EPPA Pillar: Practices

The ´EPPA Pillar: Practices´ tries to bridge the knowledge production with the world of practice of providing public services. This leads to the question: How can we integrate different disciplines and scientific approaches with public administration practices?


EPPA: "Public Administration and Practice” (5-6 April 2018, Strasbourg)

The aim of the seminar was to shed light on the never easy relationship between the practice and the academic teaching and research of Public Administration. Our overall question was: When, how and why is Public Administration relevant, or perhaps even irrelevant in research, advice and teaching? The focus was on PA training and policy advice, and the organization and institutionalization of the interaction of research, advice and training, for instance, asking what kind of schools, disciplines and programmes do we have and which do we need for the future?

Again some preliminary and pointed 'lessons learned' from the seminar:

  1. How can PA get more relevant, both in research, teaching and advice? Here, the somewhat surprising consensus was that problems may be more rooted in the supply than in the demand for PA knowledge and research. Traditional and rather well researched problems like, for example, co-ordination are ever more present in the practice of public administration, but too little of relevant research reaches practitioners. On the other hand, communities, like local governments, are much more open to practical interaction, i.e. in the form of 'action research', than is usually assumed, but they are hardly approached and get few offers. The reason may be that academic PA offers the wrong incentives to researchers, especially young ones. The overriding currency here are articles in refereed journals, so practical relevant research is becoming more and more a luxury not everybody can afford. 

  2. Concerning the meaning and values of PA and public service, it was argued that normative concepts like values, goals and ethics are of central importance to practice and therefore have to be tackled more systematically in teaching, and following from that also in research. At the same time it was emphasized that practice and theory are certainly not opposites, as is so often naively assumed. There is, as we all should know, nothing as practical as a good theory, so theory always should enlighten practice. PA teaching, research and advice should therefore be much more concerned with the kind of knowledge they produce, and which is demanded (enlightenment, problem oriented, extrapolation of existing knowledge, etc.). 

  3. What does all this mean for our teaching? Here, it was argued, as so often, that context matters, so we should not look for generic models but for specific cultures, traditions and needs. But there are some important caveats. For one, we should be aware of too much homogeneity among trainers and graduates. Programmes may become too uniform, so diversity matters. And again institutions and infrastructure matter, PA teaching and research are most relevant in countries, where there is a strong tradition of PA research and teaching at universities, and following from that, a strong tradition for hiring university graduates in PA for the public service. PA teaching has to create its own demand, not just sit there and wait for whatever kind of demand may come up, from more or less well informed practitioners or pracademics.
  4. How can and should research be transformed into practice? The obvious, but perhaps somewhat surprising basic observation was that there are rather similar common reform agendas in most countries, i.e. the challenges of territorial reforms, or the digital revolution and how to cope with that. At the same time, especially in these areas, the relationship between research and practice is weak. A lot of existing research is not used, and it is probably not even known to practitioners, that it exists. One of the reasons may be that these areas are weak in theory. Only when there are robust theoretical assumptions available, can research more easily be turned into practice. Again it may be a problem of supply. PA needs to concentrate more on synthesizing research and making it more understandable, instead of using ever more resources in even more specialized but not very relevant research questions. But again the incentives of academia may work strongly against that. 

  5. The result of all this is, again, that we need to put more resources into the organization and institutionalization of research centers and activities distributing and explaining research. There are already rich eco-systems of policy oriented research centers, and many of these are also rather prominent in public debates and in the media, but we are lacking comparable centers in PA. So the main challenge is not more or even more specialized and methodological advanced research, but the organization of the interaction and ‘translation’ of research. 

  6. For our schools and programmes of PA all this means that we should practice what we preach. We do not need more 'managerial evangelists', who preach the latest sermon towards salvation. We should be aware of superficial legitimacy through simple isomorphism, and instead we should be more self-confident and assertive about our research findings and results. We need to offer programmes, that are attractive for good students, which again means that they should also be attractive for future employers. All this boils down, again, to more resources for and especially more attention on high level centers of research and teaching. PA will not prosper if it consists of many more or less isolated researchers (however productive and innovative they may be) who work at the fringes of their different departments. 

see more EPPA: "PA and Practice"