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Learning MPA Core Competencies across Cultures: Insights from China and the United Arab Emirates

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

By J. Steven Ott, Lina Svedin and Yanqi Tong
August 16, 2016 

In recent years, large numbers of government managers have come to the U.S. from countries around the globe to earn MPA degrees. Likewise, quite a few public administration faculty members from the U.S. have traveled to other countries to teach courses in MPA programs. Yet we all know that the behaviors that constitute effective management in one country are not necessarily effective in other countries. Two key questions about teaching MPA courses for students from/in other countries began challenging us in 2004.

The first is: “What adaptations in approaches to teaching a traditional MPA program in the U.S. are needed to increase the likelihood of success in developing effective managers abroad?”

To address this question, we operationalized “effectiveness” as “the utilization of leadership and management skills and abilities (‘competencies’) back home that were learned and/or adapted while earning the MPA degree.” Then we identified the competencies that foreign graduates actually need and use back home so we could adapt teaching materials and approaches for outcome effectiveness, or “outcome competencies,” and be accountable.

In fall 2014, we conducted a follow-up study with 102 midlevel government managers in Hainan Province, China, who earned MPA degrees at the University of Utah between 2010 and 2013. Questionnaires (in Chinese and English) were administered at a meeting of the graduates in Haikou, Hainan, asking if and how the graduates had applied the competencies learned during the MPA program to their work in Hainan. We used the NASPAA and University of Utah MPA program core competencies:

1.   Exhibit leadership in public governance, especially leadership in decision-making.

  • Participate in and contribute to major decision-making processes.
  • Analyze, synthesize, think critically, solve problems and make decisions.
  • Articulate and apply a public service perspective, including consideration of key values and competing obligations when participating in decision-making.
  • Involve diverse stakeholders when participating in decision-making.

2.   Understand and articulate ethical standards for decision-making.

3.   Use basic public management skills and tools, including personnel administration, budgeting, strategic management, and program evaluation skills and tools.

We encouraged the respondents to “tell stories.” Immediately following the meeting, 20 graduates volunteered to tell the interviewers more in-depth stories about how they had used the competencies. The full methodology and findings will be provided upon request.

A sampling of responses:

Competencies 1 and 2: Since being in Utah, I see many things differently and approach things differently. I am more confident about stepping out and exerting leadership, often even when high level managers are in the meeting. On several big issues, I have been able to change the direction decisions were going.

Competency 3: I use analytical problem-solving skills regularly in my work. For example, we need to decide whether some agricultural programs will be used or not. It is very important for us to evaluate before deciding. To do this, I need to think of options and consequences such as pollution, economic development for farmers and helping other farmers to grow together.

Competency 4: What I learned from the MPA courses is to compare, balance and compromise on thorny issues in my job. This is especially helpful in handling conflicts of interest among individuals and other agencies.

After analyzing the findings, we turned to our second question: “What can we learn from our experience with one country that could help us be successful in other countries with entirely different cultures, norms, institutions and systems of governing?”

We compared the Hainan experience with our experience teaching in the Zayed University’s Executive MPA program in Abu Dhabi, UAE. For example, while teaching midcareer government employees there, we quickly learned that:

  • Students expect an authoritative approach to teaching.
  • Expectations must be stated with stark clarity. For example, an extended syllabus is absolutely critical to transmitting the instructor’s expectations.
  • Teaching in Abu Dhabi required us to rethink the ways we attempt to influence people to learn and the ways we assess learning.

Although we were prepared for these insights, after teaching one or two courses there, others caught us by surprise. For example, we also observed:

  • In female-led teams, leadership tends to be shared.
  • Female students often talk about the strengths that each individual brings to the group.
  • Female teams usually involve highly-animated discussions, with many ideas shared.
  • Male-led teams tend to be hierarchical, quiet and deferential to those in higher positions (at work). They are not as animated as female-led teams.

We came to understand that not only did we need to adapt our notions of leadership and management effectiveness because of differences between countries, we also had to adapt to significantly different approaches to leadership between male- and female-led working groups.

In sum, teaching across national boundaries is only partially about transmitting content. It is as much about framing the content for the local organizational milieu and cultural context of the student’s home country.


Author: J. Steven Ott is leading the University of Utah’s partnership program with Zayed University, a national university of the United Arab Emirates. He also was a member of the University’s leadership team on the partnership with Hainan Province China, Hainan University and the China University of Political Science and Law. His Ph.D. is from the University of Colorado, M.S. from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and B.S. from The Pennsylvania State University. Email: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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