The Relevance of Public Administration Scholarship

Written by: Anna Amirkhanyan and Khaldoun AbouAssi

Khaldoun AbouAssi (American University), Anna Amirkhanyan (American University), Gloria Billingsley (Jackson State University), Randolph Lyon (National Academy of Public Administration), and Beryl Radin (Georgetown University) came together to discuss the relevance of public administration as an academic field. The diversity of the group, in terms of our demographic characteristics, personal exposure to academia, policy-making, and administration, experiences in our home institutions, and subject areas and methodological preferences, resulted in a rich conversation filled with multiple interpretations and perspectives on the topic.

The issue of relevance is a long-standing concern in the field of public administration – one that was raised, debated, and investigated at all the Minnowbrook conferences. Perhaps this should not be surprising. After all, public administration is both an academic discipline and an applied field of practice. Hence, the raison d’être of the scholarly discipline is to inform professional practice. Moreover, the repeated calls for scholarly relevance stem from our desire to improve the world around us, and to seek not just knowledge, but also change.

For the academic field of public administration, being relevant means being connected to and having impactful on the practical and social realities surrounding us. Ideally, relevance would be manifested in numerous ways:

  • Through socially relevant research questions that respond to social problems, rather than to gaps in the literature.
  • Through research and teaching that reflect and address the perspectives and needs of diverse social groups.
  • Through research and teaching that acknowledge and explore the issues of an increasingly global world, and are not unique to the context of developed nations.
  • By translating and actively communicating the findings of scientific research to the general public, policy-makers, public managers, the media, and other groups.
  • By effectively using professional forums and organizations, such as powerful and well-connected national associations, to inform public discourse on important social topics.

The academic field of public administration currently falls short of reaching this ideal. As one of the Minnowbrook at 50 participants noted, we have been remarkably mute at a time when the public sector is experiencing major crises worldwide. As scholars, we cannot confidently claim that our research informs practitioners, influences policy makers, or reaches the general public. That our voice is not heard in the public discourse is particularly troubling given the challenges of modern public administration and policy such as poverty, racism, xenophobia, crime and policing, and immigration among many other issues.

The challenges to achieving the ideal are numerous. First, public administration as an academic discipline is increasingly characterized by compartmentalization, silos, perverse institutional incentives, rigid and narrow definitions of productivity, and methodological sophistication. All of these characteristics make our work less interesting and informative to practitioners, and discourage scholarly risk taking, creativity, and innovation. Second, the studies that are innovative and relevant do not easily make it to the public eye. Practitioners lack the resources, time, and motivation necessary to regularly access academic research that is trapped behind paywalls. Those scholars who work to communicate their research more broadly are not only limited by media formats and audience interests, but also by time and incentives. Finally, perhaps because of a desire to be seen as politically neutral, public administration professional associations are largely invisible in political debates, which creates another barrier to reaching important audiences.

We have several suggestions for addressing these challenges and making the academic field of public administration more relevant. First, we call for our field to create institutional incentives that encourage and promote experiences that enrich our scholarship, including our agendas, our methodologies, the composition of our research teams, and our ability to communicate our findings back to the target audiences. Second, the nature of the publication format and cycles necessitates the exploration of alternative vehicles to help translate and communicate our research to practitioners. Third, we hope to continue the discussion about the role and purpose of the professional associations in our field. While we appreciate the need to maintain political neutrality, we also believe it is our responsibility to contribute to the discussion of the pressing public sector issues by sharing the evidence on the administrative, structural, managerial, and other aspects of government policies and programs. In summary, our group calls for commitment of every member of the public administration and policy research community and their home institutions to (1) expand their role from being scholar to being a scholar-practitioner and a scholar-citizen, and (2) seek connections with and impact on society.