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From Trump to Minnowbrook: Navigating Current Issues in PA

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

By Michael Ford
September 10, 2018

As we begin the new academic year, I find it worthwhile to reflect on some of the most important issues facing us in public administration (PA). Here in the United States, we are living a case study that will challenge us in practice and in the classroom. How can we effectively teach students when choosing a career in public service is seen in some quarters as taking an ideological position? Representativeness helps create legitimacy, and while those of us in government know the bureaucracy is not ideologically homogeneous, the external perception that it is presents a real governing problem.

President Donald Trump’s feud with the Department of Justice, his use of terms like “deep state” and his unwillingness to listen to U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian election interference all project a distrust of bureaucracy in the executive branch. Trump is not the first politician to clash with the administrative state, but the daily flood of breaking news, tweets and personnel changes represents a dizzying resetting of norms that is shifting the politics-administration dichotomy in unpredictable ways. Christopher Pollitt argued that shocks to our governing system will shape the future of PA. Well, we are in the middle of such a shock.

It is fortuitous that the 50th anniversary of the Minnowbrook conference occurred during this time of uncertainty. I suspect we will continue to hear more about Minnowbrook 50 as the planned panels at major conferences and post-Minnowbrook publications spur discussion within the field and enhance participation. Though rumblings about the diversity of participants and the equity in participant selection methods will likely continue, the larger more important point is that it is not 1968; a small group meeting behind closed doors will not set the broad direction of PA. Our field is too sprawling in terms of subject matter, our methodologies are too diverse, and the number of outlets for high-quality research and commentary are too many for any one group to dominate the discussion.

Personally, I find the energy and chaos in PA exhilarating. More voices means more potential solutions to the pressing problems in our society. Still, all disciplines need a system of control that sets some type of boundaries regarding who we are and what we do. This is not a new challenge for PA, and is the reason high-profile summits like Minnowbrook occurred in the first place. The idea of bringing in thoughtful talented scholars to stake out boundaries through a universally agreed upon statement (or set of statements) is a tantalizing one. But, as I argued, the diversity of work outlets and abundance of research talent makes clean boundary setting impossible.

And that is ok.

We need to embrace the chaos during this time of transition by continuing to push the limits of our field. Though I vehemently disagree with Francis Fukuyama’s conclusion that PA is in decline, it is healthy for academics and practitioners to consider our part in getting to the point of having a democratically elected president of the United States challenging the very legitimacy of the administrative state. No doubt politics, disruptive technologies and many other factors having nothing to do with PA contribute to declining trust in government, but those of us teaching and working in PA are not blameless — nor are we powerless. As a field, where have we come up short? Where can we do better? How can we do better?

Now is an opportunity to collectively reflect on these questions. How? First, scholars can engage with the ideas of Minnowbrook 50 whether they attended or not. The organizers have been active in soliciting feedback on social media and there is immense value to the ensuing discussions. And if you are not on social media you should try it out. There is an active PA community on Twitter that is broadening discussions and building connections that are not dependent on traditional hierarchies and networks. Second, engage with the ideas and scholars across the PA spectrum to ensure you do not get stuck in a silo. The PA Theory Network, Academic Women in PA and the groups associated with regional and international conferences are great places to start. Third, broaden your journal diet to engage with the relevant scholarship published outside the top two or three major PA journals. Finally, keep updating those syllabi with diverse work and perspectives.

The challenges we face at this moment, both as a field and as a society, are real. But PA is a broad discipline adept at reinventing itself by embracing its interdisciplinary roots without forgetting its rich intellectual traditions. We are not powerless.

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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