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The Big Questions Facing Public Administration in 2018

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

By Michael Ford
January 8, 2018

Like most of you, I spent New Year’s Eve watching the ball drop at midnight. Unlike most of you, I watched a live feed of the ball dropping in the 17,000 resident City of Menasha, Wisconsin. While watching those revelers brave sub-zero temperatures in downtown Menasha, I could not help but wonder what next year will bring for our field. Exactly what are the big questions facing the world of Public Administration in 2018?

How do we solve the local government revenue problem? The City of Menasha spurred my thinking because they, like so many communities across the country, are experiencing financial stress. The combined impact of state-imposed levy limits, stagnant or declining state aid, and constant or expanding community needs is diminishing local governments’ service capacities and creating a cycle of reactive short-term decisionmaking. Though these issues are not unique to Menasha or news to anyone in local government, they nonetheless remain an issue both scholars and practitioners must wrestle with. We must work to both solve what I call the revenue problem, but also articulate the issue in a way that is understood by citizens and policymakers.

How do we restore public trust in expertise? The idea that professional management provided by trained experts can ensure services are delivered equitably and effectively is a foundational idea in public administration. Yet the past year has illustrated widespread skepticism, and even outright distrust, in bureaucracy and evidence-based policymaking. This too is not new; the absence of direct electoral accountability for public administrators brings an inherent legitimacy challenge in a democratic society. However, 2017 brought the issue to new heights with a news cycle dominated by discussions of fake news, the deep state and calls for the deconstruction of administrative institutions. Though it is tempting to dismiss much of this talk as politics as usual, it is imperative we in the field do not. Instead we must ask ourselves: What steps can we take to restore faith in administrative institutions?

How can we be effective given the divisive politics of our day? If you spend any time on Twitter, in the online comments section of a big city newspaper or even flipping between MSNBC, CNN and Fox News, you are aware of the corrosive discourse in our national politics. If you have served in local government during a referendum or land use debate, you knew that corrosive politics is not only a national phenomenon. Last year I received some nasty correspondence regarding a position I took as a member of my city’s plan commission! Just how do practitioners tasked with fairly and effectively implementing the will of the people do so when the people are so often divided? This too is a perpetual challenge in our field, but one made that much harder when our divisions are punctuated with threats, distrust and heated rhetoric.

How do we stem the research-practitioner divide? Public Administration is an applied field, and, as such, the relevance of academic Public Administration is dependent (in my opinion) on its usefulness in aiding the work of practitioners. When I attend academic conferences, I find most academics I come across agree with my assessment. Yet, the balance of practitioners I speak and work with either bemoan the uselessness of much academic work, or worst yet, are completely unaware of its existence. In practice this means some of the best research is not being used, and/or that the needs of practitioners and the citizens they serve are not being addressed. Though organizations like ASPA have worked hard to bridge the divide, it remains an unresolved issue in Public Administration.

What is the nature of fact? Perhaps the most difficult question facing a field premised on objective rational decisionmaking is the frequent inability of policymakers and citizens to agree on the basic facts informing government actions. What Herbert Simon described as an individual’s decision premise is, today, still useful for understanding why individuals and organizations can use the same evidence to reach wildly different conclusions. To paraphrase Simon, it does not mean one actor is rational and one is not, but rather a function of the reality of human nature in the governance process.

Over the next few months I plan to write columns on each of these questions, lest I be accused of highlighting problems without offering solutions. However, there are two common threads woven through each of the questions. First, they all stem from the very nature of Public Administration; ours is a field that works to use finite resources to meet the infinite needs of a divided society. Second, the answers to all of these questions have real implications for real people living in places like the aforementioned Menasha, Wisconsin. The task is tall, and the task is important.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He has published over two-dozen academic articles on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. Prior to joining academia, Michael worked for many years on education policy in Wisconsin.

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