By Robert Blair and Christian Janousek
From 2011 to 2015, representatives of the local government management profession and the academic community engaged in a series of interactive sessions at ICMA annual conferences. Prompted by ICMA’s Advisory Board on Graduate Education (ABGE), the intention of these meetings was to promote discussion on improving the theory-practice partnership in the field of local government management. This included facilitating communication and open dialogue among scholars and practitioners; identifying mutual interests, research trends and needs, and evolving topics in the field; and creating opportunities for applied research. In sum, the aim of these sessions was the enhanced exchangeability between scholarship and application.
The exchange between theory and practice signifies an important transfer of information in public administration and specifically in the local government management field. Active efforts to strengthen this relationship contribute to better understanding and transmission of academic study and professional objectives.
Graduate education plays an integral role in the delivery of skill sets and training necessary to the next generation, and the existing knowledge and experience of current managers establishes a foundation for advancements in practice. As such, there is a naturally interdependent basis for exchange. The sessions assisted this exchange, with a unifying focus on the future of the profession. They constituted a type of focus group, involving group interactions on particular subjects of interest and relevance. Data were collected reflecting the topics of discussion, the issues presented and addressed, and the responses and reactions of participants. An analysis of the data revealed these important themes:
Mutual research interests. The main topic of these interactive sessions was the transfer of information specifically pertaining to research, with agreement on the contribution of research to advancement in the field. Discussions likewise displayed a merger of mutual research interests, most notably professional local government management and structures, service delivery and collaboration, performance measurement, relations with elected officials, public engagement and community development, and leading practices.
Divergence of perceptions. As discussed in the focus groups, there appeared to be a divergence of perceptions in research needed and the means by which research is distributed. Issues of relevance and access of research were main concerns. The ability to connect research with practical application was viewed as vital to the theory-practice exchange
Innovation in exchangeability. The primary focus was on the processes of exchange. The sessions contributed to increased communication among scholars and practitioners and helped to identify new and innovative ways to improve this partnership. Each session produced inventive and pragmatic ideas for improved research and diffusion, including cooperative study; funding support; scholar/practitioner/student coalitions; modes for presentation; and learning opportunities with the integration of ICMA resources, members, state affiliate associations, and academic and university organizations.
This article highlights some of the main topics and next steps identified during the interactive sessions held at ICMA conferences in Milwaukee, Phoenix, Boston, and Seattle, which involved open conversations, research presentations, and panel discussions.
Milwaukee: September 19, 2011 (20 participants)
Topics of interest: Are current research topics and the distribution means of research meeting the needs of local government managers?
Areas of research with current relevance to local government managers and scholars:
- New public management, network management, public-private partnerships, governance, structure of government, policy making, economic development, council-manager relations, performance measurement, and collaboration.
- The value of professional local government management. Professional structures vs. other forms. The image and marketing of professional management. The next generation: How to engage and matriculate qualified people to the profession.
- Increasing the focus on evidence-based research and transfer of information through research teams of scholars and local government managers.
- How to use funding partnerships for research (public, private, and nonprofit).
Phoenix: October 9, 2012 (43 participants)
Topics of interest: Improving the partnership between the local government management profession and the academic community. Transferring theory to what is happening in the field.
Areas of research with current relevance to local government managers and scholars:
- Leading practices: State standards for professional competencies and ethics; administrator conduct in political contexts.
- Public engagement: Rethinking quality-of-life indicators; measuring community values; conflict resolution for elected officials, managers, and residents.
- Collaborative service delivery: Structures for regional service delivery partnerships. Efficiency vs. effectiveness measures of shared service structures.
- Performance measurement and management: The shift from measurement to management; approaches toward enactment and support by elected officials and residents.
- Research presentations at conference sessions, research summaries in ICMA publications, research partnership opportunities, further discussion forums.
- Delivery methods: addressing availability and accessibility of research.
Boston: September 24, 2013 (11 participants)
Topics of interest: Identifying research needs of the profession and improving the dialogue among local government managers and scholars.
Areas of research with current relevance to local government managers and scholars: Infrastructure, personnel structures, inter-sectoral collaborations. Furthering the theory-practice partnership through ICMA:
- ICMA-based initiatives: Employing ICMA resources, networks, and state affiliate associations.
- Continuing scholar-manager interactive sessions: Academic research presentations, poster presentations, roundtable discussions, and current topics.
- Models of interaction: Attracting more faculty and students to ICMA.
- New directions for ICMA publishing: Digital media and an expanded online learning environment (i.e., video, e-articles, and case studies).
- Facilitating the dialogue: Overcoming the silos of local government management and scholarship and combining the mutual interest and passion.
- Action, innovation, and implementation: How do we make these ideas happen?
Seattle: September 29, 2015 (17 participants)
Topics of interest: Increasing the communication of research within the local government management profession and bridging the gaps of coordination and cooperation.
Areas of research with current relevance to local government managers and scholars: Benchmarking, capital improvements, law enforcement, budgeting, good governance, resident satisfaction, collaborative service delivery, and costs and benefits of professional management.
Information vs. research:
- Management vs. policy.
- Leading practices vs. trends.
- Programs vs. “big” issues.
Ideas toward improving exchangeability:
- Service learning: Student participation and internships, teachers as managers.
- Research collaborations: Scholar-manager and student-oriented projects.
- Finding the mutual benefits and practicalities of research.
- Fulfilling both professional applications and scholarly requirements.
Continuing the Discussion
Overall, the sessions yielded productive discussion and interaction among participants, with advocated support for continuing to provide such meetings at ICMA conferences. A common theme that united participants was the desire to make the partnership better. An important takeaway from the sessions was the willingness of scholars and practitioners to work together. Improving education, research, and practice are shared goals of everyone in the profession. While challenges still exist, the ability to recognize mutual pursuits through further dialogue and exchange will be beneficial to all of those engaged in the local government management field.
As a result of the issues raised in the forums, ABGE sponsored the inaugural research symposium for pracademics and students at the 2016 ICMA Annual Conference in Kansas City. Faculty, often partnering with local government managers, discussed 23 research projects on a range of topics at the symposium, including sustainable development, collaborative decision making, performance measurement, procurement, civic engagement, budgeting, information technology, and other topics relevant to local government management. The purpose of the symposium was to provide a forum for local government researchers to present findings and gain feedback from practitioners. This event will help guide future research needs because it had three major results:
- Increased practitioner-academic dialogue.
- Provided platform for academics to engage with practitioners on their research.
- Furnished forum for academics to present research and attend the ICMA annual conference.
ABGE plans a similar symposium during the 2017 San Antonio annual conference in San Antonio/Bexar County, Texas, Sunday, October 22, 10:00 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. (Conference dates are October 22-25.)
Robert Blair, Ph.D., is professor, School of Public Administration, and director or urban studies, University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is vice chair, ICMA Advisory Board on Graduate Education and member, advisory board for the Local Government Management Fellowship program (firstname.lastname@example.org). Christian Janousek, Ph.D., is instructor of public administration and urban studies, School of Public Administration, University of Nebraska at Omaha, Omaha, Nebraska (email@example.com).