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Facts Matter, and We Can Show our Students Exactly How

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

By Michael Ford
November 5, 2018

Every fall my budgeting and financial management students play the part of a legislative budget analyst. They take a real Wisconsin budget proposal, analyze it, and present it to the mock budget committee, i.e. their classmates. The main goals are to give students experience analyzing source documents and in presenting complex information in a simple, easy-to-understand way. A secondary goal I am thinking about more and more is demonstrating that objective information can and should inform policy debate and administrative decisionmaking.

Here in Wisconsin, we are in the midst of a close gubernatorial race where competing ads proclaim both the incumbent and challenger to be hell bent on destroying the state. Though competing claims are par for the course during a winner-take-all political race, it is far more dangerous when basic foundations of truth erode in civic life. Is this happening? Well, take a few minutes to flip between MSNBC, Fox News and CNN during prime time. After this exercise you could be forgiven for thinking that facts are in the eyes of the beholder.

But objective facts do exist, and they do matter. Now more than ever, those of us teaching and working in Public Administration need to double down on this foundational element of our field. But how? First and foremost, we need to continue to emphasize it in our classrooms. My personal approach is to expose students to source documents whenever possible. When students become comfortable with statutes, administrative rules, bills, budgets and certified annual financial reports, they do not need to rely on others’ explanations of policies and their impacts. These source documents are the factual basis for our policy debates and need to be accessible, understood and explained by the next generation of Public Administration professionals and scholars.

We also need to preach it. Public Administration is an applied field, and those of us in it have a duty to influence the public debate around important policy issues across levels of government. Engagement can come in the form of applied research notes, the creation of public policy centers, the establishment of a media presence (social and otherwise), and of course collaborations between academics and government agencies. In short, we need to put ourselves out there, and create incentive structures so that others do the same. I know this is not without risk, especially in a charged political atmosphere, but it is a way to reassert our relevance while providing a public service.

It is no less important that Public Administration scholars and practitioners practice humility in how we engage with students, the public at-large, and each other. Being an expert with the objectively correct answer to an important policy question is not enough to ensure that the objectively correct answer actually informs debate and decisionmaking. It is a cliché, but audiences must be met where they are. Being able to communicate complex factual information to skeptical audiences requires both communication skills and emotional intelligence. If these skills are absent, our expertise will not be trusted, nor accepted.

Finally, we need to always be cognizant of the perils of technocratic overreach. The reality that policymaking and governance are human activities means no set of facts alone can lead to the most preferable policy outcomes. Facts matter, but so does how we use them. As scholars embrace more sophisticated research methods we should simultaneously embrace public engagement in the practical application of our research findings. Technocratic overreach, what I define as research-informed policies applied without consideration of their human impacts, can alienate the governed, which has a negative overall impact over the long run.

The movement toward a post-truth society is a problem brought on by our politics, our culture, technological changes and any number of other factors beyond the scope of what we can address in a classroom or a municipal office. But we can make a difference every day be reasserting how facts matter. To go back to my classroom budgeting activity, my students are ideologically diverse, they may have different opinions about how finite resources should be used in our state. But even with these differences they can all understand, and accept, the basic facts informing the value-laden policy debates of the day. My hope is my students will gain the skills to explain these basic facts to their professional and personal networks in ways that not only advance their career, but also advance the level of our policy discourse. No, the next generation of Public Administration professionals and scholars will not solve all the pressing issues of our day, but each subsequent generation can do a little better than the last.

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 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.

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