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The Niche for ASPA?

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

By Thomas Barth
May 18, 2018

As a newly elected member of the ASPA National Council, I look forward to working with President Jane Pisano, Executive Director Bill Shields and other members of the council and staff to move ASPA forward. They have and will be sharing their vision and goals, but I thought it might be useful to share my own musings about the value of ASPA in the form of series of questions based on my conversations at the Annual Conference in Denver and other experiences. I invite your comments.

Jane Pisano is right on target with her comments in Denver about ASPA needing to work on its brand. The world of professional development and networking is incredibly crowded, especially given the virtual opportunities provided by social media. ASPA has responded well to this with an ever-growing online presence in many forms (including this vehicle) and the many excellent journals it supports, but the fact remains that the organization lives off the revenues produced by participation at the annual conference, so this is the focus of my column. Here ASPA must carve out its unique niche among a daunting array of competing conferences provided by ICMA, APSA, APPAM, ARNOVA, ABFM, PAT-Net, PMRC and the list goes on. Since the mission of ASPA is to serve both academics and practitioners, let me address each of these audiences separately first and then together.

The Value to Academics

Academics get paid to create and share knowledge, and they are funded and expected by their universities to attend conferences and present papers on their research. The annual conference provides this opportunity, but given limited travel dollars and time of academics, what is the value proposition of the conference that separates it from other PA-related conferences given its relatively high cost and length? Is it the presence of the top scholars in the field? Cutting edge topics? An international flavor? The presence of scholars and practitioners across disciplines and specialties? Unique networking opportunities?

The Value to Practitioners

Practitioners get paid to improve work processes and/or find solutions to pressing substantive problems and are funded by their organizations to attend conferences in order to learn new ways to carry out these responsibilities in a more effective, efficient and equitable manner. I have been told that granting Continuing Education Units by attending the Conference is problematic, so what does ASPA have to offer practitioners that they cannot get anywhere else? The opportunity to interact with academics? The ability to hear cutting edge research on topics they are dealing with? The opportunity to hear from top figures in the world of government?

We need to continue to survey both the ASPA membership and those who attend the conference but also those who do not. I have heard comments like the conference is too expensive and long, and we should consider the “conference within a conference” model used by other associations where people can just attend the part of the conference that pertains to their interests. The good news is that the conference is successful from a profitability point of view, so there is a solid base to build on, but could it be better?

My personal working proposition is that the niche for ASPA is that it is the one conference that serves all the sub fields of public affairs (government and nonprofit), domestic and international audiences, academics and practitioners, etc. In other words, ASPA is the big tent that stands out as a beacon of integration and collaborative exchange. So, if you want to mostly be with nonprofit folks, you have ARNOVA; if you want to mostly be with local government practitioners; go to ICMA; if you want to mostly be with political scientists, go to APSA; or if you want to mostly be with theorists, go to PAT-Net. But, if you want to interact with folks across all these silos, then you go to ASPA. If you buy my proposition, then does the ASPA conference deliver such an experience? Food for thought…


Author: Tom Barth is a Professor of Public Administration and Director of the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at UNC Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of human resource management, strategic planning, leadership and ethics.  [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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