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The Modern Public Administration Graduate Curriculum

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

By Ian Coyle
February 12, 2024

I sent a note to my network to crowdsource ideas on what to write about for this quarterly column for PA Times. One of my colleagues asked, which now forms the topic I will run with today: What is the modern public administration graduate curriculum? Asked another way: How are MPA programs constructed and should this evolve for the 2024 current/aspiring public administrator?

I picked this one to start off with because it is something that is intriguing to me, as both a practitioner and a faculty member of multiple MPA programs. Indeed what is the modern public administration curriculum? Today, I would imagine that a typical MPA has foundation courses. Public Administration 101, probably some Organizational Behavior, Research Methods, Public Budgeting and some other core elements. 

Electives make up the rest of a program’s typical required course load. Intergovernmental relations, state and local government, occasionally courses in managing local government and perhaps strategic planning. With any masters program, there is always a gap. What are programs doing to know what is needed in today’s 2024 setting of changing norms? As the consultant Alan Weiss says, there is the “no normal”—a term that he has copyrighted—not a “new normal.” The present day is full of evolving situations and morphing realities.

Some general thoughts:

  • While this is not curriculum focused per se in that it is commentary on course specific material, I feel very strongly (surprise, surprise) that every program needs to assure time for practitioners in the classroom (or in online courses should your program be remote-forward). The MPA is often a program aimed towards the working professional or those aspiring to be public administrators at the local, state and federal levels, and also increasingly health care and non-profit-oriented administrative work. If your course is in public budgeting, connect with practitioners or hire adjunct faculty who have actually developed a tax rate and tax levy before and can speak to the nuances associated with public financial management. While one might read this and say “this is old news”, this practice and concept is not in fact universally applied nor comprehensively advanced at each and every MPA program as it should be in my humble opinion.
  • To that end, I would take this a step further and recommend that the accreditation bodies mandate (or minimally recommend) a professor of practice position in every accredited program. This takes the first bullet to an additional level and requires such practitioner perspectives be embedded into the actual program structure via at least one core faculty position.
  • No matter the course structure, the completion of the program should have a strict, formal requirement of an experiential learning component and a heavy emphasis on practical application.
  • The MPA program alumni board/council, if they are not already (and I know many indeed are advancing this initiative), should initiate formal connection-building with students to employers, and do so early in the program. Networking with professionals in the field of the MPA student’s choice is an extremely important bridge to a post-degree career.
  • In part related to the bullet above, the curriculum and program should focus on the development of these so-called soft skills of social connections, networks, in-person meet/greets, public meetings, etc. These are interactions, as we are in the public realm, that MPA graduates will need to be immersed in and will be part of, hence it is sensible to build into a program opportunities for these vital life and career skills to be honed and practiced. An over-reliance on email, remote work and Zoom can be detrimental to the career prospects of aspiring public administrators. Carve out a small piece of the MPA program to develop these essential communication skills and competencies.
  • The program faculty and administrative heads should conduct a regular inventorying and analysis with a diverse, healthy mix of Advisory Board members plus recent alumni plus a non-affiliated peer group to assess the modernity and freshness of the curriculum. Of note, I would make this unique enough and separately value-added to not be construed as “just another accreditation type” activity.
  • Going back to core courses, and knowing what I know about the work of public administration—particularly local government management—two course topics come to mind that should be given priority consideration to be included as core courses, if they are not already: project management and public communications / public information management. 

Author: Dr. Ian M. Coyle, ICMA-CM is the County Administrator in Livingston County, NY. He has worked in government for 20 years and has taught MPA courses for a variety of universities. Through his consultancy, Pracademic Partners, Ian also provides assistance to other organizations in four key areas: executive search; management consulting; executive/leadership coaching; and teaching, training & professional development experiences. Email: [email protected]

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