Wednesday, August 25, 2021
The world is changing, and many policy problems need longer term and more innovative solutions.

(Note:  this post builds on a blog series about developing an agenda for agile government in schools of public affairs.1)

Certain cases call for bold steps that leap over current approaches and create entirely new systems.  While this approach has always been important, it is even more so in a world that seems to reinvent itself every day. Schools of public affairs need to lead efforts to ensure that public service is a strong, well-respected practice, and that public servants lead effectively in a dynamic and uncertain environment.

Ensuring that students master competencies needed to successfully overcome public policy challenges and exploit policy opportunities presented by today’s socio-economic and political environments is the key to their success.  Schools of public affairs should serve as the axis around which learning and action thrive, and they should aspire to be the learning choice for those seeking to participate in public/civic innovations.  In the second part of this series, we identified competencies needed to model agility in public practice.  This post discusses how these competencies can be taught, practiced and mastered in education programs.

To accomplish this, schools need to determine the relevance of their programs and the early success of their graduates.  To begin, schools could consider the following questions:

  • Are you restricting your reach, and thus your impact, by focusing on Master’s and PhD students in your traditional programs, rather than offering programs to a broader community of potential learners (e.g. students matriculating in other disciplines, current public servants, those simply interested in policy and its implementation)?
  • What is the aim of your PhD program: advancing academic careers or honing advanced policy skills?
  • If the biggest challenge of the future is its uncertainty, in what concrete ways are you preparing your students for this?
  • If you see a public policy problem, how do you decide to engage your programs in mitigating/addressing that problem? Do you have a strategy for this engagement?
  • If one agrees that current socio-economic and political issues are global in reach, addressing US interests while accounting for global influences, are your traditional approaches to domestic and international issues the most appropriate to prepare students to address these problems? If yes, then how do you demonstrate your success?
  • How do you prepare your students to facilitate the engagement of communities in developing options for attacking problems or tackling challenges?
  • Are your faculty undertaking research narrowly focused on more technical aspects of public affairs matters?If so, why? How broad is the audience for your faculty’s work?
  • How do you engage students to attack mega-challenges, like consequences of climate change, implications of technology disruption, impact of human migration and displacement; and effects of pandemics?
  • How do you ensure a voice and a space for visionaries given that current policy discussions seem dominated by technocrats?
  • Do you employ practitioners in your program?How do you choose what they teach? How are they involved in the governance of the school?
  • How do you undertake and advance research that can identify critical competencies and teaching protocols to inform agile government principles and skills?
  • How do you regularly assess your curriculum to adjust course content and pedagogy to reflect the most current research on agile governance?

To formulate a bold, new vision for public affairs education that embraces agility and matches the current needs of public service and policy, the academic community must break loose from barriers, traditions, and normative habits that have limited innovation in curriculum and in training protocols.  Schools need to step into new environments and embrace new possibilities quickly-- and with agility—to ensure that they create the supply of expertise public governance requires.

To achieve this departure from the “as is” to “what could be”, a successful re-imagining of public affairs education should aim high. For example, schools should consider the following:  

  • Open program development to new partners, including public, non-profit and business sectors.
  • Open curriculum construction to new partners, including faculty from other disciplines and expert practitioners from public, non-profit and business sectors, especially in the development of the experiential learning aspect of the curriculum.
  • Open programs to new participants, non-traditional students, lifelong learners, etc.
  • Open programs to new ways of instilling experiential learning like apprenticeships, breaks in study, and intermittent internships.
  • Start with policy puzzles rather than theory---reorganize programs to address problems rather than disciplinary research.
  • Reject the notion that science and craft are divisible and that one enjoys a higher status than the other. Public affairs schools can ease those tensions and use that released energy to move discovery to practice; this joins research, scholarship, and public policy.
  • Develop integrated approaches to the world of public affairs rather than promoting discrete concentrations.For example, setting domestic versus global, development versus environmental, and housing versus transportation policy denies the dependencies inherent in modern governance. The arena of public affairs rarely operates within these defined boundaries. Almost nothing of policy relevance adheres to neat delineation. We need to explore how to bring focused attention to unruly problems.
  • Reexamine the consequences of exploring policy problems in a linear fashion, first by defining the problem, then by developing alternatives and framing choices, then by performing analysis and recommending solutions, then by implementing programs and evaluating them. These steps are extremely useful for developing skills. But actual exploration and deliberation are rarely linear, and the players in the policy process often play on multiples levels simultaneously. Policies usually are developed under the conditions of uncertainty, disagreement, multiple constraints, and incomplete data.
  • Determine how best to mitigate characteristics of university environments that pose obstacles to transformative change:
    • While faculty governance over curriculum is the norm, this monopoly can stymie any change, especially if and when full professors reject change.
    • University administrative structures often limit innovation, including those that constrain hiring, promotion, course scheduling, contact hours, experiential partners, cost recovery, and tuition, among others.

In adjusting programming to accommodate agile government values and practices, schools of public affairs/administration may want to consider how they teach, where the educational experiences take place and who teaches. The scholarship that takes place in public affairs programs must have a connection to community—in this case the public sector.  This must serve the common good, be aligned to today’s most immediate, critical challenges, and be transferrable to a curriculum relevant to the skills required for public service.  To achieve these objectives, while integrating agile governance values and protocols, requires concerted and sustain efforts by educators.  Tackling how we teach, where we teach, and who teaches offer platforms for sharing ideas will be our next topic for discussion.


1. For purposes of this series the term “schools of public affairs” refers generally to schools of public administration, public management, public policy, and public service.


Links to all posts in this series: