. This recommendation falls under being able to read — not only articles or textbooks, but also documents constructed for a purpose.
At some point these skills move into the graduate realm as they are more advanced. For example, what does the budget tell us about the policy priorities of the public agency? It is one thing to compare numbers from one year to the next — it is another to understand the context of the numbers and what they tell us about the agency’s mission.
Communication was also stressed by the speakers. Among the comments were “ability to clearly present information in multiple formats, using language appropriate for different audiences” which implies the need for writing, verbal skills, use of social media and websites and managing public meetings. Another recommendation is for training in public in order to facilitate communication with the public and colleagues. This would advance the presentation of agency goals, methods to achieve those goals and evaluation of the effort after the fact.
Collecting data is also explored through the comment: “skills required for successfully engaging the public and involving citizens in policy decisions and implementation”. Engagement is key to successful efforts in the public sector whether it is a locality communicating about community-police relations, a zoning change impacting a residential neighborhood, or the state examining new regulatory processes for environmental protection. Our graduate programs need to emphasize skill-building in the area of effective public outreach and how public agencies are using tools like social media without running afoul of open meeting laws. As we know, there is less voter participation in state and local government elections than at the federal level. One way to combat this would be to more effectively communicate the way local government is positively impacting the lives of its citizens and the import of seemingly technical issues, like zoning changes on citizen quality of life. In today’s political climate there is a greater importance in facilitating this knowledge with more policies and programs pushed to the local level.
One of the other major recommendations from speakers in these sessions was that public administrators need the “ability to apply theory and the current body of research to real world situations and problems.” This applies knowing not only management techniques and practices, but also the grand theories of the discipline and how practitioners might benefit from applying them to their analysis of a program, policy or situation. This is an area of exploration in graduate education and one where we spend significant time coaching students on how to master the skill in doctoral level education in the field of Public Administration and related programs. In the end, perhaps the highest order capability is critical thinking: the ability to absorb information in the various ways presented and see through to the core of what the public administrator thinks of the evidence and the way it guides decisionmaking on behalf of the citizenry.
Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya is the Director of the Division of Local Mandates for the Office of the Massachusetts State Auditor. He has served as a local elected official in Massachusetts for nine years and is still active in governmental affairs. Ben has his Doctorate in Law and Policy (DLP) from Northeastern University and a BA in Economics from Georgetown University. He is a contributing faculty member at Walden University. He can be reached at [email protected] .