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The future of public administration research: a journal editor’s perspective

27 February 2022

News and media


Image of young businesswoman explaining research results in graphs to colleagues

Public administration research is a discipline that straddles the academic and the practical, and which has evolved significantly in recent years, towards an approach that is more interdisciplinary and engaged with issues of diversity and social equity.

Just as the public service has had to follow a learning curve to keep up with and adapt to current events – as demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic – the field of public administration research is open to considerable transformation.

ANZSOG and University of Melbourne Professor of Public Management Janine O’Flynn has co-authored an article – The future of public administration research: an editor’s perspective – in the latest edition of the international journal Public Administration. Professor O’Flynn, a previous editor of the Australian Journal of Public Administration and now Associate Editor of Public Management Review is one of a group of editors of public administration journals from across the world, who share their insights into the status and direction of public administration research. The article features as part of the 100th Anniversary of the prestigious journal Public Administration

The authors state that: “we have seen the significant strides that the field has taken over the past couple decades. These advancements concern both how we engage in research—such as the methods we apply, the interdisciplinary nature of the theories we use, and the research questions we ask. We also see windows of opportunity for research in public administration to make a substantive, recognisable contribution toward solving many of the problems we face as a society. We hope to encourage and support those who engage with these opportunities.”

The article outlines methodological developments in public administration research in the last twenty years, including the growth in interdisciplinarity, methodological pluralism and the greater emphasis on statistical and quantitative research which has allowed new approaches reflecting different perspectives on the measurement of concepts and ideas that underlie the discipline.

It looks at the field’s attempts to become more diverse and incorporate concerns about social equity into research, as well as the balance between producing research that is scientifically rigorous but also useful to practitioners of public administration 

“Many of the challenges that our field and public organisations face do not have ready-made data. By triangulating across methods, scholars have increased the applicability of the research conducted in the field. The rigor of quantitative analysis coupled with the detail of qualitative data provides conceptual richness that can only benefit our knowledge and understanding – which has been evident in the field’s response to COVID-19.”

Increasing diversity, focusing on practical relevance

The article also looks at the future of public administration, and the need for the field to become more inclusive and reflective of the diversity of approaches to public administration.

“We also need to reckon with the past, including the role public administration has played in creating and perpetuating injustice and oppression. For some, public administration is at a critical inflection point and there is a need to address these issues, particularly if it is to develop into a more inclusive and multicultural field,” the article states.

“We believe that it is not enough to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion within the field. Rather, we must embrace social equity within all aspects of our research. This includes the incorporation of social equity perspectives and equity-related research questions in all subfields of the discipline.”

The article also examines the issues around producing research that is relevant to practitioners of public administration, both in choosing relevant topics and ensuring that the research produced is accessible, perhaps through building the cost of open-access publishing into grants used to support research.

“Our ability to remain relevant and have a significant impact on the management of governments and non-profits around us is closely tied to our ability to connect to the practice of public administration.”

“The challenge we have to address so as to survive and prosper as a field is how to maintain the scientific rigor of our research while also speaking plainly enough for our practitioner community to benefit.”

“A highly scientific paper may get an author additional citations, a paper that also speaks to practice may have greater potential to make a meaningful contribution to the communities around us. We do not mean to imply that we should abandon the publication of highly scientific articles, but we should also increase our attention to publishing material that is salient to practice.

The article concludes that the field of public administration has made significant progress in the last several decades, in both the types of questions we seek to answer and how we answer those questions. 

“The challenges we face as a society are large, and public organisations need to be prepared to address them head-on. Areas where work is sorely needed include climate change, social equity, technology and data science, migration, governmental capacity, and rural and nonmetropolitan administration. But we also need a more targeted focus on research into how areas overlap. For instance, the impact of climate change has enormous implications for social equity, and the use of technology and data science can substantially influence a government’s capacity. We hope we can inspire scholars to engage enthusiastically with these opportunities.”

The full article is freely available here

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