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You Have Your MPA. Go Solve Some Problems!

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

By Anita Larson
July 24, 2015

Public work is all about implementing laws and solving the dilemmas that ensue, but is often difficult and tedious. Procedures become routine due to equity, transparency and history. As a result, public agencies always need problem-solvers. New MPA graduates have a unique opportunity to invigorate their organizations and initiate creative and innovative practices.

With upcoming waves of retirements in most public agencies, it will be vital for public organizations to find ways to attract new talent and maintain a dynamic work culture. A new MPA graduate contributes a refreshed contextual view, providing explanatory theory that also guides practice in the field. An MPA equips graduates with a more sophisticated understanding of the public organization through history, employment law, organizational theory and organizational development and the collective impact of all MPA coursework.

managers 2One specific coursework component that I feel is particularly valuable to MPA graduates is research methods or the related courses that impart tools for problem-solving and continuous improvement, relying on inquiry and analysis. If you took an applied research methods course as part of your coursework, you were exposed to methods to:

  • Assess community needs.
  • Utilize existing datasets.
  • Improve processes through process analysis.
  • Collect new information to learn about problems.
  • Identify solutions or identify potential strategies.
  • Understand and effectively consume research and analysis done by others.
  •  Practice what you learned on a real-life policy problem for your capstone or thesis.

Even students of mine who are self-professed science-phobes or who say they “hate math” usually come to see that applied research simply involves gathering information that can help them solve a problem in their public workplace. This knowledge energizes a public servant who might otherwise feel trapped in old processes and weighed down by work that feels ineffective – or, they simply do not know whether the work is effective.

Leadership is critical to utilizing information to make change. This is where an MPA is invaluable. As current and emerging leaders, MPA students can bring vital, new information to their organizations that can have a lasting impact on public work. Applying basic methods of inquiry supports the problem-solving capacity of great leaders and measurement moves from “what” you do to “how” you work.

What does this look like?  It can take many forms. If you are a current leader, systematic methods can be used to prioritize problems and develop focus, supporting project and strategic planning. When tackling a problem, consider the ways to gather information about that problem and explore other sources. Consider contracting with an external evaluator if the problem is politically sensitive or dialogue would benefit from a neutral third party. When using and interpreting data, enlist the help of staff, clients or other stakeholders. Involving staff is particularly important; it sends the message that you value their input and that you rely on them to help find solutions to problems. This helps build your team and boost morale. Using continuous improvement principles can also be applied to leading staff, providing meaningful feedback and dealing with job satisfaction.

If you are an emerging leader, apply what you have learned in graduate school to your own work. Go through the same steps to identify and prioritize your problems, gather information, and if you are part of a team, talk with your colleagues about potential solutions. If you have autonomy to do so, employ a change and see what happens. If you do not have the authority to employ a change, investigate the possibility of temporarily changing how you do your work. Share what you have learned with your colleagues and your supervisor. Taking the initiative to identify an innovative solution not only boosts your own enthusiasm for work each day, it also looks good on your resume.

Finally, the MPA is a way to resurrect the enthusiasm and idealism for public service that most new undergraduates feel when they land their first government job. Government workers are intrinsically motivated – seeking meaningful work, wanting to make a positive difference in their communities. ASPA’s President Menzel said it best in 2005, “…that a healthy, well- functioning democracy must have a healthy, well-functioning government bureaucracy.”

Earning your MPA is just one way to reenergize your orientation to the work, apply problem-solving tools to your organization and inspire your colleagues and subordinates to explore ways to improve the work they do for the benefit of our communities.

Author: Anita M. Larson, DPA is a part time faculty member in the public administration program at Hamline University. Email: [email protected].

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