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Wisdom of MPA Students

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

By Thomas Barth
January 12, 2024

One of the real pleasures of teaching in an MPA program is the diversity of backgrounds of the students, both in terms of their interests and professional experience. I have also discovered that the use of the discussion board brought on by online teaching has unleashed the wisdom of these students in a way I never experienced with a traditional in-person format. Gone are the days of asking for a small sample of students to respond to my questions in a classroom as time allows; now every student is required to weigh in each week to questions posted on the board. The introverts and the unprepared have no place to hide, as they have time to read and reflect in a reasonable timeframe when they are ready. In the spirit of reflecting on the past year as we enter 2024, here is a sampling of students’ commentary from my human resource and public administration foundation classes worth sharing (plus a brief follow-up comment):

“I think that elected officials oftentimes work against the established bureaucracy, causing further inefficiency and enabling dissent and distrust towards government, as well as weakening the security of our democracy.” This comment sparked an in-depth discussion about the relationship between elected officials or their political appointees and career civil servants, especially in these polarized times.  Students need to understand the responsibility of civil servants to exercise their neutral competence and speak truth to power while at the same time respecting the legitimate authority of the elected official and their appointees to pursue their agendas and represent their constituencies.

“Young job seekers are looking for opportunities for growth and flexibility. Governments and nonprofit organizations can improve their recruitment of young job seekers by offering meaningful work with unique benefits. Investment in training and higher education for young staff members provides the organization with better-qualified employees and an alternative benefits package. As a young employee, I always begin my job search by looking at organizations with flexible work schedules, diverse staff and [positive] company reviews.” These perspectives of younger job applicants for government and nonprofit positions are important to hear as the competition for new talent is keen, especially with higher salaries that may be offered by the private sector.

“In my last few jobs, I’ve also gotten a relatively large amount of positive feedback and not really negative. Even though it makes you feel valued and gives you a very positive attitude, it probably also prevents you from moving forward.” Although a small sample, the general dissatisfaction with the quality of performance appraisals is clear. It was interesting to hear that students want constructive negative feedback as well as positive comments if they are to develop.

“The biggest factor in creating an inclusive workplace, in my opinion, is creating systems and structures that welcome communication between employees, their peers and supervisors. In my last employer, they hired a full-time VP of DEI, whose main purpose was to look at the organizational structures and identify weak points for inclusion, help to provide best practices training, and likely most importantly, take time to travel around to each department and talk with employees at all levels about their experiences. This helped to foster a community and workplace where all voices were heard, and somebody with authority to do something about issues that they saw arising.” This student’s experience was very helpful in highlighting a concrete example of what DEI means in practice that goes way beyond a focus on just having a representative workforce by fostering real community and authentic discussions.

“Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the leader to promote mechanisms within the organization to prevent ‘evil’ and to contribute to building an environment where members feel empowered, collaborative and confident to speak out. I think this can relate to what Reed mentions: ‘It seems self-evident that an organization that has robust mechanisms for transmitting suspicions about administrative evil to receptive and morally sensitive figures has a greater likelihood of mitigating its impact’.” The concept of administrative evil in an article by Balfour and Reed opened students’ eyes to the power of organizations to suppress questions and the responsibility to look beyond your narrow job responsibilities.

“I am struck by an inherent tension in strategic planning processes, particularly when I have engaged in this work with new leaders. Oftentimes, the new executive director or department lead comes in wanting to do a strategic plan and may have a strong grasp of the external factors that are leading them to do this work. They see the strategic plan as a “magic bullet” for the direction of the work moving forward. However, they fail to fully embrace, contextualize or understand the internal factors of the organization; mainly, it’s culture. If the leader does not come in to address these issues, the strategic plan is only going to be so helpful.” This is an appropriate comment to close on with the advent of a new year.  For all new leaders, if the vision or plan is primarily yours, it is not likely to be embraced by the troops and succeed.

Author: Dr. Tom Barth is a Professor in the MPA program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of organizational behavior, strategic planning, human resource management and ethics.  [email protected]

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