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Contemporary Challenges and Public Administration Education — Reflections and Suggestions

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

By Julius Nukpezah
October 1, 2018

Few events shake society more gravely than traumatic events such as disasters and terrorist attacks. Many still recall the three major Hurricanes—Harvey, Irma and Maria—which shook the United States in 2017. In an unprecedented way, these hurricane names are retired, attesting to the gravity of their impact. The damages from these disasters are estimated at more than $300 billion although these do not include the emotional trauma and psychological damage, which we cannot quantify.

Global peace and security is yet another problem. Although the cold war between the United States and Russia has abated, and conflict with China is less likely because of the deterrent effect of mutually assured destruction and international diplomacy, there are concerns about the role of North Korea in world peace. Moreover, the use of asymmetric combat strategies and non-deterrable tactics by terrorist groups pose a challenge to public administration.

Although technological innovations are touted as progress and advancement, these have become necessary evils. It is alleged that Russia used social media technology to intervene in the 2016 U.S. elections by spreading fake news. There are global concerns about how cyber terrorism could disrupt important national institutions and infrastructure such as finance, commerce, energy and transportation. It is also feared that cyberterrorism is a harbinger of the next global conflict.

We are also seeing financial crises that affect local credibility and contribute to social, economic and political decays in cities. As with natural and man-made disasters, local financial emergencies disrupt a government’s ability to provide quality public goods to residents.

Today’s problems are wicked problems

The problems that affect society today are best characterized as wicked problems. Weber and Khademian in their 2008 article titled “Wicked problems, knowledge challenges, and collaborative capacity builders in network settings,” published in Public Administration Review (PAR), describes wicked problems as those that one organization cannot solve because they require collaborative efforts. This best describes the problems society face today. They are complex. They have multiple causes. They transcend multiple jurisdictions and are relentless.

Governance approach in solving wicked problems

The relentless nature of today’s problems explains why the governance approach is a better way of addressing them rather than leave those problems with elected officials. Bingham, Nabatchi and O’Leary’s 2005 PAR article “The new governance: Practices and processes for stakeholder and citizen participation in the work of government” observes that governance is the creation, execution and implementation of activities backed by the collective goal of citizens, interest groups, voters, politicians as well as civil society. The governance approach takes a holistic view of problemsolving, recognizes different sources of knowledge and acknowledges the role of citizens and civil society in making and implementing policies.

However, to work collaboratively with society, public administration must trust segments of society. Public administration must recognize that the receptacle of public administration knowledge extends beyond departments of public affairs at universities and the bureaucracies. Professionals must trust researchers in a coproduction endeavor and recognize that theory and practice are two sides of the same coin of meeting the needs of society.

As Denhardt and Denhardt surmise in their 2000 PAR article, we must recognize that our calling is “serving rather than steering.” Stakeholder meetings at city halls should not be misconstrued as a requirement to engage citizens that stack the deck in favor of policymakers. On the contrary, these should be opportunities to deliberate on pressing societal issues, refine policies with citizen inputs and arrive at collective solutions to societal problems.

Research shows that emergent groups that respond to community emergencies are often successful in returning communities to normalcy. Experience reveals that nonprofits, religious and community organizations, and businesses contribute to disaster response and recovery. We know citizens provide important leads in the successful cracking of cold and challenging cases that law enforcement handle. The role of society is indispensable in solving wicked problems.


The governance approach has several implications for public administration.

First, public administrators need to recognize that they are not in a vertical relationship—subservient or otherwise—with stakeholders that include elected officials. The relationship is at best horizontal where vital information and expertise are shared to address societal challenges.

Second, public administration needs to develop their competences in operating outside their comfort zones by welcoming market and nonprofit sector values for the common good of society.

Lastly, decisive leadership and crisis management skills are important in dealing with wicked problems. We also need effective communication to maintain public trust, an effective relationship with the scholarly community and the ability to devolve to the level where the response can be most competent when responding to contemporary challenges. If we are to be successful, we should be inculcating these competencies to the next generation of public administration professionals and scholars.

Author: Julius Nukpezah is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Mississippi State University where he was recognized for his scholarly works and named “The Outstanding Graduate Professor” for the 2017-18 year. He is a 2018 ASPA Founders’ Fellow.

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