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Public Administration: Theory or Practice

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

By G. M. Cox
November 9, 2017


Trends in the teaching public administration discourse tend toward contemporary course delivery methods in the advent of computers and the internet. Discussions are often about available instructional technologies and teaching and learning processes. It is also of prime importance to consider course content. This article, therefore, is about “what” we teach, rather than only about “how” we do so.

What We Need To Teach Future Public Administrators

During the SPAE section meeting held in conjunction with ASPA in Atlanta this past March, I participated in a great presentation and discussion about what we, educators in public administration at the graduate (and perhaps undergraduate) level, should be teaching our students to help make them more effective, and one might argue more successful, as public administration practitioners. We had several speakers representing a cross-section of public sector organizations. Their task was to inform us as to what they and their public organizations need in skill-set development of the people coming to them with graduate degrees in our discipline. I found these presentations not only enlightening, but also to be a bit of a reinforcement process, as well as a déjà vu moment. Having been a practitioner for over 43 years in the public sector prior to becoming an academic, I was and am clearly “informed” by my own experiences about what people need in terms of knowledge, theory and skills-sets, and I was somewhat encouraged by their comments.

The ensuing discussion among my learned colleagues was lively. There seems to be two fields of thought – the theory versus the practice of PA is our responsibility as academics. We all come to the table with a certain mindset that reflects our view of teaching, how we teach and what we teach. Woodrow Wilson (1887) in his seminal article, “The Study of Administration,” as found in Jay Shafritz et all, Classics of Public Administration, Fifth Edition (2004) seems to suggest that public administration can and should be studied, approached like a business and directed at developing effective, learned and responsible people working in the public sector for the public good and interest. Napoleon, according to B. Guy Peters and Jon Pierre, in their book, The Sage Handbook of Public Administration, Concise Second Edition (2014), in the late 1700s and early 1800s created one of the models that have become part of the foundation of public administration. It emphasizes efficient, effective public service.  Some of the most prominent people in PA theory and practice seem to suggest, at least interpreted through my worldview, public administration should be taught with a bend toward practice — what public administration does.

Indulge me for a moment: I will utilize an analogy to explain that when teaching skill-sets, context or practice they should be informed by theory, with a balance between them, within our discipline. I will utilize the idea of marksmanship as an example. I can teach the theory of marksmanship from velocity, trajectory, bullet weight, distance and the many lessons of physics to a student who teaches marksmanship. That does not mean the student will be able to hit the target when they pick a rifle or handgun and actually shoot it. This will require practice — implementation of all those sound, solid and proven theories that inform the student of what it takes to hit a designated target.

In my experience, most of the textbooks utilized in graduate PA programs include case studies to inform the reader, our students, of how theory relates to practice. Theory should and does rightfully inform our teaching. However, our teaching can and ought to include adding context to content – relating the theory to the real world or at least a preferred one. Teaching theory can be rather enjoyable, agreed. However, one has to ask what the role of the graduate degree, particularly, the master’s in public administration, is supposed to accomplish for our students? Are we developing people for public administration roles, future academics, what? Perhaps the answer to this is a bit opaque – very few graduate-level students will ever pursue a doctorate. Yes, we teach scholarship. As we should. However, I suggest that one of our major goals, especially if one considers the role of higher education, and public universities in particular, is to develop knowledge and practical skills-sets in our students so that they become positive, useful, fully engaged citizens, adding to the common good, in the public interest.


One could argue that developing skill-sets within our courses adds to the overall learning experiences for our students. Theory can become stale. They are great to test, retest, evaluate, and discuss. They may even rise to the level that it actually helps our students and practitioners to be better public administrators. This, in my humble opinion, is when we create a win-win for academia and practitioners.

Author: Dr. G. M. Cox, Assistant Professor and Director, MPA Program, Tarleton State University, earned his doctorate in Public and Urban Administration (2011) from the University of Texas – Arlington. He is a graduate of the 165th Session (1991), FBI National Academy, and a Past-President of the Texas Police Chiefs’ Association (2005-2006). He is the incoming president of the Police Futurist Society, International.

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