Overcoming American Centricity

Written by: Jonathan Beagles and Catherine Gerard

Khaldoun AbouAssi (American University), Johnathan Beagles (Syracuse University), Catherine Gerard (Syracuse University), Laurel McFarland (NASPAA), Alasdair Roberts (University of Massachusetts), and Sabina Schnell (Syracuse University) united around a fundamental agreement: public administration is, and should be, a global endeavor, but unfortunately the field suffers from American centricity: the overwhelming majority of research focuses on the United States, and to a more limited extent, other Western nations. This raises serious interconnected issues for public administration.

On one hand, the narrow contexts in which public administration issues are being studied raises concerns about the generalizability of research findings and the appropriateness of transferring theories and practices from one context to another. American scholars, and western scholars more generally, are criticized (and perhaps rightly so) for exporting practices to other countries with pernicious effects and for overlooking (or not knowing about) research and innovative practices developed in non-western contexts. The narrowness of research contexts perpetuates the lack of substantive comparative teaching materials beyond generic best practices and isolated case studies. As a result, U.S. institutions are losing their relevance for international scholars and students. U.S. universities have historically served as important training grounds for public administration practitioners and scholars from around the world; however, many are questioning the relevance of these schools and applicability of their curriculum. This challenge may soon become a real problem for university enrollments as the number of high-quality universities outside the United States (many NASPAA accredited) increasingly present attractive options for study.

On the other hand, the field seems to be unable to adequately respond to fundamental changes in governance. The scope and influence of transnational policy and international bureaucracies is growing as public problems are increasingly framed in global terms. However, scholars tend to focus on a single specific issue within a single specific agency or ministry in a single specific country, usually the United States, occasionally elsewhere in the developed world. While perhaps important for a narrow constituency, such research generally does not help the field actively understand and analyze global trends or respond to global pressures, which, if we are honest, are much more consequential for a greater number of people than research on a single issue/agency/nation.

The group recognizes that transforming the study of public administration into a truly global endeavor, one that embraces contexts outside of the United States and other developed nations, is rife with challenges. Foremost among them are arguably language and resource barriers, which makes it difficult for Western scholars to conduct research internationally and for non-Western scholars to publish and attend conferences. There are also intellectual barriers. Specifically, the field lacks common frameworks, theories, and methods, which makes it difficult to compare and generalize across cases. This leaves the field with ever-growing case- specific knowledge and few generalizable theories. In addition, the push toward big data and sophisticated statistical analyses (bordering on ‘methodolotry’), raises new challenges regarding data access and different understandings of what constitutes knowledge.

Many of our associations and journals are working toward the goal of making public administration a global endeavor by sponsoring conferences outside the U.S., creating sections dedicated to specific world regions, and including non-U.S. scholars on editorial and governance boards. In addition, some well-resourced academic institutions, and particularly those in North America, Western Europe, and more recently North East Asia, have been successful in promoting greater integration. Yet overall, progress is slow and uneven.

We have several recommendations about quickening the pace of progress. First, scholars should integrate international concepts and standards, such as the World Bank’s Country Policy and Institutional Assessment, into their research. Doing so would create at least some provisional grounds for comparison across national contexts and comparative case writing.

Second, scholars should be encouraged to engage in more macro-level scholarship across administrative states or contexts. In part because of the increasing preference of scholars and journals for micro-level behavioral analyses, the field is neglecting to ask big questions and scholars are not giving enough attention to the larger forces shaping the national and international contexts in which public administration is practiced. The field needs to engage with normative questions such as: What does it mean to have ‘good’ governance? Are efficiency and economic development the only criteria for good governance, or are their others? Can governance be ‘good’ if it is used to promote, execute, and enforce an autocratic or authoritarian agenda? Must a bureaucracy be democratically responsive to be ‘good’? Is there an obligation for public administrators to promote and protect the interests of minority populations? To what extent should NASPAA incorporate normative views into their accreditation standards? In answering these and similar questions, scholars should link back to what we observe at the meso and micro levels.

Finally, more attention should be devoted to developing curriculum that is relevant for future public administrators not just in the U.S. but all around the world, including the growing ranks of international civil service and civil society. While allocating resources for developing the capacity of less integrated regions of the world continues to be needed, we must also be explicit in creating forums for discussing the normative and epistemological assumptions guiding this global endeavor.

We are keenly aware that our Minnowbrook at 50 discussions should be part of a larger conversation. Despite challenges, we must push forward toward making public administration a truly global endeavor, one that is not only relevant to constituencies around the world, but also one that is actively engaged in answering critical questions about governance in a variety of contexts.