Newcomer Responds to "The Problem with Public Policy Schools"

December 23, 2013

James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley ask, in The Problem with Public Policy Schools, if policy schools effectively prepare their graduates to “fix all that needs fixing” in the world and in government. While I appreciate their question, I don’t think their assessment effectively evaluates what schools of public policy and public administration contribute to public policy and governance.

Public policy and public administration degree programs are voluntarily accredited through the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA). NASPAA has accredited 260 programs, but out of those fewer than 15 are public policy degree programs.  Public Policy schools were not created in response to the New Deal, as Piereson and Schaefer Riley imply. Rather, they were outgrowths of and responses to public administration schools, which themselves had developed during the Progressive Era.  The policy movement responded to a sense that public administration schools had become too focused on administrative procedures and processes and needed to look more closely at policy issues.

The vast majority of NASPAA member schools focus their attention on equipping the next generations of well-educated practitioners. Today’s public policy and administration programs strive to provide a balance between hands-on application and the organizational and behavioral theories pertinent to leading and managing in the public sector that make public policy and administration degrees unique. The students and alumni from NASPAA schools understand how governance throughout and across all sectors works and how their efforts can make it work better.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, an alumnus of the George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, is a great example of someone who used his knowledge of how government works and collaborative governing strategies to fix things in the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill.

For every public policy or public administration graduate who makes the news, there are many more public administration and public affairs program alumni who analyze policies, run programs, write regulations, manage staff, and assess program effectiveness. These graduates become the implementers and evaluators who fix what needs fixing.

You find these graduates everywhere.  Public policy and administration alumni work in the federal, state, county and local governments. They also work in nonprofits and the private sector. Their understanding of budgets at all levels, program evaluation, cost-benefit analysis combine with their cross-sector collaboration and leadership skills. These graduates are ready for careers that will get their hands dirty and are likely to span all three sectors.

GW’s Trachtenberg School, which has NASPAA accredited public policy and public administration degree programs, is blocks from the seat of the federal government, and our faculty, students and alumni are extremely involved in national policy formulation and evaluation. Almost a third of our graduates have positions in the federal government within six months of their graduation.

At the same time, NASPAA member schools that are located in the heart of state, city and county governments prepare their students for practical management and policy implementation in those contexts. For example, the University of Arizona offers a certificate program in Collaborative Governance. Many of the staff enrolled work within county and state government in their region complete the certificate because today’s public service entails working within networks and collaborative problem solving.

In all of the NASPAA member school locations, the faculty and students engage in service that benefits both public policy and public administration. Every year, students from the Trachtenberg School provide pro bono consulting services to more than 40 nonprofits and government agencies – from work with downtown D.C.’s Business Improvement District to the National Coalition for the Homeless to the U.S. Department of Defense. 

In addition, faculty at public policy and administration programs work side-by-side with public and nonprofit leaders to strengthen their organizations. For example, at the Trachtenberg School in D.C., over the last six months faculty members provided program evaluation training sessions to staff in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration,  the Pretrial Services Agency and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; participated in multiple National Academies of Sciences committees; compiled research and provided policy and programmatic recommendations for the U.S. Departments of State and Labor and others; presented research on the real costs and benefits of for-profit educational programs to the GAO, Department of Education and the College Board; and taught workshops for the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program for more than 70 NGO leaders from across the globe.

The students and faculty in public policy and public administration programs across the nation apply the knowledge and skills to fix what needs fixing and finding the best ways to develop, implement, evaluate and improve the programs and policies of government at all levels.