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Paradigm Shifts in Public Administration — Toward New Benchmarks and Best Practices

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

By Siegrun Fox Freyss
January 6, 2015

Column 11: Toward a More Inclusive Graduate Education in Public Administration

Freyss jan2Previous columns dealt with emerging benchmarks and best practices in public administration in light of the high-tech revolution and the transition from the modern, industrial age to the postmodern, information age. Arguments were drawn from a mix of practitioners’ and academicians’ insights. Today’s column has a different format. It analyzes the accreditation standards for academic programs to determine whether the standards encourage an education that prepares students for a public service career under emerging postmodern conditions.

The institutions in question are the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) and its affiliate, the Commission on Peer Review and Accreditation (COPRA). The combined organizations have the accreditation authority to set the standards for master’s degree programs in public administration, public affairs and public policy. Overall, the standards are content-neutral, which means they do not prescribe the content of courses and seminars. However, the extensive guidelines for compliance, as well as the training of self-study preparers and site visitors, promote convergent thinking and leave little room for divergent thinkers and greater breadth of educational content.

The NASPAA Standards 2009 start with a promising paragraph on promoting innovation and experimentation: “Because NASPAA wants to promote innovation and experimentation in education for public affairs, administration and policy, programs that do not meet the preconditions in a strictly literal sense but which meet the spirit of these provisions may petition for special consideration.” However, the subsequent, detailed instructions, including training videos, emphasize compliance with the Standards, not experimentation. This last sentence requires a caveat. At times there is ambiguity in the fine print of the Standards and Self Study Instructions, called rationales, illustrative examples and basis for judgment. These features allow for more academic freedom than a cursory reading of the documents would suggest.

Terms used in describing preconditions for an accreditation review place the Standards into the modern epoch. Among public sector values, “objectivity” is included. Postmodern thinkers would avoid such a term because in their view public administrators cannot be objective; they always have a standpoint. Neutrality may be a more appropriate concept because it acknowledges a range of ideological possibilities. Neutrality can be strengthened by the value of inclusiveness, with the public manager promoting inclusive measures to accommodate the great diversity of the public workforce and of American society in general. The Standards do refer to inclusiveness in connection with faculty and student diversity.

Another innocuous term used in the Standards also illustrates fundamental differences between modern and postmodern thinking. The term is “universal” as in “universal competencies.” The concept is used to describe the special conditions of executive education programs: “The degree program must demonstrate that its graduates have emerged with the universal competencies expected of a NASPAA-accredited program …” Later, the Standards use the term “universal required competencies” for student learning in general. Postmodern scholarship is very much opposed to the idea of grand theories and universal claims because they cannot be defended on epistemological grounds – human thought and knowledge are always limited. Yes, it could not be avoided – making an argument about human limits by using the universal term “always.”

Core competencies may be a better term. Indeed, Self-Study Instructions use that term. In my view, “core” is a better term because it suggests a professional origin, adopted after extensive debates among stakeholders, just like the terms “benchmarks” and “best practices.”

Overall, NASPAA and COPRA deserve a lot of praise for their efforts to promote high standards and clarity to a complex of more than 200 programs. Also the emphasis on public service values warrants applause. Expecting programs to seek continuous improvements is another desirable standard. It is in line with the idea of promoting a climate of learning in work organizations to keep them on top of the rapid changes in the high-tech age. Leadership is listed among the required competencies, which is important considering it is especially needed in a time of rapid changes to ensure the changes are trending in the right direction. Finally, it is noteworthy that the Self-Study Instructions ask the faculty nucleus to “expose students to a variety of perspectives.”

However, one cannot resist the temptation to argue that many of the accreditation requirements reflect a modern, industrial model of education. Academic programs are turned into production centers whose outputs are students with certain knowledge, skills and abilities. The production starts with the identification of the program mission. There are no provisions in the Standards or Self-Study Instructions for two or more missions or how to proceed in the case of fundamental disagreements among the faculty over the nature of the mission and the nature of appropriate scholarship. The documents simply state, “Program faculty members will produce scholarship … appropriate to the program’s mission…” Finally, the requirement of a program evaluation can be questioned as too mechanical. An ecological model or a SWOT analysis may be more organic ways of evaluating programs.

The industrial age was very successful, partly because of extensive standardization and rules. The merit system, job classification systems and the government bureaucracy in general are classical examples in the public sector. The rigorous education and training of public sector managers and professionals is another legacy. Work organizations in the high-tech age still need many of these standards, but they also need flexibility, accept change and embrace high-tech tools. Leadership, as well as collaboration and discourse, is required to determine what standards to preserve, what standards to change, and what standards to delete. This column argues in support of a graduate education in public affairs, administration and policy that incorporates experimentation and enables a look into the future that is different from the past. Fortunately, the NASPAA and COPRA documents, often in the fine print, leave room for innovation and experimentation.

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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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