Back to school: MPA degree helps harness democratic spirit, drive social change

john burbank

By John Burbank, EOI Executive Director

Excerpted from the inaugural edition of The Evans School Review, an annual peer-reviewed journal that publishes multidisciplinary research in public policy and management at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs:

When I started at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington (now the Evans School), I had little inclination to become a public administrator. And yet, my diploma says: “Master of Public Administration”.

So why go to a graduate school in public affairs if you don’t intend to be a public servant? I pursued this course of study for several reasons.

First, in a mid-life career change (you might call it a crisis), graduate school was a way to regain intellectual acuity; to push myself to learn new policies and areas; and to evaluate the current government and society. Second, it seemed like a good thing to add to caring for my young kids and working part-time – first as a substitute childcare teacher and then as a project manager at the Sand Point Community Housing Association. And third, it opened the door to new opportunities and challenges, and helped me acquire the tools I needed to undertake them.

As a social democrat, I have always been wary of a liberal state that simply smoothes the sharp edges of the status quo, and in so doing, enables and endorses inequalities and disparities in income, wealth, opportunity, power, and life chances. Today, as money and power migrates from the public sector to the tip-top of the private sector, that liberal state is pretty ineffective at even smoothing those edges.

Our democracy is slowly being undermined, starved of resources needed to deliver public services and public goods – while middle-class incomes stagnate and the bottom falls out from under many more.

What does that have to do with a public administration degree? Well, if a public affairs graduate school seeks to develop skilled and thoughtful public servants and administrators whose job it is not to change the parameters of policy, but to figure out how to make things work best within it, then perhaps my degree doesn’t fit me.

A good administrator might work to ameliorate a funding crisis by trimming or re-aggregating services, or by lowering costs through staff pay cuts or outsourcing public services to the private sector. Down the road – as public money is reallocated to the private sector, profit is siphoned off and people’s pay and benefits decline – comes the attendant questionable, or at the very least uncertain, impacts on the quality of public services.

I thought there was, and I still think there is, another path available to graduate students in public affairs. I think we should be involved in public entrepreneurship – that is, figuring out how to catalyze a robust public sector that delivers high quality public services and goods to citizens.

Doing so involves actually developing new public policy ideas, figuring out the intended and unintended consequences, bringing together stakeholders and “movers and shakers” that support those policies, hammering out agreements and compromises and conditions, and using the tools of legislative advocacy and initiative to realize policy – that is, to make law.

That process is a fundamental part of our democracy. It is different than observing the lawmaking process as an administrator, and managing policy and revenue outcomes as a public servant. Both are valid paths, but I find mine to be much more invigorating of the democratic spirit of our society.

Read more from Schooling for Social Change from The Evans School Review »

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