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Teaching and Practice in a Fact Free Political Context

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

By Benjamin H. Deitchman
August 9, 2016

The nature of public administration requires an understanding of the role of research, analysis and expertise in the context of a politicized, democratic society. Exactly how public administrators inform and support politicians and policymakers is the eternal debate in the field. But there is a normative value that the best policy emerges from scientifically determined facts.

In professional dialogue and in the public administration academy, it is through the evidentiary basis of the discussion that practitioners and scholars legitimize their efforts. Institutions of governance still rely on data and analytics to inform policymaking. As we begin a new academic year in a polarized political environment-where simple facts become partisan issues and “I believe in science” appears as an attack line in a party convention speech- teachers and engaged public administration professionals face a daunting task in presenting unbiased information and analysis.

The politicization of science complicates discussion of areas such as health care and the environment. The existence of human induced climate change is settled science. It does not matter whether or not someone believes in this dangerous anthropogenic phenomenon. Within the broad community of climate scientists there are significant uncertainties over the magnitudes, specific causes and predicted consequences of this vexing global problem. There are also serious unsettled and highly contentious policy debates about carbon pricing mechanisms, regulations, technology options and other areas. Without operating from the same set of facts, however, the legislation and litigation to address this critical international predicament at all levels of governance includes a limited set of stakeholder perspectives. Multidimensional problems require everyone to take a seat at the table and require the policy analyst to consider every rational, evidence-based perspective.

Teaching climate policy, bioethics policy or other areas where scientific research and belief systems may not align can create a dilemma for faculty in relevant courses. It is generally the job of an instructor to remain neutral, to teach the content and let the students build their own conclusions from the material. When a student does not accept the basic foundations, the educator needs to work around this obstacle. The least contentious pedagogical approach is to make the assumption that the research is accurate for the purpose of the particular situation and leave it to the student to explore the scientific basis in another venue. No matter the veracity of assumptions around the science, policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change are on the decision agenda and students need to learn the issues as they currently exist. All that teachers, professors and administrators can do is teach about the world as understood at present from the best available resources and trust their students to learn it as accurately as possible.

In a pluralist society, some political debates necessarily rely on values and opinions. The debate over immigration reform includes many facts and figures. Data driven analysis can help resolve technical issues. Beliefs about citizenship, border controls and access to the country are rooted in philosophies and not objective metrics. Discussing the abstract nature of these issues in a classroom setting and from an unbiased perspective in the context of current political debates can be almost impossible when implications of the policies are extremely personal. College campuses across the United States are full of brilliant and caring international students from Islamic countries who add significantly to the academic and student life. To expect professors to be unbiased about a ban on Muslims is unreasonable and counterproductive in their critical role as advisors and mentors to their students.

It is already cliché to say that the 2016 presidential primaries and upcoming general election rewrote the rule book on politics in the United States. In fact, the United Kingdom’s approval of a referendum to leave the European Union has revealed political change on a global scale. The very definitions of conservative and liberal (or progressive in the contemporary nomenclature) are in flux, making it especially difficult to present point-counterpoint perspectives.

There always have been more than two views on the major issues of the day, but the two-sided comparison can help organize and clarify a multifaceted and nuanced discussion. For all of its flaws, Democrats and Republicans have used the two party system as a mechanism for good. The United States does not have a functioning system without functioning political parties.

In order to achieve successful, engaged and participatory public policy there needs to be compromise among competing interests. In a world without facts and understanding, severe polarization and deeply divided values, it is hard to teach, let alone practice, public administration. As we move toward a new normal in politics, a new normal will need to emerge in the education and actions of public administrators. That’s scary, but also exciting for the future of the field.

Author: Benjamin Deitchman’s book, Climate and Clean Energy Policy: State Institutions and Economic Implications, is available for pre-order. His email is [email protected].

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One Response to Teaching and Practice in a Fact Free Political Context

  1. John Pearson Reply

    August 12, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    ” In a world without facts and understanding, severe polarization and deeply divided values, it is hard to teach, let alone practice, public administration.”

    I would just point out that millions of government workers and contractors go to work every day and practice public administration. They determine the facts needed for decision-making in their spheres as best they can.

    The political debate unfortunately includes many claims that are exaggerated or false. It has always been that way. It appears to be worse today. The 1960 campaign included charges of a “missile gap” that turned out to be untrue.

    Even when facts are established, there may be dissenting opinions for many years. For example, some did not accept that smoking causes cancer or that a virus is the cause of AIDs.

    The best advice for academics is to just keep pursuing the truth as best you can. I strongly believe in the fact/value dichotomy. I explored that issue in my column dated August 12, 2016.

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