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Observations from the MPA Lectern — The Evident and Not So Evident

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

By Stephen Harding
June 15, 2018

It’s almost 6:00 pm on the first day of class. Graduate students are filing in. Each scans the room for a familiar face and that coveted seat that will mark ten weeks of territorial occupation. They are candidates for the degree: Master of Public Administration (MPA). These returning adult learners are trying to get their student groove back compared with their younger counterparts already versed in burning the late night oil and navigating BlackBoard.  Some are true academic achievers. Some are here just for the credential. Most will put in their best effort. Ironically, the negative underpinnings of grade obsession are common along the full spectrum of the bell curve. For this cohort, the assessment of ability is yet to be determined. For some, punctuality and proper cell phone etiquette will be a challenge. With an age-range of 10 to 20 years, they project varying levels of interest, maturity, experience, confidence and, of course, apprehension.

As with previous generations of California MPA students, most are already “In Public Service.”  To fight the arguably worst traffic in the country, they leave work early, completing the one-way trek somewhere on either side of the hour. Dinner is during the 15-minute break. Some pack a brown bag, while others head to the commissary. Adrenalin depleted, most stay engaged for the better part of three-and-a-half hours. They’ve been up for more than twelve. They will not return to homeport for another four.

So, is this recent assembly of  “MPA” students any different than their predecessors? Some of their classroom proclivities are customary. Others require a pedagogical if not a complete curricular adjustment.  In some instances, there are apparent inadequacies in their K-12 and undergraduate training. All in all, these contemporary learners bring something new to the table. They also bring new challenges.

What is Evident?

In the truest sense, these individuals are street-level bureaucrats. Some serve in para-professional or administrative support functions in law, finance, technology and human resources. For the most part, the majority are direct line service providers. They are social workers, workforce development specialists, family counselors, code enforcement and correction officers, affordable housing advocates, police officers and fire fighters. They mostly work for counties, non-profits, housing authorities, workforce development boards, the court and correctional systems and a few municipalities. To the chagrin of local government managers, most are not seeking those previously heralded entry-level generalist positions in city hall. Many of their current occupations only recently require an undergraduate degree. It can be argued that this generation of the rank and file is more educated than its predecessors.

What is Not So Evident?

These individuals hold a strong public service ethos. They are grounded in family, community and the precepts of social justice. Increasingly, women occupy the majority of the seats; many are working moms.  In some instances, culturally based paternalistic family mores have served as hurdles not ladders. For these students, their perseverance is obvious. Regardless of gender, most are individuals of color. The majority are first generation college attendees from modest socio-economic backgrounds. Many have roots as second or third generation immigrants. From my vantage point, there is no doubting their enthusiasm or work ethic.

More Educated or Merely More Trained?

If the mastery of applied skills is the priority, then training may pass as a substitute for the broader notion of education. Methods and technical acumen are the order of the day. Society says, “Get out and get a job.” Yet, is it not as equally important for those actually in the public service to have an intrinsic understanding of the nation’s culture, history, democratic principles and the constitutional importance of the rule of law? Herein lies the problem; nearly 85 percent of my students have no comprehensive academic background in government at any level. The subject matter was not a part of their undergraduate curriculums. A generation earlier, those entering the public service were steeped in the principles of American governance, economics, history and sociology. Now it’s business and communications. What they know about government they’ve learned on the job.

What Educational Adjustments Should Be Considered?

Technical skill sets remain a necessity. So is a working knowledge of governance. The problem is rooted in society’s tendency to substitute the notion of civics with political partisan ideology. In order to diminish the consternation of opposing views, K-12 civics may become nothing more than a boring survey of national governmental institutions or a shallow commitment to the once a year student government day. Any real knowledge in the workings of a representative democracy is lost in the translation. This pattern may continue into college for the majority of students outside the confines of a liberal arts education.  This has to change.  Courses in national, local, regional and state government, as well as American culture, need to be prerequisites for the MPA.

Direct public service providers are the ambassadors of good governance.  They are street level bureaucrats that do what they do on a one-on-one basis. Some just need to have a better understanding of what is behind the term “Public.” They certainly have the “Service” part down.

Author: Stephen G. Harding is an adjunct instructor at the University of La Verne and Northwestern University. Previously he served in various executive management capacities in both the public and private sectors. He recently chaired the committee on the update of the ICMA publication: Managers as Teachers: A Practitioners Guide to Teaching Public Administration. He may be contacted at: [email protected], [email protected]

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