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Bringing Practitioners, Academics Together Through Project Based Research

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

By Bill Brantley
December 6, 2016

On Aug. 31, 2016, Governing posted an article by Dr. Philip Joyce in which he argued that academia is failing government:

“The academic disciplines of public administration and public policy developed because of a need for problem-focused, interdisciplinary fields whose raison d’etre was the development and dissemination of knowledge that could be applied to improve both government and society. If we truly want our research to matter, we as academics must be willing to embrace measures that are focused on actual policy and practical management concerns rather than continuing to reward ourselves for talking to each other.”

Dr. Joyce focused on how public administration scholars created research based on increasing the impact factor of their research, measured by how often their journal articles were cited by other scholars. The journal impact factor leads to scholars only talking to each other rather than being rewarded for developing solutions that practitioners can benefit from. As Dr. Joyce points out, “[research] products that might result in a broader impact — op-eds, blog posts, shorter pieces in trade publications, or testimony before state or local governing bodies — not only do not count for tenure but are viewed as detracting from the real work: publishing for other academics.”

Is the Business School Model Appropriate for Public Administration Schools?

In response to Dr. Joyce’s article, Howard Risher argued that business schools would be a good model for public administration schools to disseminate research to practitioners. According to Mr. Risher, “The private sector has the advantage that new companies with new organizational strategies are always emerging.” The successful policies and practices are then “discussed at conferences and in articles.” The business schools then research the newly successful strategies and practices to “[confirm] or [debunk] the value of [the] new ideas.”

Risher supports his argument by discussing how the Office of Personnel Management has used “demo projects” to test new federal human resources policies. A more recent example, not mentioned by Risher, is the use of lean startup principles to create the Consumer Financial Protection Board. Other federal agencies, such as the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services, have used innovation labs to test and implement new policy innovations.

However, what is the ratio of successful business innovations to failed business innovations? What is the actual cost in failed business innovations? According to some statistics about business startups, only 5 percent of new businesses survive after five years. There are also numerous examples of business movements that looked successful at first but, ultimately failed. The reengineering movement of the early 1990s is a classic example. Innovating first and researching later seem too risky of a strategy for the public sector.

Is Project Based Learning a Solution for Connecting Academics with Practitioners?

brantleyAccording to the Buck Institute for Education, a leading research institution in project-based learning, project based learning is: “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem or challenge.” The advantages of project-based learning for students is the sustained inquiry into a challenging problem which allows the student to create a public product demonstrating their learning while providing a useful, innovative contribution.

The benefit to academics is they will be introduced to a current public administration challenge through the mentoring of their students. The academic can aid the practitioners by providing research that applies to the problem that is the focus of the project based learning. Academics will then benefit by giving the research a real-world test and exploring new avenues for future research. Meanwhile, the practitioners benefit from having a new policy innovation or solution supported by rigorous research. All parties benefit from the dialogue surrounding the public administration students’ project.

Project Based Research

It is not always necessary to have a student project to bring academics and practitioners together in a mutually beneficial collaboration. There are plenty of opportunities in the current challenges facing local, state and national governments. For example, I mentioned in last month’s column that the Congress is ready to pass legislation to improve how the government manages programs and projects. President Obama will most likely sign the legislation into law so there will be plenty of opportunities for the academic and practitioner community to work together. There is much good research on government project and program management that most practitioners are not aware of but, would appreciate. Academics have a great opportunity for their work to have a real impact factor on the public agencies they study. 

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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One Response to Bringing Practitioners, Academics Together Through Project Based Research

  1. Howard Risher Reply

    December 11, 2016 at 9:53 pm

    So the debate is on. I disagree with several points in Mr Brantley’s comments on my column.

    Perhaps most prominent is the statement suggesting reengineering failed. Although the term is no longer used, I believe a little digging would confirm it was a predecessor to empowerment. A few years earlier Dr Deming made front line workers a key to quality management. Even before that autonomous, now self-managed work groups were an innovative idea. Each of these practices focuses on trusting lower level employees to make decisions. That has not failed.

    Second, an innovative management practice has to be implemented and “used” for a period of at least year to understand if it has gained acceptance. Its common to learn fine-tuning is warranted. That is central to the reason the OPM demo projects were evaluated annually. I was involved in a couple of OPM’s evaluations. That is not the same as project based research.

    My soon to be posted column, “Filling a Blank Page: Identifying Best Practices in Workforce Management”, focuses on the importance if assessing management practices before they are adopted widely.

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