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Turning Practice Into Practice

By Robert (Sherman) Yehl

Local governments continue to face the economic effects of the 2007-2009 recession. Revenues from a variety of sources are flat (or worse, reduced), employees have been “riffed” or work reduced hours to limit expenditures. Costs for energy, pensions, and health care continue to rise. Despite these actions, however, the world has not ended. Police and firefighters respond to calls, building permits are issued, garbage is collected, and parks are maintained. Yet, what role has academia and theoretical modeling played in helping public sector managers keep these services functioning?

The current “crisis” in government and any linkage between “new” theory and the current trends of service delivery in times of change and an economic downturn remains elusive. My observation of the research of numerous journal articles is that there is little relevance for the practitioner who is dealing real world issues on a daily basis. This is not to be critical of the current quantitative work done in the field, but art and science do not appear to be two ships passing in the night. I’m not sure they are even in the same body of water.

Part of this disconnect is inherent in the disparate systems of academia and practical administration. As a former practitioner I had little to time wade through somewhat dense articles full of correlations, probability, and regression analyses. Theoretical models are fine, but what I wanted to know is “What works?” This disconnect is clear, I think, in the way academic journals are controlled. A recent survey of editorial board members of a number of journals by Junfeng Wang, Beverly Bunch, and Christopher Stream in a recent issue of State and Local Government Review shows that less than 2 percent have representation from government practitioners. Yet, these are journals that proclaim to be exchanges for joint academic and practitioner-based research. In the same article, the authors note that in many of the same journals only 35 percent of reviewed articles were based on qualitative studies. This is a problem. The “art” side of public administration appears to be overrun by the “science” side, filling journals with countless theories and models that fail to advance the practice of public administration. The decision by these journals to exclude an acceptable mix of practitioners in the review process permits the focus to remain on theoretical rather than applied research.

In a number of ways, government has been transformed over the past 25 years. Administrators (and the politicians they serve) have had to continue to meet the untrusting and tax-adverse populace through technology, re-engineering, and service delivery improvements. I would challenge academia to identify any substantial amount of published research over this time that has had an effect on what public administrators do. As a practitioner I value the articles in PM (the trade journal for the International City/County Management Association) as more useful (and readable) than those in PAR or State and Local Government Review.

So how do we address the needs of current (and future) administrators and ensure that public administration programs are in fact supporting and preparing those in public service? Does the education model need to be changed to address the different challenges facing administrators today?

Instead of asking the question on how new research is effecting policy implementation (turning theory into practice), we should be looking at how we turn practice into practice. As Paul Posner noted in a 2009 article in Public Budgeting and Finance, much of the academic research has a single purpose – publication. Academics ignore publishing at their own peril. Too much emphasis is placed on this aspect for promotion and tenure. Both pure academics and the pracademics (those that have combined careers as practitioners with advanced terminal degrees), should be out in their communities working with those on the front-lines or managing large programs, cities, counties, special districts, or NGOs and learning from each other. Public administration programs should be serving the university community with collective problem solving and contributing expertise and practical theoretical knowledge with those dealing with real-world problems. Public administration program faculty should be dedicating one day a week to working for their local communities. The benefits are many – developing relationships with local government officials, having the ability to share theory with practice, keeping academics current with issues in the field, and the possibility of some qualitative or mix-method research that is relevant and transferable (and publishable).

Today, one of the biggest challenges facing public sector personnel is transparency. With distrust of government at a near all-time high, officials need to know how to develop and share information in a way that a public, largely divorced from day-to-day government, can understand and have confidence in its legitimacy. Administrators also need to understand the way in which technology works, including social media. As the Obama administration has recently shown, the rollout of a new program that has at its basis a large and complicated technological backbone must be ready on day one. Failure to do so only increases the public’s poor perception of what government does. Public administration programs should be working with other disciplines in their universities, such as communications, marketing, and information technology, to understand the “how to” in presenting information clearly and concisely to ensure that technological advances in the provision of services or internal processing improvements are made with a minimum of disruption to the public.

For the past 60 years, there has been this “battle” in public administration over the issue of art and science. While it makes for good theoretical discussion, these discussions do little to advance the profession of public administration; programs need to be focused on doing.

Robert (Sherman) Yehl currently serves as an assistant professor and public administration program coordinator at Valdosta State University. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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One Response to Turning Practice Into Practice

  1. David S. Reed Reply

    October 16, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Excellent points. I would only add that practitioners, as well as academics, should “turn practice into practice.” Where are public administrators’ equivalents to morbidity and mortality conferences, where medical practitioners analyze how they handled a case to look for opportunities for improvement?

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