Perry calls for more involvement from Public Administration Scholars

by Justine Dodgen

At the Bedrosian Center’s Governance Salon discussion, James Perry raised a provocative issue in the public administration field:  if public administration is often viewed as out of touch and blamed for governance failures, is effective public administration vanishing?

Perry, Editor-In-Chief of Public Administration Review and Professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington, was struck by this question after hearing a speech by Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve. In his speech, Volcker said that public administrators have lost the faith of citizens and are no longer meeting their needs. Perry’s response to this debate was inspired by a combination of his many years in the classroom and his responsibility as Editor-In-Chief to read new public administration research.

“So what do I mean by vanishing public administration?” Perry asked. “Well, let me- I want to talk about three senses in which [public administration] has been projected or could be seen as vanishing.” The first aspect, he said, is the substantive sense, which is the erosion of administrative capacity. The second is the “abandonment of public administration by leading higher education institutions,” the institutional sense, and the third he called the ideational sense, or “erosion of ideas to address challenges of public service.”

So how do we address these threats to public administration? Perry said that academic institutions have the responsibility to improve administrative capacity by reinvigorating public administration programs and by developing more rigorous and diverse research. “If we want to sort of get a closer connection between practice and theory and knowledge,” he says, “we can control that within our schools of public affairs and administration.”

As Perry discussed how universities can expand public administration research, Perry recognized Bob and Janet Denhardt for their piece “The New Public Service: Serving Rather than Steering,” which was honored this year in PAR’s special 75th anniversary edition with a follow-up piece, “The New Public Service Revisited.”

Perry also noted that leadership research is an area where there is an opportunity for researchers to bolster the public administration field. Much research on leadership comes out of business schools, and he argued that public administration scholars should be more involved in the conversation about public or collective leadership.

For students of public administration, it is also important to see how classroom experience and research are translated into practice. By bridging this gap, public administrators can get at the substantive sense and improve administrative capacity. As Perry said, “policy execution and implementation flourishes where professional public administration has flourished rather than vanished.”

Many of the Bedrosian Center’s public events are focused on this issue of translating learning into execution, and we frequently invite practitioners to share their insights about how to turn their research and knowledge into action. Visit our website to learn more about these events.