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Community Development in MPA Classrooms

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

By William Hatcher
June 9, 2015

Over the past few years, this column has explored the intersections of community development and public administration. Community development is an important part of public administration and should be taught in master of public administration (MPA) classrooms by balancing theory and practice. To promote administrative practices that produce effective, efficient and fair outcomes, this column has argued that community development instruction needs to be rooted in the assets model of development.

This model gives public managers an appreciation for development. It is about improving a community’s economic, social and political institutions. The assets model, furthermore, gives managers the tools that they need to move beyond traditional economic development, or what some have labeled  “smokestack chasing,” toward community betterment. It is a type of development that is not driven primarily by economic growth but by the goal to improve the social, political and economic features of communities.

While working on issues of community development and writing this column, I’ve often wondered how public administration as a discipline teaches development. In recent research published this month in the Journal of Public Affairs Education, I answered this question by examining how MPA programs affiliated with the Network Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) teach community development. In the following paragraphs, I would like to discuss the findings of this research and use them to expand on a few normative ideas for how MPA programs may improve community development instruction.

NASPAA requires accredited MPA programs to advertise curriculum information on their websites. By reading the sites of 270 MPA programs, I learned the following about how NASPAA programs are teaching community development and other development-related topics.

  • Ten percent of the programs offer a concentration in community development.
  • Close to 20 percent of the programs offer a concentration in one of the following: planning, economic development and/or international development. These topics were examined separately from pure community development. The assets model of development argues that community development is not just economic development or planning but a combination of the two and other functions focused on cultivating community assets.
  • A majority of the programs (27 percent offer community development and 51 percent offer planning, economic development or international development) advertise course offerings in development. 

According to the information on program websites, I identified a few common instructional practices.

  • Programs teach the topic based on ideas from multiple scholarly disciplines.
  • Faculty use experiential learning exercises in community development classes.
  • Sustainability is one of the main topics of inquiry.
  • Programs focus on explaining development as an attempt to reduce poverty. 

Based on my limited analysis of the website information, I concluded that many MPA programs are teaching parts of the assets model in their community development courses, in particular sustainability. However, there was little direct reference to the model in practice. For instance, I didn’t find a course that uses Green and Haines Asset Building & Community Development, one of the standard textbooks rooted in the assets model.

Based on my reading of community development instruction in public administration, I think the following normative ideas may help MPA programs ensure that their community development instructional practices are giving managers the tools of the assets model.

First, programs should continue to focus on teaching community development in a holistic manner. Community development is often thought of as economic development, but again that’s just one aspect of the function. Community development encompasses planning, economics, social capital, volunteerism and a host of other fields and topics that affect the social, political and economic institutions of communities. Writing also in the Journal of Public Affairs Education, Stout discussed topics that need to be included in community development concentrations. These topics include local governance, public engagement, planning and sustainability. The topics are the ones that I also think need to be included in our instruction of community development.

Lastly, we need to consider how we discuss the various actors involved in community development. Community development includes government agencies, nonprofit authorities indirectly controlled by public officials, nonprofit community development corporations and private firms. The administrative practices in these organizes differ greatly.

From my analysis, I did not find much material discussing how the type of actors influences development policy and outcomes. We need to examine these differences to provide guidance to public managers on how to design and implement policies that follow an assets-based view of development.

This summer, I am working on research examining the differences between local economic development organizations controlled directly by the government and nonprofit economic development authorities indirectly accountable to local officials. In a future column, I plan to discuss this research and its findings in greater detail.


Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. was an associate professor at Eastern Kentucky University. In July, he starts his new position as an associate professor and MPA director at Georgia Regents University. (His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.)

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