Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Big Questions of Public Administration Education

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

The Big Questions of Public Administration Education

Article excerpt

Following Behn's observation that scientists in other fields understand the big questions of their disciplines and focus attention and their discussions on those questions, public administration scholars have attempted to identify the "big questions" in public management and public administration (Behn 1995; Kirlin 1996, 2001; Neumann 1996). My purpose here is to offer several big questions for public administration education--those timeless and enduring concerns that speak to the basic perspectives we bring to the educational process, especially at the masters level. Specifically, I would like to suggest four basic questions that educators in the field of public administration have debated for many decades:

1. Do we seek to educate our students with respect to theory or to practice?

2. Do we prepare students for their first jobs or for those to which they might aspire later?

3. What are the appropriate delivery mechanisms for MPA courses and curricula?

4. What personal commitments do we make as public administration educators?

After examining each question individually and noting the issues each embraces, I would like to suggest that looking at these questions through a developmental perspective might aid us in clarifying how these four questions relate to one another and, in turn, how we might be able to come up with better answers to these questions, answers that recognize and build on the diversity of our students and faculty.

The Big Questions

Do we seek to educate our students with respect to theory or to practice? Educators in the field of public administration have long been concerned with the question of theory versus practice (see, for example, Broadnax 1997; Denhardt et al. 1997; Denhardt and White 1987; Hummel 1997; Marshall 1997; Miller 1997; Sellers 1998; Ventriss 1991; Weschler 1997). Indeed, if the tension between politics and administration is central to the field of public administration, then the tension between theory and practice is central to public administration education. The theory/practice question cuts in many different ways. Some point out that theories of public organization provide a basis for understanding practice and should inform everything a "reflective practitioner" does. Others suggest that theories typically stand at some distance from practice, so understanding theory may not aid practice--and practice is what makes the difference.

Others argue more modestly that learning theory is equivalent to learning the "logic" of the field, and students need to understand the basic logic of the field rather than the immediate details of today's practice (which may not be tomorrow's). Still others argue that students not only need to learn the logic, they also need those skills that allow them to put the logic into practice. A final, partially overlapping group equates the distinction between theory and practice with that between knowledge and skills and argues that students need a base of knowledge, but they also must develop specific skills they can use in administrative situations.

There is also an interesting debate about whether theory leads practice or practice leads theory. Most public administration theorists think of their work as opening new possibilities for practice. But many scholars might argue the opposite, that researchers in public administration observe practice and then reflect practical developments in their theoretical work (such is typically the case in budgeting). Obviously, this debate suggests important problems for research and development in the study of public administration. It also speaks to the relationship between theorists and practitioners, and between the university and the community.

Interestingly, student reactions to the theory/practice question differ, in part according to whether the student is pre-service or in-service. Many teachers of public administration have had the counterintuitive realization that preservice students, who have dealt more recently with theory and might be expected to be tuned in to theoretical arguments, are more interested in the "nuts and bolts" of administrative practice; in-service students, even though they have been away from the academic world for a while, feel they know practice and are therefore more concerned with the theoretical context, with what things mean. …

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