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How Should Your MPA Program Serve You?

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

By William Hatcher
July 14, 2015

This month, I move into my new role as director of the master of public administration (MPA) program at Georgia Regents University. With my new position comes a new focus for my PA Times online column. In future columns, I’ll continue to discuss community development from a public administration prospective, but I also plan to write about issues facing MPA directors.

With this new focus, I hope the column will serve as a forum for scholars and practitioners to discuss issues of public administration pedagogy. This month’s theme for PA Times fits nicely with the new focus on issues facing MPA directors. The theme is: “You have your MPA! Now What?” I’d like to discuss what MPA programs should do to ensure that our students are able to answer this question after graduation.

In MPA programs, we have a responsibility to ensure that our students can apply the field’s seminal theories, research and literature in order to become effective, efficient and fair managers. How do we achieve this goal? We need evidence-based practices.

Luckily, there is a wealth of scholarly and practical literature for us to examine. Entire journals, like the Journal of Public Affairs Education are dedicated to research on evidence-based practices of instruction. This short column can’t possibly review this wealth of information, so I’d like to talk about three goals that I think MPA directors and public administration instructors should strive to achieve with their programs.

First, and foremost, our students should have the foundational tools that they need to be public managers. By this, I don’t mean that they are ready to be managers the day that they leave our classes. Of course, a great deal of public administration is learned through practice, and such learning comes only from working in public service. However, there are certain key skills that our MPA graduates should gain in our classrooms.

Since the 2009 accreditation standards, NASPAA defines these skills as the following five universal competencies:

  • Lead and manage in public governance.
  • Participate in and contribute to the policy process.
  • Analyze, synthesize, think critically, solve problems and make decisions.
  • Articulate and apply a public service perspective.
  • Communicate and interact productively with a diverse and changing workforce and citizenry. 

MPA programs should define each of these competencies based on the needs of their students, community and other stakeholders. The competencies are what our students should be able to accomplish with an MPA degree. The competencies serve as a guide toward quality public administration instruction.

Second, MPA programs need to be constantly improving. 

Public administration practice, scholarship and education should advocate for constant improvement. By using the NASPAA competencies as a guide, we can develop quality measures to help us assess student performance. This is an important step toward helping programs know whether or not their students are excelling. Through the learning assessment process, areas that need improvement can be identified and addressed.

Often it is difficult for us to develop learning outcomes that help our students become better public managers. In a 1989 article on the topic, Jennings writing in Public Administration Review, argues that faculty, students and community stakeholders need to be involved in creating learning outcomes. In a more recent essay, Allen and Newcomer provide a model to include practitioners in the learning assessment process.

Developing program-centric processes for assessing student performance is an important part of what MPA programs need to do for our students.

Lastly, MPA programs need to know our communities and stakeholders to better serve them.

To teach our students and develop learning outcomes that assess their knowledge, we need to know our stakeholders—i.e., the citizens and agencies that our programs are serving. How do MPA programs accomplish this? Here are a few tips.

  • We need to encourage our faculty to be active in the local community.
  • We need to provide incentives for faculty and students to conduct applied research to help local public agencies and nonprofits.
  • We need to develop curriculum that emphasizes the importance of community outreach and service learning.
  • We need to form strong community advisory boards and empower them to give meaningful advice about our programs and curriculum. 

In future columns, I will discuss other important areas in which MPA programs should serve our students.

Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor and director of the Master of Public Administration program at Georgia Regents University. He can be reached at [email protected]  (His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.)

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