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How MPA Students Can Have an Edge

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

By John Pearson
January 15, 2018

I suggest MPA courses be heavily weighted toward practitioner skills and knowledge to give students the best chance in a tough job market. MPA students can gain an edge in government work by concentrating more on basic skills and the fundamentals of government and less on the literature of public administration.

Here is a high level summary of work activities I recall from my experience at an agency headquarters. All, or nearly all, of these activities would be occurring at the same time:

  • Implementing recent legislation;
  • Updating regulations or non-regulatory guidance documents (a never-ending task);
  • Answering Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and non-FOIA requests for information often requiring a painstaking effort to define what data in agency databases is relevant;
  • Developing training programs for field offices;
  • Working with in-house IT staff or contractors to maintain or upgrade a multitude of agency computer systems (IT staff and contractors don’t know what the computers are supposed to do; that’s a “business” responsibility);
  • Updating briefing books for the Director so they can present the latest program information to stakeholders;
  • Preparing testimony for Congress and responding to written inquiries and follow-up requests for information;
  • Managing projects (there is a huge demand for project management expertise as well as expertise in managing government contractors);
  • Managing the agency’s website and social media presence;
  • Responding to findings (nearly always negative) from oversight organizations, the press, stakeholders and Congressional committees;
  • Responding to customer inquiries or complaints;
  • Participating in a never ending cycle of meetings with coworkers, higher management, persons assigned to special projects, stakeholders, field personnel, persons from other agencies, contractors, etc.;
  • Reviewing performance metrics related to agency programs;
  • Preparing decision documents to go up the chain of command and commenting on proposed decision documents from other staffs; and,
  • Reviewing current personnel issues such as how much telework is permitted and the requirements for desk sharing to save office space.

To perform day-to-day government work requires strong basic skills and program knowledge gained on the job rather than specific knowledge from the literature of public administration. Employees need to have very strong analytical skills and interpersonal skills along with strong skills in writing, oral presentation, computing and, in some cases, technical skills.

  • Writing: I recommend MPA students immerse themselves in actual government documents to the extent possible such as bills, laws, regulations, agency websites, budget documents, Inspector General (IG) reports, General Accountability Office (GAO) reports, strategic plans, management analyses, Congressional testimony, computer documentation (not for actual systems), etc. The point is not to master the content of these documents. The student needs to develop the skills to read and understand such documents, to comment on such documents, to do the research behind such documents and ultimately to draft and edit complex documents.
  • Oral: MPA students should practice difficult real-life situations: dealing with a performance or disciplinary problem; dealing with the press, stakeholders, the legislative oversight body or an unhappy boss. Students should practice giving briefings and training sessions. They should practice leading a group. They should practice dealing with hostile, disruptive people and people who take meetings off on a tangent. They need to learn to think quickly under pressure.
  • Legal landscape: MPA students should have at least a high-level understanding of the legal environment they will work in.

Students should be able to track pending legislation and research existing laws, regulations and policies. They should study what prohibited personnel practices may apply at the federal, state or local level.  They should study freedom of information requirements, privacy requirements and wage and hour requirements. Students should learn how sexual harassment is defined. They should learn Equal Employment Opportunity rules and rules pertaining to the disabled. They should learn about responsibilities for maintaining records and ethical rules that may apply.

  • Computing: Managing the computers is probably an equal or greater challenge than managing people. As non-IT workers, MPA students will need the skills to navigate multiple (sometimes clunky) in-house systems. They will need to observe security protocols for these systems. They will need to have solid skills in desktop applications like Word for Windows, Excel and PowerPoint and perhaps in specialized software such as used for data analysis or maintaining websites. They need to understand something about the software development cycle: documenting shortcomings of existing systems, helping programmers and analysts design new systems, testing new systems and deploying new systems. They may participate in agency analyses of what computer investments should move forward.
  • Research and Management Analysis: MPA students may be asked participate in a research project or to evaluate the research of others. MPA students can’t be expected to have the research skills of doctoral students but the more skills they have the more competitive they will be.

A broad knowledge of public policy issues would be useful if a student intends to go into politics or wants to be a political pundit. Knowledge of public administration theory and research methods is necessary if the student is pursing an academic career. But I believe the vast majority of public sector jobs and related contractor jobs require the skills I have outlined in this column.


Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [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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