Is public administration theory useful to practitioners? Do MPA teachers offer theories useful to students and practitioners of public administration? To proclaim theory as "useless" (Hummel 1997) resonates with some public administration scholars, practitioners, and students. Although pragmatists claim that theories are inherently useful, critics of both academic and administrative practice challenge the notion that theory is practical. King (1998) sees theory--practice as a paradox, caused by wounds of misunderstanding. This misunderstanding may produce unreflective administrative practice as well as unreflective teaching practice.
Whether considered useless or misunderstood, if what academics do in the MPA classroom or training program, including critical assessment of theories, does not meet developmental and career needs of administrative practitioners, the worth of theories and theory-based learning is open to critical consideration. On the other hand, if theories can help a public administration practitioner's performance, and theory is absent from the classroom, then we are short-changing our students.
We argue that our current MPA programs are educating students and practitioners primarily for staff positions, and these students may not be getting the theory they need.
Students or practitioners heading for line positions may lack the theory to be prepared for the kinds of tasks facing line managers.
The road to be traveled covers the following:
1. Conceptualizing theory
2. Is the theory offered in our programs useful to practitioners?
3. What does postmodernism have to do with this issue?
4. Public administration journals and practitioners
5. The postmodernist in the classroom
6. What to do?
A theory is "an intellectual construct that enables someone to make sense of a situation or a problem" (Weschler 1997, 383, citing Harmon and Mayer 1986). All of our actions are based in theory, which Abraham Kaplan (1964) calls our "logic in use," or "theories in use." (1) Theories in use are inherent in our behavior; they are our individual epistemological or ontological mental maps and filters, of which we are usually unaware (Aufrecht 2000). "Reconstructed theories are conjectures that expand understanding about relationships" (Weschler 1997, 384). Reconstructed theories populate the content that we teach.
Theories in use, in contrast, are imbedded in how we teach and the assumptions underlying our reconstructed theories. Academics are exceptionally self-conscious of efforts to "create" reconstructed theories about how organizations function, alternative leadership styles, or decision-making processes. Academics are less self-conscious about theories in use, especially those of learning and cognition as we teach. We should reflect on our theories in use, create reconstructed theories, and test them.
The theories that we communicate in class are either:
1. Theories in use, which are ontologies, epistemologies, or paradigms that are inherent in the way we frame the phenomena we study or explain to others; or
2. Reconstructed theories, our consciously constructed beliefs and understanding about the reality we observe.
Excluded from this discussion are high-level theories, such as David Farmer's The Language of Public Administration (1995), which describe and debate the merits of alternative ontologies and epistemologies. High-level theories have implications for the middle- and low-level theories found in public administration journals and texts (Mills 1959), but reflective practitioners and MPA students generally are not drawn to the kinds of issues that Farmer poses. Reflective academics, however, may be drawn to these, if only to debate issues of levels of explanations.
Are the Theories Offered in our Programs Useful to Administrative Practitioners?
Before addressing the issue of theory usefulness, a distinction needs to be made among the various tasks performed by public administrators. Administrative practitioners are not a homogeneous group with common educational interests and needs (Denhardt 2001). Some practitioners are interested in and excel at tasks performed by administrative staff:
1. Planning and implementing research projects
2. Carrying out statistical analyses
3. Formulating policy options
4. Creating and refining financial, personnel, and information systems.
Effective staffers understand concepts and models and produce outstanding research reports. A staff practitioner's competency lies in addressing technical questions well--siting a wastewater plant, getting an effective low bid on a garbage contract, surveying community needs and resources. One can perform satisfactorily in a staff role with only basic skills in interpersonal relations and verbal communication.
Likewise, theory in use by staff may be relatively unconscious, and their practical uses may rely mainly on partial theory. Partial theory involves abstract constructions that model real situations in causal statements, but may not fully explain many features of the domain at hand. Partial theories, such as the proverbs offered by Gulick (1937), allow …