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Challenging the Public Administration Status Quo

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

By Michael R. Ford
July 9, 2018

In a recent piece, Alasdair Roberts used the 50th anniversary of the Minnowbrook conference as a frame to present some thoughtful critiques of, and suggestions for improving, the public administration (PA) field. Roberts concludes his piece by calling for those in the field to challenge the current system. Roberts’ insights spurred some debate in the Twitter-sphere and has me thinking about some of the major challenges facing PA and the ways scholars can work to improve the current system.

First, there are obvious and longstanding issues that must be mentioned. These include the academic/practitioner divide, the big question vs. small question debate, the appropriate role of theory, the scope and diversity of the profession and issues of research relevance and accessibility. But more interesting to me are questions of tribalism, inertia and isomorphism in our methods and thinking.

I will start with the uncomfortable question of whether the very idea of the Minnowbrook conference is elitist. It is ironic that something that began as a radical group challenging the status-quo is an invite-only gathering. By definition, such a gathering will be populated by well-connected scholars. To paraphrase Bob Dylan’s heckler in Don’t Look Back, many of us are just a little noise and should not be shocked that our invites are not coming. And that is ok. It is meant to be a gathering of top scholars and the organizers have every right to invite who they want using the criteria they want. I assume most readers here do not invite strangers to their barbeques.

Some of the consternation about the conference is a reflection of the divide between the haves and have nots in our field. Simply, some universities have resources such as travel support and research funding, and some do not. It is a divide within academia that is not a reflection of academic PA specifically. The potential danger, however, is that this divide will morph into a tribalism in which we dismiss the work and ideas of scholars based on their affiliation or connections within the field. Indeed some may already feel this tribalism exists today. There will always be scholarly networks but it is important that they exist to facilitate the pursuit of knowledge rather than to stifle it.

Thankfully there are many things the PA community can do to challenge the existing system and the potential problems it brings. First, individuals should not be threatened by elites or stifled by gatekeepers. There are so many venues to present and publish research at and in that not getting a spot at a specific conference or space in a specific journal need not be a problem. As a mentor told me in my first year, if you conduct quality relevant research, people will eventually take notice, regardless of where it is published. Second and related, scholars should actively work to expand their networks in atypical ways. For example, reach out to authors when you see a journal article you like, propose a collaboration with a junior scholar and mostly just be open to stepping outside your comfort zone.

In the classroom, the obvious action is to revisit syllabi to ensure students are exposed to a diversity of voices. Do not stick with one journal or traditional volume of PA classics. Instead branch out to find emerging classics that challenge traditional viewpoints and voices. Better yet, assign work that challenges your own methodological tendencies. Aside from opening your own eyes it will ensure the next generation of scholars are exposed to more than you were. This is not to suggest ignoring established texts crucial to the development of PA. Rather, it is a call for creativity in and frequent updating of course material.

From a structural standpoint we must continue conversations about what accreditation of MPA programs can look like. My own program lacks the funding support and faculty numbers to pursue NASPAA accreditation. In fact, no program in my state has the luxury of pursuing accreditation. Personal bias aside, it is unhealthy for the field when measures designed to ensure content coverage and appropriate pedagogy are reserved for only well-resourced universities. I am encouraged to hear others in the field discussing this issue.

Public administration is a field that often appears obsessed with itself. A glance at the titles of our most famous texts or even at an ASPA conference program reinforces the perception of an inward looking field. This is not a bad thing, but rather a reflection of the constantly changing needs and values of the public served by those of us working in PA. As such, a little bit of self-reflection is healthy and necessary. Some will reflect at Minnowbrook, some at other formal gatherings like ASPA and its regional conferences, and some at home. Wherever your party happens to be, it is both possible and necessary for PA scholars to work to realize the essential pillars of efficiency, economy, effectiveness and social equity.

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 frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference. He can be reached at [email protected].

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