Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Theory Competency for MPA-Educated Practitioners

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Theory Competency for MPA-Educated Practitioners

Article excerpt


The question of how theory is properly related to practice is one of the most persistent and vexing issues facing the field of public administration. This issue arises most pointedly in the arena of the MPA curriculum. The purpose of the MPA degree is to educate practicing public servants such that they can carry out their day-to-day work in a manner that is informed by broad understandings and relevant conceptual perspectives. The recent attention given to defining the competencies appropriate to accomplishing this has been troubling for public administration theory scholars. As an academic whose specific area of interest is public administration theory, I have come to the view that an effective way of approaching the theory-practice question might be to reconsider what "theory competency" for MPA graduates means. I intend by the term theory competency not the usual list or inventory of specific concepts that an MPA graduate should understand. Rather, to me, theory competency is defined by a distinctively enhanced ability on the part of MPA-educated practitioners to act effectively in public administrative settings.

The enhanced ability to act effectively that having a theory competency produces is not, however, a result of possessing specific content or substantive "background" knowledge. I certainly believe that MPA students should be given an understanding of such concepts as how policy networks or iron triangles operate at all levels of government, how the budget process works, how tests of significance are used in evaluating research, and even what philosophical assumptions are embedded in our Constitution. However, having a competence in theory, as I define it, does not mean the acquisition of an identifiable set of substantive knowledge. An MPA graduate can know fully all of the material listed above and much more and still not have a competency in theory.

What MPA Theory Competence Does Mean

The distinctive contribution that the teaching of theory in MPA programs should make is in the direction of creating a certain attitude or process of reflection that can be employed to inform practical action. From this perspective, there are several important things that we should not expect theory education to accomplish. Experience and practitioner testimony suggest definitely that it is futile to hope to create and teach theory that attempts conclusively to explain and predict outcomes of actions. In the world of human affairs, such schemes provide only the appearance of effectiveness, resulting in a great waste of time, money, and effort. Weight loss schemes are one easily recognizable example of an instance of taking an oversimplified causal abstraction, basing a specific action plan on it, and creating sham results. In the world of administrative action, the typical products of such efforts are too abstract to apply in specific situations, mostly because specific situations are too complex and fraught with too many structural and political constraints to allow for administrators to take actions dictated simply by theory. Research on performance evaluation is one of a multitude of illustrations of this (Coens and Jenkins 2000: Kohn 1993: Scholtes 1988; White and Wolf 1995). Both research and practitioner experience clearly indicate that performance evaluation does not accomplish the effects it intends. Indeed it probably does more harm than good, but it is practically and politically impossible to pursue alternatives to it in most governmental settings.

What I mean by theory competence in an MPA program is this. First, theory is best considered as a format for working out an understanding of a situation. Second, theory should function to provide a frame for viewing situations. Whereas the format effect is the dynamic sense of working something out, the frame effect is the sense of stability gained when one knows what kind of situation one is in. This provides the basis of confidence required for formulating action. …

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