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Minnowbrook at 50: Revisiting the Administrative State

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

By Tina Nabatchi and Julia L. Carboni
August 13, 2018

The year of 1968 was an important one for public administration, thanks in large part to Dwight Waldo. That fall, Waldo joined Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, one of 10 New York State-funded “super professorships.” He used some of his professorship funds to organize a conference of leading young scholars who set out to reconcile public administration’s role with a society in chaos and address the question he had posed in Public Administration Review: “Is public administration responding at a high level of consciousness and self-consciousness to the fact that we are in a time of revolutions?”

That conference, known as Minnowbrook I, in reference to its location at Syracuse University’s conference center in the Adirondack Mountains, is widely recognized as watershed moment in the field. It revolutionized the academic study of public administration by launching the New Public Administration movement, which emphasized citizenship and public service and highlighted the importance of the administrative state for democracy.

The Maxwell School has honored that conference every twenty years by gathering scholars to address important issues of the day. In 1988, H. George Frederickson organized Minnowbrook II, which centered on activism and social equity. In 2008, Rosemary O’Leary organized Minnowbrook III, which concentrated on the future of public administration and brought together junior scholars, followed by a more traditional academic conference with wider participation. Each Minnowbrook conference culminated in the publication of books, articles and/or special issues of journals that left a lasting impression on scholars around the world.

In August 2018, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Minnowbrook I. The Minnowbrook at 50 conference will focus on the theme of “Revisiting the Administrative State.” More than just a celebration, the conference provides the opportunity to continue Minnowbrook’s tradition of advancing public administration scholarship through critical reflection, substantive analysis and meaningful connection with practitioners.

Renewed reflection on and analysis of the state of the field could not be more timely. There are important differences in the contexts of previous Minnowbrook conferences and today, but once again, public administration is in a time of revolutions. Estrangement from government is at historic highs and political trust at historic lows. An inability to converse across sociopolitical lines is the new norm. Calls for the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and warnings about “shadow government” and the “deep state” are heard from those in positions of power in federal, state, and local government. Several government agencies are now led by people who do not believe in their organization’s core missions, and other appointees actively seek to delegitimize the bureaucracy. In many ways, we seem to be in an era of dysfunction by design characterized by the purposeful, ideologically-driven incapacitation of public administration.

The administrative state also faces challenges beyond U.S. borders. As conflict and fragility spread, a functioning administrative system is yet to be built in some places, and risks being dismantled or captured in others. Moreover, the world may be witnessing an emerging democratic rollback, evident not only in the undermining of democratic ethos and public values in administration, but also in the rise of new authoritarian strains that purport to offer alternative paths to modernity.

At the same time, these governance dysfunctions are growing, humanity faces increasingly wicked public problems. Mounting complexity, increasing interconnectedness, greater uncertainty and the escalating pace of globalization, demand collaborative efforts across organizational, sectoral, jurisdictional and sovereign boundaries, and require new thinking about the role of public administration, not only in development and democratization, but also in established democracies. However, at precisely the moment in which we confront serious political, economic, social, cultural and environmental challenges on a truly grand scale, the field of public administration seems reluctant (and perhaps incapable) of responding in a meaningful way.

These and other issues will be at the forefront of the Minnowbrook at 50 conference. As with previous Minnowbrook conferences, we seek to revisit the administrative state and explore the role of public administration in a time of revolutions. The anniversary conference is only the starting point for such conversations. The Maxwell School will continue the Minnowbrook at 50 celebration with roundtables and discussion forums at conferences throughout the rest of 2018 and into 2019.

Minnowbrook conferences always trigger questions about who gets to participate — and rightly so. There are not enough opportunities for people in public administration to come together and have extended, meaningful conversations about our field. We strived to make this conference as inclusive and diverse as possible given the limited space at the Minnowbrook Center.

To begin organizing for the conference, we developed an advisory board consisting of faculty and thought leaders in the field of public administration. Members of the board nominated participants who could engage big questions and stimulate new ways of looking at challenging issues. Through voting, numerous discussions and countless emails, a list of participants was constructed that includes an almost equal balance of women and men, significant representation from people of color, practitioners and scholars at all ranks and from schools beyond the traditional “top ten.” Minnowbrook at 50 will be the most diverse of all the Minnowbrook conferences to date.

We know that Minnowbrook holds a special place in the hearts of those who love public administration, and we want to provide even more opportunities for dialog. To this end, we are planning several publications, so that we can share the ideas, concerns and views that emerged at the conference. We also are orchestrating opportunities to continue and expand the Minnowbrook at 50 conversations and allow for even wider participation. Our first event is a panel discussion at the upcoming NASPAA Conference in Atlanta. We hope to have additional panels at ASPA, PMRC and other conferences in 2019. Please join us in continuing to have deep and meaningful conversations about the field. In a time of revolutions, thoughtful discussions about public adminsitration cannot be confined to a single weekend.

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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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