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The Big Questions Facing Public Administration in 2020

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

By Michael R. Ford
January 11, 20

2019 was an eventful year for the Public Administration (PA) field. From a research standpoint we saw our journals’ impact factors trend up, substantial debate and controversy over the place of emerging subfields like behavioral PA and continued advancement of theory. From a practice standpoint, we saw growing uncertainty over the role of professionalism and expertise in government policy-setting and decisionmaking. The next year promises to be even more impactful. Below are five questions I urge all of us in PA to ponder as we prepare to teach, research and work in 2020.

Has the administrative state lost its mandate?

From the time of the field’s founding PA has been defined, in part, by its relationship with politics. Though the nature of that relationship is always up for debate, there is general consensus that it exists, and that it changes across time and context. But are we reaching a point where the administrative state is no longer broadly accepted as essential to a functioning democracy? Every time the president contradicts the conclusions of careerists, every time a state executive takes discretionary powers away from administrative agencies and every time a city manager is deemed illegitimate for lack of electoral accountability, the foundation of the administrative state loses a bit of its integrity. How many more cracks can it take?

How do we deal with the reality and legacy of the Trump era?

President Donald Trump’s regular rejection of established facts, and his continued willingness to undermine administrative careerists, are both at odds with the core values of PA. However, the latest polling shows that a large swath of citizens support the president. Presumably, supporters share values that are inconsistent with several core tenets of PA, including the value of rational fact-based decisionmaking, objective expertise, and the professionalism of civil service careerists. As a field, we must wrestle with what the Trump-era will mean for the future of the administrative state. I have no good answer to this question, but I know it is something we must prepare to confront.  

How can we make the big picture matter?

It seems every year PA scholars discuss how difficult it is to study the big picture in PA. We have specific theories to advance and tenure to obtain, leaving little time or incentive for macro-level thinking. Some have predicted a schism where we actually devolve into different fields based on our specific areas of focus. I argue that the all levels of PA are connected, and that the micro cannot be fully understood without the macro, and vice-versa. Context always matters. Increased attention to how even the most specific studies connect to the larger questions of governance will go a long way to keeping us unified and productive as a field. Personally, I try to write at least one article per-year that summarizes why my research connects to the bigger picture…but I am sure there are better ways to collectively answer this question.

Can local government survive?

I recently attended a meeting of both scholars and politicians that was focused on improving local government funding mechanisms. A shocking (at least to me) number of individuals favored even more preemption of local government authority, including stripping local government of all control over their revenue sources. It was eye-opening, and made me wonder how long local government can add value in the face of a shrinking zone of discretion. It also made me wonder how we can best teach future government leaders to deal with the growing threats to the very viability of local government. Certainly I am not predicting the death of local government, but I am fearful of what years of steadily reduced local government capacity will yield.

Can smaller MPA programs survive?

This one hits close to come. Like other places my MPA program has been experiencing budget cuts, increased teaching loads and reduced resources for external activities like research and travel. In these environments attracting and keeping quality faculty is a challenge, which is a shame when the demand and need for practitioner-focused programs is great. It is imperative that those of us working in these smaller programs find creative ways to collaborate with others and leverage resources to ensure we not only survive, but thrive. The field will suffer if it becomes dominated by just a handful of well-resourced programs. Our diversity is our strength. I think smaller programs will survive, but I also think this will be an ongoing issue.    

I am sure there are many important questions I missed. Mine are admittedly biased by my own research interests and teaching experience. But I think there can be agreement that 2020 will be challenging for a field whose value-add seems increasingly inconsistent with the dominant politics of the day. I will dedicate my columns this year to answering these big questions, and to showing why PA is more important than ever.

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 the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.

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One Response to The Big Questions Facing Public Administration in 2020


    January 13, 2020 at 7:07 pm

    Very good questions. With regard to the first two, I believe one of the problems is that public administrators do not know how to sell themselves. I am a nurse who took a federal job at mid-life. Instantly I went from a trusted professional to a nameless, faceless bureaucrat. I had very little contact with the public while in that job, but when I did, I found that telling them I was a nurse immediately engendered trust in a situation where there was none before.

    It’s hard for the public to know exactly what public administrators do. I don’t blame them. Spending one’s days wrestling with often arcane regulatory matters is hard to explain. But we need to do better at explaining it. That means outreach. Sorry to say, it means attention to public relations. It means selling the idea of PA as a profession to young people.

    In some ways, we are victims of our own professional success. When I was teaching, I tried to convey to my students how fortunate we Americans are to have a bureaucracy we can trust. We don’t have to bribe the police officers on our block to protect our homes. We don’t hand money under the table for a driver’s license, or social security payments or anything else. Honesty is not only our best policy, it is our best selling point – but one which Americans take completely for granted.

    To sum up – we need to find ways to convey what we do to the people we are serving. Failing that, we have no constituency to help us push back against ever-increasing political forces.

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