By Scott Lazenby
For the past seven years, I've served as a member of ICMA's Advisory Board on Graduate Education (ABGE). A major focus of this board has been preparing the next generation for careers in local government management.
For years, people have assumed that a master of public administration (MPA) degree is the best form of academic preparation for folks who are new to the field; however, I submit these two questions:
First, given the near-crippling level of student debt these days, have we become too complacent about the actual performance of these degree programs?
Second, our profession is blessed with a number of academic colleagues who really do understand local government management and provide us with graduates who are ready to hit the ground running. Many of these faculty members have been active in ABGE, and getting to know them has been an absolute pleasure.
Given all the institutional barriers they face within their universities, the question is: Are we doing enough to support and encourage these academic colleagues?
Not too many years ago, a master's degree was simply a stepping stone to a doctoral degree. In the life of the university as an institution, spanning many centuries, reinventing the master's degree as a professional degree is a relatively recent phenomenon.
It was certainly a smart marketing decision, but have universities restructured themselves to excel at it? I've had the privilege of serving for a year on National Association of Schools of Public Aministration's (NASPAA) Commission on Peer Review and Accreditation and serving on eight site visit teams for accreditation of MPA programs.
From my own observations and conversations with my academic friends who are committed to effective professional education, there are still a number of institutional barriers within universities that need to be overcome.
There isn't space here to go into them, but they include such factors as the lack of incentives for public administration faculty to do research or publish journal articles focused specifically on public administration (as opposed to public policy, or any other academically interesting topic), and the scarcity of PhD programs that provide solid grounding in management and leadership research and teaching (as distinguished from public policy or political science) for the next generation of MPA faculty.
Using universities to deliver professional education may well be a problem of pounding a square peg into a round hole. Nevertheless, there is an important distinction between the kind of education that can be provided by a university and professional training that is commonly available. University-based education is grounded on solid research, not just "leading" practices; it requires rigorous thinking and concept formulation; and it instills discipline on the part of students.
So when asked how their MPA degree prepared them for work in a government, graduates often state, "It taught me how to think." That's good, but after six plus years of college and expenses that easily reach six figures, shouldn't there be more to it?
MPA vs. MPP
Many public administration programs have broadened their market by including the management of nonprofit organizations in their mission of public administration education. But nonprofits are private organizations, not governments.
I've had students in my budgeting class complain because the small amount of time we spend on appropriations and the budget adoption process isn't relevant to their nonprofit world. If the goal of an MPA program is to prepare managers of both public and private organizations, what is the use of the distinction between an MPA and MBA?
The current trend is to offer both an MPA and a master of public policy (MPP). This, too, could be a marketing strategy, since policy setting probably sounds more interesting to prospective students. It must be appealing for many public administration faculty too, since policy analysis is really what they know and study, not public administration.
There is a danger, though, that students who would otherwise be good prospects for local government management might stumble into these programs, only to find out too late that they have missed the education they need to work in local government.
On close inspection, many MPA programs seem to be mislabeled MPP programs. A potential benefit of offering both an MPA and MPP degree is that it could sharply distinguish the two kinds of programs.
If done right, I believe the two programs should have only one course in common: a single program analysis class that teaches students how to use Excel to help sort through real-world problems of ambiguous information and less-than-clean data.
The MPA curriculum could then be freed up to focus on management, leadership, and service delivery, leaving the MPP to focus on politics and policy analysis, as preparation for future careers outside of public administration. There isn't much evidence yet that public administration programs have taken advantage of this opportunity.
Supporting Academic Colleagues
Given the lack of institutional rewards for providing excellent university-based professional education, my heroes are the professors who understand local government management and are dedicated to preparing their students for careers in the field. They form a small but by no means insignificant group, and include members of NASPAA's Local Government Management Education Committee and AGBE's academic members.
They are active in the state associations, and work closely with local government managers in a number of ways.
In some cases, these faculty have reached a position--department or program chair--where they can have some influence on the entire MPA degree program. Some programs have held this focus long enough that the value of excellent local government professional education has become a core part of the MPA program. This list isn't long though; it is a relatively small share of all MPA programs.
In other cases, the faculty member is a lone local government manager or for that matter, management-education champion surrounded by political scientists and policy professors. He or she may be a lone voice in the wilderness, but still plays an important role.
Even if he or she may have limited influence over the MPA curriculum itself, his or her courses may be the ones that inspire students to consider local government careers. The lone champion advises students on the best electives to take and provides a bridge to the profession.
What can we do as a profession to support these programs and individuals, and to increase their number? Good work is being done already. Local government managers serve on advisory boards, providing feedback on curriculum and on the quality of the students coming out of the program. Professors are welcomed in the state association conferences, even though getting the time off and covering the cost is often a challenge.
Some local governments contract with the school or college for studies and other projects. Among other benefits, this can provide a real boost in the professor's status when so much of the university's internal politics revolves around funding.
We need to do more, much more. ABGE members have identified several possibilities, and I've added a few more as food for thought:
Be more selective in hiring interns and entry-level staff. Give explicit preference to those with MPA degrees from programs that make a real effort in building local government management competencies
Create more internships and experiential learning opportunities for students of these programs, and do more to promote ICMA's Local Government Management Fellows Program.
Cover the registration and hotel costs for faculty to attend the state association conferences.
Create paid faculty-in-residence programs in our organizations for faculty on sabbatical. Not only could this provide some outstanding consulting work for the government at a reasonable price, but it would also strengthen the ties to the university. It's humbling to realize that these highly educated individuals do respect the jobs we do, and many would be honored to serve alongside us, if only for a semester.
Be more intentional about working with our academic colleagues to structure meaningful consulting projects. Turn to them first before sending a request for proposals to the usual suspects in the private consulting world.
At every opportunity, write a letter to the dean and to the university president, thanking them for the contribution their dedicated faculty member (or group) is making.
Urge NASPAA to adopt and promote the Local Government Management Competencies that were developed jointly by a NASPAA/ICMA committee in 2011-12. They should at least be the starting point for the expected outcomes of a program that offers a local government concentration.
These constitute a good start, but not enough. I believe that in addition, ICMA should:
First, develop a mechanism to rank, accredit, or otherwise recognize MPA programs that do a good job of professional education for local government managers. To do this on an objective basis would admittedly be a major undertaking. It would also need to be done without requiring too much effort or involvement of the program itself, since the schools are already overburdened by reporting requirements.
Without this, however, students interested in local government management careers have no real way to assess the value of a particular MPA program.
It need not be overly complicated.
Within the profession, we already do this kind of informal ranking by thinking about these questions: Do one or more of the faculty members keep in close contact with the state association? Do both professors and students participate in the state association's conferences?
Also, is there an advisory board of local government managers that advises the program (or local government track) on curriculum and other issues, and does the program make changes in response to this feedback?
Is the coursework required of students specific to city/county management? Is there an active ICMA student chapter? Do students take initiative to seek internships or capstone projects within nearby local governments? Do local government managers serve as adjunct faculty or guest lecturers?
Within the profession, we (sometimes) know the answers to these questions. But there needs to be a way to get this information to prospective MPA applicants.
NASPAA accreditation does provide some measure of overall program quality, but it does not indicate whether the program will be of value for a career in local government management.
The U.S. News and World Report ranking is useless: It ranks programs that are supposedly good for "city management and urban policy," as if the two are somehow synonymous, and then states that these programs "prepare students for urban planning, urban design, community development, and policy analysis," indicating a complete lack of understanding of what city or county management is about.
Second, develop a test or assessment for graduates, similar to the bar exam except voluntary rather than mandatory, for admission to the profession. Mid-career students or graduates of executive MPA programs could take the same assessment that ICMA uses for credentialing.
Pre-career students could take a modified version, with more emphasis on technical and analytical skills and less on high-level leadership skills. The test could be administered to both entering and graduating students to evaluate the effectiveness of the program in educating its students.
To be an ICMA-recognized program, students graduating under a local government concentration would be required to take the assessment, although it would probably be best to provide the test results only to the program itself for performance management. ICMA could use aggregate data to evaluate the effectiveness of MPA programs overall.
A criticism of this might be that it would encourage "teaching to the test," but if this does happen, it is at least better than teaching little of any use at all. And it would provide support for our faculty colleagues who try to convince their peers that an MPA program should teach students something about public management.
Alternatives to the MPA
In Europe, it's more common for students to keep costs down by commuting to a nearby university from home. Should an American student commute to a nearby university to get an MPA, even if that program is not particularly good at preparing people for local government careers? Given the time and tuition burden on the student, my answer is "no."
There are other alternatives. A few MPA programs that are serious about local government management do offer online options. One may argue the pros and cons of online degrees versus the in-class experience, but I submit that good instruction delivered online is more useful to the student than a mediocre program offered on a campus.
A good way for our profession to support these online programs is to hire people for entry-level positions with an undergraduate degree, and then contribute to their tuition and be flexible on work schedules to allow them to complete their MPA degree program online while working.
A good MBA program, if offered locally, would be more useful to a prospective local government manager than an MPA program that focuses on public policy or political science. The MBA would need to be supplemented through education delivered through ICMA or in-house to gain competence in the "public" side of public management, and this may not be the most cost-effective path to preparation for a local government profession.
An even more innovative approach would be to recruit bright and energetic students straight out of high school, place them initially in relatively low-skill, entry-level jobs, and then cover their tuition for a part-time, online, bachelor degree program in business, economics, or psychology. The local community college can also be part of a path toward a college degree while working.
Then, substitute ICMA and university-based certificate programs for the MPA degree. This formal education could be done in conjunction with on-the-job learning through a carefully planned progression of increasingly responsible positions within the organization. It can also be a good way of increasing diversity in the profession. I have had success with this in a previous city I managed.
A Final Perspective
The bottom line is this: In recruitment, managers should give preference to those few MPA programs that have made the effort to be effective in preparing students for local government management. As a profession, we should support, in every way we can, our academic colleagues who understand and teach local government management.
Beyond this, we should avoid requiring degrees that aren't useful and instead, encourage other, more cost-effective ways to prepare our future work force for city and county management.