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Amid All the Pomp, Where Are the Public Management Degrees?

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This is the season for graduations. My son finally made it, graduating from Penn State with a degree in political science. (He did well.) In perusing the commencement receptions for each major, I thought there might be faculty in attendance who share my professional interests. That prompted me to search for course descriptions that focus on public sector workforce management or performance management. In a list of roughly 100 courses at the university’s main campus only one came close (an overview on public administration).

The political science department offers a wide array of public policy courses, but faculty research and expertise does not appear to include the everyday management of government agencies. At first I thought Penn State must be different, since every business school is focused on management issues. In fact, business school faculties are organized around the common management functions (e.g., finance). A common research thread is improving company and functional performance.

I was now curious, so I decided to see what government management courses are offered in other universities. I stopped after looking at only a handful because the pattern was surprisingly the same. To confirm my tentative conclusion, I asked a prominent professor who is an expert on government management (and who will be nameless to protect his standing) whether I missed something.

Here’s what he told me: “It’s a long and sad story. A century ago, public administration was one of the founding fields of the American Political Science Association. Over time, however, there’s been a gradual distancing. A lot of that is because political science has followed the road of economics in . . . the effort to become more ‘scientific.’ But there’s a lot of public management that doesn’t track well with advanced  . . .  statistical techniques, and there’s been a tendency to let the techniques drive the research instead of the other way around.”

One of the universities was the Harvard Kennedy School, where the list of courses starts with one called Markets and Market Failures. A number discuss economic analyses. A search found nine focused on financial management. Six course titles out of what has to be more than 100 included the word “management.” Ten included the word “human,” but all focus on some aspect of human rights.

I told my expert what I found. His comment: “If you looked at other universities, you’d find much the same thing. It’s a sad state: Human capital just doesn’t get much attention . . . And we wonder why we have performance problems!”

Searches on other university websites confirmed that the words “leaders” and “leadership” are common in course titles. Every college and university it seems wants to believe or, perhaps more accurately, convince its students that they can become government leaders. Universities should devote the same attention to developing the skills associated with being effective managers of performance.

I recall from my time in academia that courses tend to reflect the professional interests of faculty members. Their interests in turn often reflect the areas that government agencies, foundations and donors agree to fund. Every university has numerous research centers, but I am not aware of any that concentrate on improving government performance or human capital management.

Academic experts play prominent roles both as consultants and appointed administrators in guiding government policies and defining priorities. Relatively few, however, have had significant experience as executives or managers of large groups of employees. Naturally, faculty members also provide guidance to students. Discussions are likely to focus on public policy issues, not workforce management. Performance should be a central concern in achieving public policy goals.

There are, to be sure, members of public administration faculties who conduct research, consult and write on improving performance as well as human capital issues. But their numbers are small.

All of this is in decided contrast to what is unfolding in leading corporations. The media focus on “great places to work” and the books and articles on high performance are not because companies now feel they should be good to their employees. It’s because there is solid evidence that effective “people management” will help in building a more talented and committed workforce and generate better performance. That’s true in health care as well.

The new importance of workforce strategies as a source of competitive advantage is reflected in the status of human resources executives. Korn Ferry, the executive search firm, recently reported that HR executives in larger companies are now paid more than marketing executives or technology executives. The pay of HR executives is only slightly below that of financial executives.

It’s all too apparent that the work environment in government is deteriorating. The need for change is widely acknowledged. In the private sector, researchers from business schools have played a central role evaluating and confirming the value of new policies and practices. Their publications and presentations promote interest in those practices. Most of the prominent experts have university ties. But they have little interest in government.

It’s clear there are deterrents to performance improvement—the civil service system, the unions, past failures, the natural resistance to change, the lack of incentives to innovate and a high level of distrust among the workforce—that make the prospect daunting.

The academic community, with its deep understanding of government, could be instrumental in planning change strategies that gain broad acceptance in government. Universities should also prepare the next generation to take the lead in achieving public policy goals. 

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

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Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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