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Rethinking MPA Curriculum to Match Local Government Needs

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

By Michael R. Ford
July 10, 2023

“We have lost momentum to create long-term civil servants.” That quote, from a recent survey of Wisconsin municipal executives, is foremost on my mind as the coordinator of a Masters of Public Administration (MPA) program. At a time of declining trust in government, democratic backsliding and a great need to develop the next generation of public employees, it behooves all of us on the academic side of Public Administration (PA) to reexamine our offerings.

Of course, every MPA program is different in size, scope and resources. I approach this from my position coordinating a program with about 70 students, 600 alumni and a historical focus on local government and professional management. Wisconsin is also unique in that the number of MPA programs is surprisingly limited, but not so unique in that support for higher education has bottomed out. But, that lack of support tells me it is essential for us to control what we can to demonstrate the practical value we add.

In the aforementioned survey 79.7 percent of Wisconsin municipal executives agreed or strongly agreed that it has become more difficult to attract employees over the last two years. Similarly, 56.1 percent report it has become more difficult to retain employees over the last two years. I asked about the last two years specifically because state administrative data show that, for the first time in recent memory, Wisconsin’s public sector is losing employees primarily to factors outside of retirement. In other words, public servants are leaving the public sector.

The data suggest that the traditional notion of the career public sector civic servant is no longer reality. Municipal executives also, for the first time in the almost ten years I have been surveying this population, reported competition from the private sector as a more significant threat to attracting and retaining employees than competition from other public sector entities. The shift speaks to a new era of employee free agency where many of our graduates will work in multiple sectors across their careers.

What do I mean by modernizing MPA curricula? Foremost, I think we need programs more individualized to student needs. In some ways we already do this by offering students flexibility in their course assignments (one example is allowing students to pick a nonprofit or public budgeting final) and final capstone project. However, I am more and more convinced many programs’ approaches to emphases, including my own, is outdated. Currently our students have the option of a general, nonprofit, fire and EMS or healthcare management emphasis. The structure is premised on a career track rather than skillsets. I think it might be more impactful to replace emphases with skill-based foci woven into the curriculum. Students would take the same courses, but would graduate with a focus on budgeting, planning, economic development, data, communication, etc. Thus, students would have the benefit of a general management degree paired with demonstrated masters of a marketable in-demand skill.

The specific skills on which to focus should be a function of professional demand. Determining what is in demand need not be more complicated than asking employers in our existing practitioner networks. More formal approaches include the formation of alumni advisory boards and employer need surveys, while less formal approaches can be as simple as making a few phone calls. The important thing is that practitioners are regularly engaged in developing and updating academic offerings to meet market demands. Not only will this improve the pipeline of needed public servants, it will demonstrate to policymakers the practical value of our academic offerings.

The branding of MPA programs could also be improved. Being an administrator sounds a bit stale, and honestly misleading, when our graduates actually pursue public service leadership careers. While changing to Masters of Public Service would be purely cosmetic, it could nonetheless be a healthy refresh that more accurately reflects the intersectoral reality of public service.

I know from colleagues across the country that many MPA programs are already doing these things, and a whole lot more. Though I admit I underestimated the pressing nature of the need to rebuild the public service pipeline to local government in my own backyard. So many of the challenges in the public sector compound one another. Staffing challenges lead to service challenges which leads to reduced trust in government which leads to resource cuts from political actors. The good news is solutions compound as well. A stronger pipeline of local public service leaders can improve performance, trust and reinvigorate the MPA degree.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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