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Public Administration Education Post COVID-19

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

By Uday Desai
May 20, 2020

Governing and Corona Virus

While the public administration academic and practitioner community has long been cognizant of our highly decentralized and fractured system of governance, the COVID-19 crisis has brought this fragmentation into bold relief. The story of governments’ failures, as the pandemic spread, is all too familiar now. As we learned of the rapidly unfolding disaster, first in China and then in Italy and Europe, our governments and public institutions did almost nothing. No level of government and no structure of governance provided critical early leadership. There were voices, of course, mostly from our public health and medical communities, raising the alarm and warning of the potential catastrophe.

As the epidemic spread, governments of the cities and states hit hard by the epidemic responded, each on their own and in their own way, in a largely uncoordinated fashion. Some took strong measures like closing schools, universities, restaurants and bars, and prohibiting large gatherings. Others allowed each public entity and private business to decide for themselves. The same pattern has been repeated as the country has begun to open up. This confused and piecemeal response is the most drastic demonstration of the fundamental problems inherent in our fractured system of governance.

The PA community has known for a long time that many problems, such as crime, economic development, transportation and pollution, do not observe local or state boundaries. We have advocated, with limited success, for regional authorities and compacts and similar structures as “workarounds” to our fragmented system. The COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear the limited effectiveness of these workarounds and the enormous cost of this fragmentation, both in human lives and in its deep economic toll. As PA scholars and practitioners, we have a special responsibility now to pay collective attention to the fundamental structural shortcomings of our system of governance. We must emphasize that government is central to governance. As the corona virus has made clear, without governments playing the central role, there is much chaos and very little governance. It is time to scrutinize the fragmentation of our governance system and document its costs, as we train the next generation of PA professionals.

PA Education

In our teaching we need to systematically focus on the human and financial costs of this fragmentation. These considerations should be an integral part of all our required courses, e.g., Introduction to Public Administration, Public Budgeting, Public Policy and Management, etc. Many of our public administrative structures and practices need to be seen as responses to this fragmentation. We must challenge our students not only to find effective workarounds, but also to develop imaginative solutions for fundamental changes to our fractured system of governance and to advocate for these changes.

In recent years there has been a large expansion of courses on nonprofit management in our curriculum. This is, of course, a reflection of the significant expansion of the nonprofit sector’s role in providing public services, which has added to the fragmentation of our system. Our curriculum should include a critical examination of the role this expansion has played in our inability to provide public services equitably and universally.

One important way for our students to think about different governance structures and systems is to have them study the governance structures of other nations. A required course in comparative governance should be added to our MPA curriculum. We have seen that many governments in Asia and Europe have responded to the COVID-19 crisis in a more coordinated and effective manner than we have. These governance systems have included democratic as well as authoritarian systems, and federal as well as more centralized systems. It is not the case that only authoritarian governments have the ability to act effectively and efficiently in confronting major issues and national crises. We must learn from other countries about alternative governance systems to address critical national problems, not only in crisis situations, but also for the long-term. We can learn from others to govern better.

PA Education Values

This epidemic has highlighted the importance of three fundamental values that should underpin the education and training of public administrators and policy practitioners. First, the value of equity should be central to the design of any administrative system. The devastatingly high impact of COVID-19 on the poor and communities of color has once again brought to the fore the endemic problems of inequity in our highly fragmented system. Protecting and serving the least powerful and most vulnerable citizens should inform all administrative processes. Second, we must emphasize the value of imagination, common sense, nimbleness, improvisation and constant learning. Once again, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light too many instances of public administrative agencies failing to be flexible, imaginative and nimble. Administrative processes and rules must be seen as instruments of effective response, and not be allowed to delay action or prevent learning and innovation. Taking calculated risks should be valued, not avoided.

The third important value is efficiency. Getting the greatest results from constantly limited resources is a critical value. We already emphasize efficiency in a multitude of ways, in almost all our courses, but it is important to teach our students to consider this value in light of the first two, which often take a back seat in our curriculum and teaching. 

This crisis provides an important opportunity for the public administration academic community to rethink our training of future policy administrators and practitioners. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it would be a shame to, “Let a crisis go to waste.”


Uday Desai, Professor Emeritus
University of New Mexico
[email protected]

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