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Reflections From SECoPA

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

By Tom Barth
October 13, 2023

The annual Southeastern Conference on Public Administration (SECoPA) was just held in Atlanta from September 27-30 and although only able to attend for one day, some reflections are worth sharing.

  • As one of the oldest regional professional conferences in the field of public administration, SECoPA continues to demonstrate the value of convening academics, practitioners and students in person to share research, ideas and connect with old colleagues and establish new networks. In the wake of the pandemic when a remote conference was necessary, the added value of the in-person experience is undeniable.
  • Speaking of remote work, this was certainly a hot topic on several panels, both in terms of the impact on the workplace but also in the classroom. Research certainly needs to be continued in this area, but I will note from my own presentation the following observation. I presented on the 60+ year career of Dr. Charles Goodsell, and I shared his advice to academics to resist the temptation to stick to with pre-ordained lesson plans and think creatively about your teaching right up the point of “chalk in hand.” He also encourages practitioners to “walk in and out of academia” and share their professional experiences with students as a way of inspiring them to pursue careers in public service. The audience at our panel wondered how these important lessons can be followed in an online course, particularly an asynchronous format. Food for thought as remote teaching spreads.
  • Our keynote speaker for the day was Amy Jacobs, the Commissioner for the Georgia Department Early Care and Learning, who was also the recipient of SECoPA’s Kathryn Hensley Practitioner of the Year Award. Her agency is responsible for helping meet the early childcare and education needs of hundreds of thousands of Georgia’s children and their families, overseeing a budget of more than $900 million for programs focused on childcare licensing, subsidized childcare, child and adult care nutrition, childcare quality and early childhood education through Georgia’s Pre-K Program (decal.ga.gov). Two things struck me from her presentation. First, isn’t it wonderful that organizations like SECoPA can recognize such practitioner leaders, who in our culture do amazing work in almost total obscurity to the general public until of course something bad happens and the media descends. Public administration academics and practitioners need to think long and hard about creative ways to get the work of our public servants out from “behind the curtain.” Second, Ms. Jacobs made a point throughout her presentation about how everything they do to accomplish their mission for children is based on the latest research, illustrating the fundamental role of academics in working with our public and nonprofit agencies to provide the best evidence possible for public policy design and implementation.
  • Finally, SECoPA is a marvelous illustration of the importance of culture in our public administration institutions. There are strong norms, built up over decades, of a conference that prides itself on collegiality, a welcoming atmosphere to all, a respectfulness to presenters and perhaps most important of all, a celebration of new students and practitioners at the conference. You repeatedly hear that SECoPA is the one place where younger participants new to the field can test out ideas and receive constructive feedback. And like any strong culture, these norms are reinforced with annual awards for best student papers but also recognition of senior scholars and academics who have continued to champion the “SECoPA way.”

Public administrators and institutions at all levels, as well as our political leadership, could learn from the example of SECoPA.

Author: Dr. Tom Barth is on the faculty of the Gerald. G. Fox MPA program at UNC Charlotte. He teaches, writes and consults in the areas of organization theory, human resource management, strategic planning and ethics.  [email protected].

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