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The Big Questions Facing PA in 2023

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

By Michael Ford
December 16, 2022

2022 was a year of transition for the Public Administration community (PA). Our universities and administrative institutions are still grappling with what constitutes normal in a post-pandemic world. The United States, Brazil, Germany and other countries all appear to have headed off (at least for now) existential threats to democratic government. The academic PA community continues to seek ways to increase its relevancy for practice, advance theory and improve governance. As we prepare to put 2022 in the books, I want to look forward to the big issues I believe we are facing in 2023.

Are we truly a global field?

I am the first to admit my academic training was U.S.-centric. I encountered a few European texts, but was not assigned any scholarship pertaining to, or produced by, scholars working in the global south. No doubt this omission of a huge chunk of scholarship was problematic. I attempt to rectify this in my own courses by engaging with a more diverse set of scholarship, but I could do a better job. And I do not think I am the only one.

The excellent work of Alasdair Roberts has pushed me to think more and more about the limits of a U.S.-centric approach to PA. Those limits are for another day—today I am thinking about what it means to be a global field. It seems we often pay lip-service to it. But if we truly want to call ourselves a global field, we need to wrestle with all that entails, including the extent to which our professional associations can or cannot maintain commitments to democratic principles while working with universities operating under authoritarian regimes.

How do we build a new administrative foundation?

The last few years, with the COVID-19 disruption, the January 6th insurrection and its ongoing fallout and the backslide of democratic norms in the United States and elsewhere, have exposed some rot in our administrative institutions. I see the rot firsthand here in Wisconsin, where local governments are feeling the cumulative negative impacts of a municipal finance formula that has been frozen since 2004. A formula designed to equalize the tax base now serves to perpetuate fiscal inequities. That is but one example; I see evidence of administrative rot across governments of all types.

What might a new administrative foundation look like? I personally think it will require:

  • A focus on collective impact initiatives that engage the nonprofit sector, but are directed by government;
  • A renewed commitment to a cooperative federalism; and
  • More regionalization of government authority.

But that is just my take. More important than my preferences is the need for a commitment among both academic and applied PA to break through the inertia of past practice and build new governing norms.

How do we best disseminate knowledge?

During the worst of COVID I asked myself what I missed most about in-person conferences. I missed the people and conservations, but not necessarily the learning. This is not to say I never learn new things at conferences. I do. But I managed to continue to learn new things without in-person conferences. In fact, I found some of the online webinars I participated in gave my work a broader audience, and that I was exposed to more work being done outside of my traditional conference homes. I think there is still a place for in-person academic and practitioner conferences, but there is also a need to reconsider how best to disseminate PA knowledge in a way that maximizes the impact of the work we do.

Is it time for a theory reset?

Is PA theory obsolete? I recently had a great conversation with a colleague regarding this question. We concluded that existing strands of PA theory do have value, but there are many new promising avenues that are unexplored when we get stuck in theoretical boxes. I hope this year brings more discussion of the limitations of dominant PA theories, and more space for theoretical development outside the traditional power centers of academic PA.  

I would be lying if I said I thought all of the questions I posed will be answered in 2023. I also know there are many more questions others may find more pressing. Nonetheless, I am hopeful 2023 will bring a much needed conversation on the future role of the administrative state in a society that seems to be losing faith in many of its longstanding institutions and norms.

    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 an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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