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Where Are the Practitioners?

Keeping Public Administration as a Field of Practice

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

By William Hatcher and Allison Vick
November 1, 2016

The Southeastern Conference for Public Administration (SECoPA) held its annual meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina on October 13 – 16, 2016. As Casey Seidman recently discussed in PA Times, the conference was formed in 1969 to help educate professional managers and help build professional capacity in the south. At this year’s conference, I participated in a panel on the future of our field. The panel’s participants and audience members discussed how our graduate programs may be becoming too dominated by academics without practitioner experience. Evidence discussed at the panel focused on the declining participation of practitioners in conferences like SECoPA. Given that our field is one of practice, this is a significant worry for the future quality of our graduate programs.

In this column, I would like to address this concern and to help, I have asked Allison Vick, one of my students who plans to attend a doctoral program and become an academic in our field. We discuss how public affairs programs can bridge the divide between academics and practitioners. Allison will also discuss the role of practitioner involvement in our field from a student perspective.

Bridging the Divide

The literature on strengthening practitioner and academic relations is extensive. But what can graduate programs in public affairs do to ensure our students are being exposed to practice? Below are a few examples of how we can strengthen academic-practitioner relations based on our work in the MPA program at Augusta University.

  • First, programs need to have active advisory boards. In a recent survey of MPA directors, Victoria Gordon, Wesley Mares, and I found that many MPA programs are not using their advisory boards. In fact, less than 20 percent of the respondents reported having very active advisory boards.
  • Second, programs need to encourage hiring committees to value practical experience in our field along with publications. Our institutions need to reward new faculty members who have significant experience in the field.
  • Third, programs need to have tenure and promotion guidelines that reward practice and applied research. At Augusta University, we have a mechanism in our tenure and promotion guidelines that rewards researchers who work on a significant applied research project, such as a strategic planning report for a local public agency or nonprofit.
  • Lastly, programs can partner with other fields of practice (e.g., nursing) to convince university decision makers that public administration is different from purely academic fields.

A Student’s Perspective

The Augusta University MPA program serves as an interdisciplinary degree and seeks to provide a public service education for students hoping to advance in their careers as well as those entering immediately following an undergraduate program. Personally, I have benefited from the combined experience of professors and peers who have firsthand experience working in a variety of public sector positions. I believe the program’s practice of using case studies alongside in-depth discussions by professors with substantive experience in the field have provided me the relevant knowledge needed to best understand the unique nature of the public sector.

The program, in my opinion, is practitioner focused. Being a part of a practitioner focused MPA program has allowed me to expand beyond my personal inclination toward theory, and has encouraged me to pursue opportunities for practice-based knowledge and research. MPA programs have the unique opportunity to educate and inspire public sector leaders. I believe students benefit most from the ability to learn from theory and theory in practice from the collaboration of researchers and practitioners. The involvement of practitioners in our MPA program has encouraged students to think critically, address complex situations, and actively consider the needs of the public.

Remaining a Field of Practice

We do not discuss it enough, but our field is one of practice. Yes, we base practice on theory, but we also learn and improve our organizations through practice. If practitioners are no longer attending conferences like SECoPA, we have a major problem in our field. We need practitioners to keep theorists grounded and practitioners need to examine theory to appreciate how administrative concepts influence practice daily.

Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor and director of the master of public administration program at Augusta University. He can be reached at [email protected].  Allison Vick is an MPA student at Augusta University. After she graduates in May 2017, she plans to attend a doctoral program in political science and public administration. (Their opinions are their own and do not necessarily represent those of their employer.)

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