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Practitioners and Academicians: About Gap, Authorship and Bridges

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2011 print issue of PA TIMES.

Jim Hartmann, Jos Raadschelders

Practitioners account for about 60 percent of ASPA’s membership yet they contribute less than 7 percent of the articles in our association’s oldest journal, Public Administration Review. How can this discrepancy be explained and what can be done about it?

The American study of public administration owes its existence to considerable degree to practitioners (especially those at local and state levels) who–in the context of the rapid changes in the late 19th century–desired to establish academic programs that could combine a generalist’s perspective and specialist’s skills for those who aspire a public sector career. Practitioners were also prominently represented among those who established ASPA on December 23, 1939, at the conference of the American Political Science Association.

This happened, at least in part, as a response to the ‘scientification’ of political science, and was fortunate because the study met with increased demands for professionally trained generalists after the Second World War. ASPA and PAR were created to bridge practitioners and academicians. These same practitioners were also visible in ASPA’s only journal for which they authored and co-authored numerous articles. This would be so until the 1970s, a decade when 32 percent of articles in 10 public administration journals were written by practitioners. Since then, practitioner authorship in PAR has declined, and quite sharply, to less than 7 percent. This is not only an American phenomenon, because comparable declines have been reported in the UK and the Netherlands.

The general, and rather stereotypical, explanation is that of a growing gap between practitioners and academicians, with the former being interested in usable knowledge while the latter are concerned with advancing science. We need, however, to be a little more specific than this, but we need to point that, to date, there has been no systematic research into the nature and characteristic of this ‘growing gap’. Let us provide a few tentative elements of an explanation. First, as in political science since the 1920s, the study of public administration has witnessed increased specialization and ‘scientification’ since the 1970s.

Could it be that the bulk of PAR’s articles nowadays require much prior knowledge (i.e, are too specialized and not catering to a more generalist audience), or that they are using a ‘language’ (that of quantitative-statistical research) that is less accessible to practitioners (which, if true, obviously assumes that few practitioners have advanced degrees; but, we know, that is not true), or that they are simply not usable in and relevant to practice? Second, could it be that practitioners are less motivated by public sector values (which would include writing for scholarly journals) and more by economic incentives? In relation to that, third, perhaps the middle and upper ranks in the career civil service are more politically and commercially motivated. Finally, fourth, it is conceivable that in a situation of almost continuous budgetary stress (e.g., doing more with less) practitioners simply have no more time left to write.

That practitioners contribute less and less to PAR is a concern because most of ASPA’s membership would agree that practical experience is important in the classroom and important to inform research programs. Also, few would disagree with the observation that the study of public administration is and ought to remain a generalists’ study that provides for specialists’ skills. After all, while most people will be hired with an eye on specific skills that they learned in school, few will get very far in their career if they do not show the capacity to outgrow that specialists’ skin and embrace a generalists’ perspective. So, what can be done to encourage practitioner submissions to PAR?

First, and perhaps foremost, we need to find out more what practitioners read in and want from their association’s journal. Second, academicians are frequently involved as consultants in policy-making, organizational reform, service-learning initiatives, etc., and often because they have been asked by practitioners. What prevents them from co-authoring articles so as to inform practice and scholarship both? Indeed, we should encourage practitioners and academicians to co-author. The past few years have provided public service practitioners the most significant challenges in decades. The recession, an ever changing political landscape, increasing community involvement and the management of information and mis-information are all elements that influence a practitioner’s decision making on a very regular basis. How helpful might it be to witness, study and catalog the business of government through the lenses of academicians trained to evaluate and think critically about the outcomes of the application of practice? How appropriate is it to record this as our governmental organizations, and their cultures, as they are undergoing significant change and transformations? This is a field of continually changing environments that must be understood. We think it is highly appropriate and indeed, a responsibility of academicians and practitioners to do just that.

Third, PAR’s editorial policy throughout the decades has been one of outreach to practitioners and various features in the journal are illustrative of this (mention examples). Related to this is that PAR’s editorial team can invite and has invited practitioners to submit. Obviously, PAR does not need to publish the same type of articles as, for instance, the PA TIMES or Public Manager (ICMA’s journal); instead PAR is the only scholarly journal that explicitly seeks to bridge both types of ASPA’s membership. That bridge, fourth, requires more attention for and encouragement of the generalist type of article. If this does not happen, the gap (however empirically defined and measured) between practitioners and academicians will only increase.

ASPA?member Jim Hartmann is former city manager, Alexandria, VA and county manager, Seminole County, FL.

ASPA member Jos Raadschelders is a professor, John Glenn School of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University. Email: [email protected]

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