Willem van de Velde, Dutch Vessels in A Breeze, 1660

What next for Public Administration?

Philip Marcel Karré

In a recent contribution to Statecrafting, Christopher Pollitt criticizes the academic discipline of public administration for becoming less relevant, more parochial, self-referential and adrift from practice. A damning yet important indictment, given by one of its greats towards the end of his career. But what do younger scholars make of the state of our profession? Do they share Pollitt’s criticism or do they harbour a more optimistic view? And what do they see as their role in furthering our field?

A good chance to find answers to these questions recently arose in the Netherlands, as several new professors of public administration were appointed there in the last two years. I have interviewed ten of them (listed at the end of this text). This has resulted in an article in the upcoming issue of Bestuurskunde, the Dutch journal of public administration, of which this article is a condensed summary. Of the ten professors I have spoken to, six were male and four were female. Two were endowed professors, and all of the others full professors. They all were about 40 years of age, which, coincidentally, also is the number of years that public administration has existed as an independent academic discipline at Dutch universities.

The bottom line: the ten young professors share many of Pollitt’s concerns, and indeed add to them. In our conversations, the following three issues emerged:

First, most of my interviewees endorsed the idea of public administration as a discipline under development, which (at its best) should be interdisciplinary and application-oriented by nature. The shared view was that scholars of public administration focus too much on descriptive and prescriptive questions, by often only describing what we see happening and what a possible intervention could look like. But we also need to ask explanatory questions (why are things happening?) and normative questions (what do we have to make of it?). All four aspects should be covered to ensure that our research always shows a full picture. Only then will our work be relevant, avoiding becoming art for art’s sake.

Second, we still have some work to do in further defining and refining the conceptual building blocks of our discipline. The professors that I interviewed criticize the preoccupation with methods that make it possible to measure phenomena with more precision, without asking the question first whether such precision really is necessary and whether it really tells us more (or anything) about the problem in question. The main reason for this refining of methods is, in the eyes of the professors, the increased pressure to publish in order to prove one’s productivity and citation impact. Publishing in highly ranked journals becomes a goal in itself rather than a means to disseminate knowledge.

A third and last issue that emerged in the conversations about the state of our discipline, is its relation with practice and with education. The young professors I have spoken to agree that the discipline of public administration is in danger of losing touch with practice. There is less consensus on how close this relationship should be. Should public administration be a serving science, providing knowledge and language to civil servants and others addressing public issues when they demand it? Or should it remain at a distance, acting as a critical friend that provides unsolicited advice? There was more consensus on the importance of education, which should not be disconnected from research. Here the professors see it as a challenge to bring more relevance and excitement to the classroom, for example by developing solutions for real-life problems.

In summary, young professors are concerned about the state of our discipline. What gives hope for the future is that they are not only aware of the problems, but are also looking for ways to address them.

Dr. Philip Karré researches hybrid organizations and other forms of hybridity in tackling wicked urban problems (www.hybridorganizations.com). He is affiliated as senior researcher with research group City Dynamics at Inholland University of Applied Sciences, Rotterdam.

This contribution is based on interviews with the following ten young professors, all working at Dutch universities: Ellen van Bueren (Delft University of Technology), Judith van Erp (Utrecht University), Gjalt de Graaf (VU University Amsterdam), Sandra Groeneveld (Leiden University), Martijn Groenleer (Tilburg University), Albert Meijer (Utrecht University), Martijn van der Steen (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Esther Versluis (Maastricht University), Zeger van der Wal (Leiden University) and Kutsal Yesilkagit (Leiden University).