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One Big Weekend in the Adirondacks: The Future of Public Administration

September 1, 2018

History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” The quote is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, but scholars doubt he said it. That’s too bad. It’s profound no matter who uttered it, but somehow a little stronger coming from Twain. Plus, were it his, the quote would place Twain — in spirit, at least — on a lake in the Adirondack mountains, summer 2018, ruminating on how two eras so far apart could feel so similar.

In 1968, America was tearing itself up over issues of war and poverty, race and gender. Tensions rippling throughout the citizenry were exacerbated by political statements and actions that were, at best, controversial, and, at worst, dishonest.

At that time, an eminent professor recently added to the Maxwell faculty organized a conference of “young Turk” scholars in public administration, to see if they could figure out what was going on and what might be their role. Dwight Waldo had spent two decades positing that public-sector employees were important players in the day-to-day promotion of democracy, and now wished to explore their relationship to the era’s discord. The spirit of that conference has informed PA ever since.

Fifty years later, in 2018, not everything was repeating, but many things rhymed. So, 50 being one of those round numbers, Maxwell hosted another conference, in mid-August, at the same location as the first, Syracuse University’s Minnowbrook Center in New York’s Adirondack mountains. No one knew where Minnowbrook at 50 would lead, but its potential seemed undeniable.

The conference was organized by Tina Nabatchi, recently named Strasser Professor in Public Administration, with Julia Carboni, assistant professor in PAIA, serving as her chief lieutenant. Nabatchi is a deeply devoted for advocate career bureaucrats. Both she and Carboni have substantial experience in facilitating collaboration and group discussion.

For Nabatchi, the “rhyme” of current events was compelling. Public administration, she says, “is navigating through a time of revolutions.” She offers a long list of current social and political challenges to the administrative state: citizen estrangement from government, historically low political trust, an inability to converse across sociopolitical lines, demands for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” warnings about “shadow government” and the “deep state,” and agencies whose missions are subverted by recently appointed overseers.

These are complemented by trends outside America. “There’s a crisis of democratic governance, not just in the United States but around the world,” said Alasdair Roberts, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The crisis, he said, casts doubt on many fundamental notions of government organization, democratic principles, the rule of law, and human rights. “There are a lot of folks who are questioning the basic premise that democratic governance works,” he concluded.

This comes at a time, Nabatchi says, when world problems demand a well-functioning public sector. Amid profound challenges — climate change, globalization, mass migration, to name a few — “we have the least capacity and least willingness to address them and the most conversation about destroying the apparatus that could fix them,” she says.

Thomas Ross, president of the Volcker Alliance, said at Minnowbrook that there is a trend for “politicians of all stripes to take for granted those people who work in government in the civil service. They often beat them up. . . .We’ve seen the interest in serving in government decline remarkably.”

“We always say that politics is the water in which public administrators swim,” said former Maxwell professor Rosemary O’Leary ’88 PhD (PA), now at the University of Kansas. “The political element is not new. But what is new is the severity of the antagonism towards government workers and government organizations.”

Susan Gooden ’95 MA (PSc)/’96 PhD (PSc), interim dean and professor of government and public affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, served on the planning committee for Minnowbrook at 50. She tells how retired Maxwell professor Walter Broadnax ’75 PhD (PA), also on the committee, “emphasized the importance of the timing of this event and our obligation and our responsibility to make a significant contribution to the intellectual foundation of public administration, relative to contemporary times.”

It was clear that the 46 scholars and practitioners who attended Minnowbrook at 50 on August 17-20 shared that sense of responsibility, and embraced the legacy of Dwight Waldo and the 1968 conference.

But the discipline — and community of PA scholars, in particular — is more complex 50 years later. Planners took care to include a range of scholars — racially and culturally diverse, male and female, narrowly and broadly focused, domestic and foreign, and (especially) young and senior. Attendees included perhaps a dozen of the most promising under-40 scholars, as well as senior professors, some of them paragons in the field. In all, 22 PA and policy schools were represented, plus a few practitioners and PA-focused organizations.

Given that diversity, planners chose not to assign an agenda for the weekend, allowing this best-and-brightest group to shape its priorities. The goal, Nabatchi says, was to facilitate “an organic emergence of the ideas, and people could coalesce around things they thought were important.”

“We always say that politics is the water in which public administrators swim.”

Rosemary O'Leary ’88 Ph.D. (PA)

Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professor of Public Administration, University of Kansas

However, attendees submitted pre-conference concept papers, allowing organizers to chart thematic affinities. When assembled, the group fine-tuned those themes, and then formed groups, ranging in size from two to a dozen, to dive more deeply into their self-assigned issues. They could be found scattered about the grounds — on the covered dock or lakeside deck, in Adirondack chairs overlooking Blue Mountain Lake, in the central lodge’s intimate low-ceilinged lofts — with requisite easel pads and felt-tip markers. Occasionally they would return to the larger group, in Minnowbrook’s knotty pine conference room, to report on their progress. Among the concerns of the breakout groups were:

Social equity. If the original Minnowbrook conference had one conceptual axis, it was social equity — justice and fairness in society — and the role of government and public administrators to promote it. A 20th-anniversary Minnowbrook, in 1988, centered directly on activism and social equity. In 2018, the phrase was prominent again, and a large breakout group formed around it. According to Gooden, who joined that group, typical concerns about inclusiveness and social equity were supplemented by concepts such as intersectionality, marginalization, and oppression. The group also focused on the role of researchers and practitioners to advance constitutional ideals. Social equity is “baked into the Minnowbrook experience,” she said.“It becomes important to us to push ourselves to think even more deeply and more critically about these topics.”

Democracy, public values, and political environment. Two groups, from varying perspectives, considered the administrative state’s role in remediating what participants view as an assault on principles and practices of democracy. A range of concerns fit this rubric. Curt Ventriss, a senior professor of public policy at the University of Vermont, listed among them democratic processes such as elections, freedom of the press, rule of law, a fair and equitable legal framework, and parliamentary procedures viewed as legitimate in the eyes of the public. Or, as Roberts put it, with a sense of urgency, “How do you create forms of democratic governance that work? We’ve ceded that terrain to other disciplines.”

International scholarship. As an academic discipline, public administration is relatively parochial. A handful of countries — the United States, United Kingdom, a few others in northern and western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand — dominate scholarship in this field. “Nine of the ten most populous countries in the world are scarcely represented in public administration today at all,” said Roberts. A Minnowbrook discussion group considered how to “bring more people into the tent” and encourage a global conversation about good governance.

Scholar-practitioner exchange. At the first Minnowbrook, according to O’Leary, it was concluded that “there is an obligation for public administration [scholars] to strengthen and to assist people in government.” This summer, that sense of obligation spawned some truly challenging reflection on the relationship between the academy and the profession that it studies. What role do scholars play in helping to set the path of the administrative state? The group settled on the concept of “integration” — the potential for scholars in public administration to reach out to other disciplines — e.g., economics, sociology, political science — and transmit their insights to practitioners.

“I think that’s our strength,” O’Leary concluded. “To pull together diverse disciplines, and to translate those theories and that research for practitioners, for government in an applied way.” It’s an approach that Maxwell, with its interdisciplinary structure, has championed for decades. But, said O’Leary, “it’s something that has not been given a lot of attention so far in the field of public administration.”

Said Kirk Emerson, a professor of government and public policy at the University of Arizona, “It’s really focused on trying to bring the best in scientific knowledge to persisting problems, and creating settings where practitioners and scholars can together wrestle with what the science says and how does that fit in a particular context.”

Other discussion groups, somewhat less sweeping in their emphases, pertained to technology, integration of disciplines, and better connecting macro, mezzo, and micro research.

Hanging over the conversation was an overarching question about the relationship between scholars who study an enterprise and any opportunity they have to influence it.

The scholarly discipline known as public administration built its legitimacy studying, analyzing, and reporting. But does the academy have agency when challenges arise in the normative (i.e., “real”) world of PA? As much as Dwight Waldo believed that PA practitioners have a role in democracy, in 2018 it wasn’t always clear that PA researchers have a role in practice. A significant subset of attendees defended their status as dispassionate, scientific observers of the public sector — but not players therein.

Others, such as Stephanie Moulten, associate professor in public affairs at Ohio State University, find purpose in potential normative impact. “Some of us came into this field because we were passionate about solving a social problem,” she said, adding that, unfortunately, many then “get caught up in the technicalities,” all but forgetting their original focus on social advances. Moulten viewed Minnowbrook as the ideal place to reclaim that focus and begin informing social problems.

“It’s all about the role that we have to play in terms of trying to improve the society at large,” agreed Brian Williams, a public policy professor at the University of Virginia who studies public safety and order. “Oftentimes we think about being neutral, objective. . . . but I think Minnowbrook challenges that a bit.”

“With the research I do,” Williams added, “I try to get beyond the academy, go into the community, go into organizations, and build bridges to connect those camps, to better understand and appreciate each other.”

This focus — the academy’s potential to effect social change — led also to some of the crispest debate of the weekend, about the academy’s own conventions for scholarly exploration and advancement. Many offered frank, occasionally bleak assessments of discipline journals, conference formats, promotion and tenure standards, and other mechanisms by which the field’s values are perpetuated. Throughout the weekend (but especially in an unplanned, late-night venting in the Minnowbrook boathouse) young scholars — and a few not-so-young — explored whether the traditions of PA scholarship were stagnant, and thwarting innovative and potentially important research. Some recounted how they entered the discipline driven by purpose, but then submitted to research-and-publication protocols that didn’t nurture their hopes.

It came back to relevancy. “We have to be at the table with the folks who are working with [social issues] every day,” said Moulten. “If we just sit in our ivory towers and aren’t part of that conversation, then we can produce as many papers as we want. It’s not going to make a difference.”

No one expected that conversations begun at this year’s Minnowbrook would be complete by the end of the weekend. The idea was to begin conversations that continue for months or years.

hat said, there were a few immediate results. One attendee, for example, who edits a major disciplinary journal, offered to the assembled scholars guaranteed online publication of the type of qualitative research that, according to others, often gets short shrift in the discipline’s publications. Another immediate result: shortly after the conference, the group discussing social equity produced a self-described “manifesto,” asserting the necessity of discipline research testing whether equity goals are being met and stating that “violations of equity are contrary to democracy.” In the main, though, given the heft and complexity of the topic matter, Minnowbrook at 50 was intended as a launch pad. Now the dialogue continues.

A conference website,, provides a crossroads and repository for those ongoing conversations and presentations; the social equity “manifesto,” appears there, for example. In addition, a group conversation about young scholars and discipline expectations has begun; other methods of extended conversation — through webinars, social media, blogs, and other online channels — are being explored. Nabatchi and Carboni have made presentations already at two disciplinary conferences, with others planned. They hope for smaller, focused conferences (dubbed “Minibrooks”). Eventually, the journal Perspectives on Public Management and Governance will publish a critical essay and later a special issue about the conference; the IBM Center for the Business of Government commissioned a special report. “We’re trying to figure out ways to reach more people and bring them in, to be as inclusive as we possibly can,” Nabatchi says.

Meanwhile, there is the classroom. “These discussions largely shape the curriculum and things we emphasize in our classrooms,” said Susan Gooden. “In many ways, this sets the foundation for the things that we’re teaching our students and, of course, they are the next generation of public servants and public scholars.”

Nabatchi will tell you that, in 1968, no one, not even Dwight Waldo, knew what they’d kindled. It follows that only over the coming years will the impact of Minnowbrook at 50 be known, though some important impact seems certain. “There are so few opportunities in academia to get people together to have these conversations,” she says.

During the first day’s plenary session, Gloria Billingsley, a PA professor at Jackson State University, summed up the moment. “This is an opportunity for an outside-of-the-box discussion,” she said, “. . . so in the next 10 years, when we come back or see the proceedings of the next Minnowbrook, we are not talking about the same things we’re talking about now.”

Rosemary O’Leary says there’s nothing else like it: “The Maxwell School should be very proud of this event and its history. No other university in the world can touch this. . . . It’s a tradition that goes back to Dwight Waldo — a tradition of questioning authority, taking a deep, critical look at the field — which others just have not been able to replicate.”

Minnowbrook at 50 was co-sponsored by the Volcker Alliance and by the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

By Dana Cooke

This article appeared in the fall 2018 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. 

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