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Shifting Sands: Navigating Practitioner Academic Exchanges in a Post-Social Media World

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

By Hillary J. Knepper
December 14, 2019

Juggling the multiple news entry points in my life, I’ve been thinking recently about why the practitioner-academic intersection remains tricky. Recent thoughts by Michael Ford and Hartmann and Raadschelders discuss the continuing gap between academics and practitioners. Ford discusses social media for bridging this gap. Zavattaro & Bryer tackle these themes in their recent book, Social Media for Government: Theory and Practice. And Bridging the Divide offers a fresh look at how academics and practitioners can share meaningful collaboration through the creation of, “New channels of communication.” Academic Twitter has emerged as a powerful voice for distribution and acquisition for academics. Yet, social media use by academics should be undertaken with care. Ultimately, can social media help build meaningful practitioner-academic exchanges?

These are disruptive times. Social media avalanches of opinion skew reactions. For practitioners, does fear of being called out without the power of recourse drive how information is shared? This undermines fundamental public service values. As academics and practitioners, raising our voices together may provide counter points to reactionary social media, driven by immediate and often ill-informed responses. A public administration degree teaches thoughtful and reflective leadership that uses evidence for problem resolution and informing future action. Yet in some ways, the post-social media world has energized over-simplification and scapegoating, something we teach is poor management. We’re moving backwards rather than forwards.

Respectful discourse can challenge and inspire. Having new suggestions for perennial management problems provides that extra motivation to try again. But balancing the science and the applied side of our discipline requires intentionality. One way is to connect practitioners with academics through social media. Highlighting academic scholarship alongside practitioner oriented writings provides an assist for spreading and testing scholarship findings. This is where social media, if it evolves effectively, can make the difference.

Practitioners bring their own insights, questions and ideas to the management discussion. How can their entrance into academic Twitter be championed? Based upon their learned experience, they see daily the limitations and opportunities of public service. They know the tensions between what may logically and sequentially be the next step, but what in fact may require a serpentine approach. Navigating long-standing practice, inter-generational misfires and political capital are a few of the challenges facing practitioners on a daily basis. Fear of reprisal may mean a more conservative approach. Yet, there are examples of success. David Riggelman, long-time Las Vegas communications director offers specific recommendations from his social-media-in-government experiences. Stephanie Burns provides lessons on surviving social media backlash.

Developing and testing theory is exciting. Many practitioners are total theory geeks. We all agree that theory underpins and informs practice. Now, how best can practice reliably inform theory building during these post-social media times? We’re charting new territory here. ICMA suggests harnessing technology to share information. The MIT Governance Lab on Twitter engages academics and practitioners to build civic engagement and government responsiveness. I’m hoping the next generation of scholars and practitioners will redefine social media use and deepen the practitioner-academic exchange. Here are some questions to push us forward:

  1. What are the venues for practitioner-academic exchanges via social media? How is knowledge and experience curated when celebrity influencers leverage heavy opinions?
  2. How do we as scholars assess our impact on practice? Asking for practitioner points in our journals is a great start. What about seeking practitioner feedback on implementation of these points?
  3. How do we engage the next generation of scholars and practitioners? As public services move online or depend more upon the gig economy, this moves us away from traditional management based on human interaction —something we’ve studied for over 100 years. Will social media supplant deep and thoughtful reading? What does that mean?
  4. How do we thoughtfully engage academic twitter to expand the visibility of our research, particularly to practitioners? Should academic twitter engage with practitioner oriented hashtags and accounts?

The responsibility to remain relevant depends upon an intersectional dialogue that moves beyond the superficial. Yet, it could be argued that social media provides just that; a superficial glimpse of deep and complicated issues. Higher education finds itself striving to deliver meaningful knowledge at an affordable price to a diverse set of students in a rapidly changing environment. Public administration is striving to deliver meaningful service at an affordable price to a diverse constituency in this same environment. As academics and practitioners, our similarities are far greater than our differences. So perhaps we can do a better job of really listening to each other and communicating more effectively in ways accessible for both parties. What’s at stake is relevance during a time of disruptive global uncertainty.

Author: Dr. Hillary J. Knepper, MPA, Associate Professor, Interim Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, Pace University: [email protected]. Dr. Knepper brings over 20 years’ administrative experience as a practitioner in the public and nonprofit sectors to her work in academia. Her most recent work appears in PA Times On-Line, the Journal of Public Affairs Education, Public Integrity, and Public Administration Quarterly. She is the co-editor of the Journal of Health & Human Services Administration. Find her on Twitter @hillaryknepper.

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