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Achieving More Together

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

By Lois M. Warner
July 18, 2022

It is well understood among public service professionals that we can accomplish a lot more in the public interest when we work together, in unison. One of our responsibilities as public administration educators is to ensure that our MPA courses facilitate students’ learning “to communicate and interact productively and in culturally responsive ways with a diverse and changing workforce and society at large.” This is listed as a Universal Required Competency by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA), and is “a domain of ability” evaluated among our student learning outcomes, as part of NASPAA’s accreditation process.

In public administration education, we include courses about organization theory and human resource management to provide our students with opportunities to learn how to maximize organizational frameworks, building on eminent theorists like Max Weber (1864-1920). Indeed organizational charts are common features in public organizations and a good starting point for such courses. These charts illustrate responsibility and accountability among members, arranged into a hierarchy. Although the chain of command is becoming less vertical as new communication tools enable fewer procedural steps, these charts remain a primary symbol of the organization.

Certainly, there is general appreciation and value in our field for organizing toward efficiency but, my experience from teaching in MPA programs over the past fifteen years, however, is that students are not in favor of assignments that require them to work in organized groups, even if they create their groups. Among the paradoxes of requiring group, assignments are that students find certain aspects too challenging, such as managing relationships of dependency, consensus building and the uncertainty of equal effort and commitment among members toward goal achievement. I continue in this article, to summarize students’ reactions to developing and using Team Contracts, as an intervention to support group assignment learning experiences in public administration education.

Even though peer-to-peer collaboration and engagement are recognized to be valuable for expanding students’ learning experiences in preparation for employment in public organizations, and they enjoy discussions in both face-to-face and online classes, they tend to be more confident of their success when working alone, especially on summative assignments. To gather information on the introduction of Team Contracts to courses on ethics and human resource administration, I include a set of graded open-ended questions inviting students to give feedback on their experiences preparing a Team Contract, and on working together to fulfill it. For both courses, the team assignment is based on identifying a management issue and developing a strategy to address it. Students’ comments are summarized below.

Peer Review on Team Contracts

Overall, students consider that developing a contract together, with a plan for successfully achieving every aspect is useful in narrowing goals, staying focused on the task and keeping each other on track to meet due dates. Not surprisingly, the team assignments include situations where students do not meet team expectations, and worthy of note are students’ decisions on zero tolerance for team members’ violations, and rules on severe consequences. The team assignments also include students demonstrating their ability to cooperate, share ideas and comply with team decisions.

Students look forward to using Team Contract in future assignments, and value them, especially for planning and delegating tasks, working in increments and avoiding procrastination and the consequential stress of the last-minute rush. On a scale of 1 to 10, most students rate their Team’s success at 8 or above and believe that it is attributable to their contract, which they designed to foster mutual support, respectfully provide feedback and be accessible and responsive to each other.

According to the students’ feedback, lessons afforded from developing and working with Team Contracts include learning to work with differences that include personalities, perspectives, priorities and diverse ideas introduced for discussion, writing styles and workload capacities. Other lessons identified from working as teams are how to better communicate, delegate, collaborate and negotiate. Indeed, some of the lessons learned were the result of disappointing experiences, but most students reported such experiences in a positive light.

Closing Remarks

There are many resources available online for developing and evaluating Team Contracts. They come in different formats, such as Podcasts and narrated videos. Students appreciate guidelines that identify and describe important roles and skills for success in team projects. We would traditionally consider leadership, record keeping and editing but contemporary approaches also include a ‘harmonizer’ responsible for creating and maintaining a positive team atmosphere; an ‘innovator’ to explore new ideas and many others (see the Eberly Center, Carnegie Melon University for Team Contract Examples and other related resources).

For educators to be better prepared and equipped with the necessary resources to enable MPA students to explore contemporary ideas about new roles and skills for teamwork, augurs well for public organizations and those whom they serve.

Author: Lois Warner is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the School for Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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