Old Post: On Public Administration Curriculum

[Originally posted December 2005]

If the Fels Institute of Government was created in 2005 instead of 1937, what would its founding documents look like? In other words, what role should a school of government play in addressing the pressing needs of governments at present and in producing its brightest leaders for the future? That is the pertinent question to ask, isn’t it?

Perhaps not. Most universities, ancient and bureaucratic as they are, cannot possibly be expected to respond quickly to changes in the political landscape. In theory, holding public service schools to that standard of flexibility could lead to reactionary initiatives that lurch programs back and forth but ultimately not forward.

Indeed, this is what has happened. At a conference in 1996, Donald Stokes recounted four previous waves of educational innovation at public service schools, each swinging the curricular pendulum in the opposite direction from which it had just come. The first, the public administration movement (pre-WWII), responded to rampant corruption by separating administration from politics, thus hoping to produce professional policymakers. The second, the public affairs movement (post-WWII), acknowledged that administration and politics could not be separated, and sought therefore to reunify them to ensure that policymakers could be effective ones. The third, the public policy movement (1960’s and 70’s), returned to the notion of focusing exclusively on policy, betting that there existed optimal policy solutions to society’s great problems. And the fourth, the public manager movement (1980’s), rejected this scientific approach and sought to make leaders that could implement and administer actual solutions.

Perhaps, then, it is audacious to even consider the needs of the day and draft a curricular response to them, since that would be a snapshot of a moving picture with which universities can’t possibly keep up. Nevertheless, we must at least make an attempt, for society’s great battles demand a new generation of foot soldiers, for the sake of our national security, our vibrant communities, and our proud democracy.

The founders of Fels made just such an attempt in 1937. Shifts in political power and function, heavy staffing reliance on underqualified and politically motivated appointees, and a depression that strained agency social service budgets served as the context. In response, the founders of Fels proposed a school that would serve as a hub of practical knowledge, an advisor to local governments, a training center for city managers, a meetings and conferences host, and a research institute for government solutions.

Given that many of these needs and functions still resonate today, this is not a bad assessment and response: timely and timeless, speaking to the hot issues of the day but with a message that has had some longevity to it. In contrast, my own assessment and response might seem dated three months from now. Still, I must make an attempt. Building from Fels’ founding documents and Stokes’ description of “the fifth wave,” here are three skill sets I think schools must teach the next generation of public leaders:

1. Managing cash. Each generation’s fiscal challenges will be different – this one’s include pension costs, energy prices, and federal devolution – but every generation of public leaders must be trained in financial management. People will always demand of their government wise stewardship of public funds, efficient delivery of public services, and carefully calculated cost-benefit analyses for optimal deployment of scarce financial resources. Universities would do well to equip their students with tools to do just that.

2. Managing networks. Achieving results in government, now more than ever, means coordinating and overseeing linkages between multiple departments, with multiple non-governmental players, and across multiple regions. But this need for network management is not just in response to current trends, like what Paul Light calls the growing “shadow government” of non-profits, government contractors, and federally-mandated state and local agencies. Rather, it is inherent to the intricacy of government’s internal organizational charts and the external problems that it tackles. 9/11, the anthrax scare, and Hurricane Katrina are three contemporary examples of the enduring complexity of public sector actions, namely the challenge of employing vast and multiple bureaucracies to respond to dynamic and multi-layered situations.

3. Managing character. No matter what changes take place in the financial and organizational landscape of government functions, governments will always be beholden to the constituencies they serve. Society’s general cynicism towards public officials only reinforces the fact that those who serve in the public sector are accountable to the public and to honestly stewarding its resources. Tomorrow’s public leaders, then, must be people of integrity, managing their own character as well as those with whom they work, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it is the only way to get things done. Indeed, taking seriously the role of upholding the public’s trust is a character trait that will never go out of style.

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