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A Post Pandemic Research Agenda by and for Public Policy and Administration Scholars

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

By Nevbahar Ertas
August 8, 2022

The pandemic has been shaping our imagination about the nature of our public problems and the ways in which we can address them. In my classroom, we often discuss what pandemic means for citizens and public servants, and my students have been passionate about scholarship that speaks to various policy and administrative issues the pandemic has brought to the forefront. I expect the same happens in many classrooms in public administration and public affairs programs across the country. Public policy and administration (PPA) scholars have been writing about the influence of the pandemic on research agendas and outline emerging themes for a post-pandemic research agenda. What are these themes?

Themes for research focusing on US local governments

In a 2020 article titled “A New and Reinvigorated Research Agenda for U.S. Local Governments” published in State and Local Government Review, Professor Ann Bowman and a group of local government scholars got together to deliberate on the most compelling issues currently facing American local governments. Their deliberation resulted in seven directions for local government research: “local government finance and economic development, local government management, intergovernmental relations (IGR), collaboration, public engagement, social equity and institutional design.”

Since the pandemic worsened the fiscal stress on local governments and public servants, financial sustainability, creative financing and development approaches, and burnout and morale of government workers have been identified as key questions for researchers. The authors also predict that the pre-pandemic focus on performance management will shift to more studies on the impact of racism and sexism on administrative decision making, and especially local services such as policing and election administration will likely be under scrutiny. The policy authority of local governments, and state preemption are identified as the major issues of IGR the COVID-19 crisis has thrown in the spotlight. The rise in collaboration across sectors, governments and borders to address pandemic challenges are expected to lead to a series of research questions about these networks, their effectiveness and their sustainability. There is more social equity work to be done to understand and explain local activism, public demands and inequities in access to healthcare, and local services such as education, housing, policing and alike that the pandemic has exposed. Finally, the effect of different institutional designs (for example, the size of the governing body, or method of election) on policy outcomes are identified as topics for further exploration.

Themes for research focusing on public policy and administration in general

In their article titled “Researching COVID-19: A Research Agenda for Public Policy and Administration Scholars” published in Public Policy and Administration, professor Claire Dunlop and colleagues also outline seven analytical themes for a post-pandemic research agenda: “policy design and instruments, policy learning, public service and its publics, organizational capacity, public governance, administrative traditions and public sector reforms in multi-level governance (MLG)”.

More research is expected to understand varying policy instruments and national responses to the pandemic. Governments in different countries faced similar problems amidst the pandemic, and engaged in knowledge sharing, and policy adoption to varying extents, which creates opportunity to advance policy learning research. How public service professionals have responded to COVID-19 inside and outside of the administrative bureaucracies of government were also identified as fertile ground for research in this paper. Research questions relevant to financial and other forms of capacity, as well as engagement with the public will be examined for years to come in the context of the pandemic. Next, two themes are related to understanding and uncovering the successes or failures of different PPA frameworks when dealing with the challenges of the pandemic. Dunlop and colleagues advise the PPA scholarly community to use this opportunity to reflect on the meaning of governance, and how this relates to wider administrative traditions in different counties. Finally, they also point out that the policy response to COVID 19 has been shaped by tensions between intergovernmental—between federal, state and local governments in the United States—and regional actors —for example between the EU and member countries—and as such, there is much work to be done by PPA scholars to demonstrate what happened and how the intergovernmental relationships will evolve as a result in the future.

Cautions and caveats

Making suggestions for a post-pandemic research agenda based on the early lessons learned from the pandemic while it was most active is challenging and necessarily subjective, so authors of these articles often also include a discussion of caveats and cautions. The most obvious is a call for epistemic humility or knowing the limits of one’s knowledge and expertise. In fact, many thematic categories are familiar, though they contain new emphases. The pandemic has exposed the existence of systemic problems and magnified aspects of political and administrative issues scholars have long been dealing with. Yet, reflecting on research agendas may clarify how the PPA community can use their research to cope with future high-impact threats and enhance connections between researchers and the practitioners who provide public services, implement public policies and lead public or nonprofit organizations.

Author: Nevbahar Ertas is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Her research focuses broadly on public policy, public service, and public administration. https://twitter.com/NevbaharErtas or @NevbaharErtas

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