An Advanced Degree in Public Administration - Is It Valued by City Councils?

By Vanderleeuw, James; Sides, Jason et al. | Public Administration Quarterly, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

An Advanced Degree in Public Administration - Is It Valued by City Councils?


Vanderleeuw, James, Sides, Jason, Williams, Brian, Public Administration Quarterly


My experience in law enforcement gave me the ability to set priorities and deal with people. My time at the police academy gave me experience in policy and grant writing. My time at a law firm gave me the skills to deal with attorneys. And my education and MPA degree gave me a base and I would not have gotten the position without it.

From interviews with Texas City Managers, November 2011

In this paper we investigate whether a graduate degree in public administration is preferred by city councils as an educational requirement for city managers. Our findings offer empirical evidence that an advanced degree in public administration is particularly valued by city councils. This, we argue, offers support for the presence of an isomorphic process - a process that points to the importance of professional associations such as the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA), the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA), and the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) in promoting a field standard in which professional training in public service is highly valued. A remarkable aspect of organizational life is the extent to which separate and distinct organizations come to reflect one another in substantial ways. Without engaging in any coordination between each other, many organizations come to adopt features that are very similar to other organizations in the same field. The process by which an organization comes to adopt the attributes or standards of other organizations in the same field has been labeled "structural isomorphism" by DiMaggio and Powell (1983). While professional public administration associations cannot compel city councils to make specific hiring decisions, the standards developed and promoted by these associations may exert a soft pressure by which hiring decisions come to reflect these standards.

There is a historic train of thought in public administration that emphasizes specialized training as the best way to achieve the goal of professionalized city administration (e.g. White, 1929; Stone, Price, & Stone, 1940). Recognition of the need to train individuals for the position was followed by the development of standards for professional education. Administrative professionalism became ensconced within a Masters of Public Administration (MPA) degree when the National Association of Schools of Public Administration and Affairs (NASPAA) issued the first guidelines for programs offering the degree. City councils, therefore, could identify the candidate with an advanced degree in public administration as the preferred candidate to become city manager.

We begin with a brief discussion of the professionalization of city management in the United States. Following this, we utilize results from a survey of city managers combined with census data on city socioeconomic characteristics to test for the importance city leadership attaches to having a manager with an advanced degree, particularly in the field of public administration. We then discuss our findings within the context of isomorphic theory, which posits the dissemination of field standards via professional associations. We also discuss the implications of our findings regarding city council hiring criteria and city management as a career goal. In so doing, we reference the results of a series of interviews with city managers that provide context for our aggregate findings. Finally, we conclude with some thoughts for future research.

CITY MANAGEMENT AND EDUCATION

There is a tradition of thought among those concerned with municipal governance that focuses on specialized education as a means to ensure the professional administration of cities (e.g. White, 1929; Stone et al., 1940). This tradition of thought and its evolution provides an important foundation for what cities may look for in a manager today. In 1894 over 149 individuals who expressed an interest in reforming municipal government held the first annual meeting of the National Municipal League in Philadelphia (Mason, 1899). …

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