Public Administration Q&A with Professor Aaron Smith-Walter

aaron smith walter

Interview with Aaron Smith-Walter, Ph.D.

What is public administration?

“Public administration is the government in action, and that can be either two words or three. You might think politics is about figuring out who gets what, when and how. A lot of what we talk about when we talk about politics is actually public policy. We decide things like…

“Do students get their loans forgiven or not?

“Do we increase the pay for our service members or not?

“Those decisions are part of public policy and politics. Deciding on those issues is incredibly vital in a representative republic.

“The caveat is that once we decide what we’re going to do, we need to do it. That’s public administration. That’s why it’s either ‘government inaction’ or ‘government in action.’  Public administration is how we do what we decide to do as a member of a polity, which can be municipal, state or federal decisions. Carrying out those programs is what public administration is all about.”

Why is public administration important?

“That’s a question that we don’t think enough about. We think about things like congressional gridlock. Congressional gridlock is a feature of the system. You need a lot of agreement to get things done anywhere. But a lot of the day-to-day interactions we have now reflect a lack of gridlock in the past. They are the agencies and programs authorized and funded by previous democratic decisions.

“The administrative apparatus, with all its quirks and quibbles, still carries out the day-to-day interactions of a government that is predicated on the citizens. They are the programs we decided should constitute self-governance. Public administration is what we see as the force that executes and carries out those decisions.”

What do public administrators do?

“Public administrators have a wide variety of functions, much like the agencies they work in. Think about things like regulations. Laws establish parameters which private and nonprofit organizations operate under. Some public administrators make sure those rules are followed.

“If your boss is required to pay you a minimum wage, there are agencies that make sure that is being followed. If you go to the gas pump and you pay the amazingly high cost that we have per gallon, how do you know that you’re actually getting a gallon? They tend to frown on you pouring it into measuring implements and then putting it into your car. So, we have agencies that are set up to monitor, regulate and audit those things.

“Public administrators may also have a service delivery function. There are public agencies responsible for providing goods and services to the public directly. Policing is one of them. The fire department is another. We want the firefighters to come when we call, so that is a direct provision function that they engage in.

“If we want to think even more broadly, many of the leading corporations have government relations officers. They need to understand the laws and requirements the government is placing on them. That’s the other side of the regulatory coin. You want to have individuals who are well-versed in the parameters under which they’re allowed to operate so that you can produce the goods and services that your consumers demand.

“The final role of public administrators I’d like to highlight is facilitation. There are individuals out there who want to accomplish certain things. Maybe you’re founding your own nonprofit organization, or you want to have the city council address something you see going wrong in your community. Public administrators help the public to achieve these goals.”

Specifically, where do UMass Lowell graduates work who have their degree in Public Administration?

“We have individuals who work in a wide variety of public-serving organizations in the non-profit sector and also in numerous government agencies at the state and local levels after graduation. For instance, we have graduates working at the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, the Maine Arts Commission and numerous local governments, including the town of Billerica, the city of Lowell, and other municipalities across the greater Lowell area. Those are the types of organizations where our graduates have found employment.”

Does public administration pay well?

“When we think in terms of how much that pays, the jobs in public administration run the gamut. You can be the head of the Department of Transportation, and that’s going to pay much more than if you’re working at one of the windows at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. There’s a wide swath of salaries we’re talking about. But in the grand scheme of things, the highest ranks in the public service will not come close to the highest ranks of the private service.

“That said, the NASPAA found through surveying graduates of programs of profession public service (public administration, public policy, and public affairs) that approximately 50% of graduates are earning between $45,000 and $75,000 per year 3-years after their graduation, so the pay isn’t going to let you buy your own private island but can provide a solid foundation for a comfortable lifestyle.

“Another piece of good news about public administration is that government, by its nature, is geographically located. At least in the U.S., it’s responsive to the people who are anchored to that location. Public administrators have much more stable employment than others who work for companies that decide to move their production facilities overseas.”

…So why do people study public administration?

“We have a concept in public administration that accounts for a non-monetary compensation factor, called public service motivation. A lot of the people in public administration are driven by a desire to give back to the community and to associate with something greater than a quarterly profit statement. Not that those aren’t important. But a desire to be a part of something larger than themselves drives many who engage in public administration. Agency mission is incredibly important for many of our students.

“So, if you’re interested in the quality of education, working in the Department of Education and developing better policies and approaches to education is something that can be compensatory. But when you get into the higher echelons of these organizations, you won’t be making as much as someone working in the higher echelons of a private agency.

“That said, these are professional jobs, so you aren’t talking entry-level wages either. Generally, you will receive pay that is commensurate with an advanced professional degree, coupled with stability that you don’t often benefit from in the private sector and a meaningful organizational mission that you can leverage as well.”

What is a Master’s in Public Administration?

“Very simply, the Master of Public Administration is the professional degree for individuals geared to a career in public service, be that in the public sector or through nonprofit agencies and organizations.  The program [at UMass Lowell] focuses on creating a strong foundation for any student interested in those two sectors.  We talk about public administration in the United States, where it comes from, why it’s here, how it exists and tension with our tradition of self-governance and democracy.

“In the foundational courses, we talk about how to budget. One of the fundamental differences between a private organization and a public one is that the public budget is a legal document, in a sense. The democratic process produces this document. You can’t alter it without approval in many cases. You learn about the differences between public and private accounting.

“Also, you learn about how to run organizations effectively to create what scholar Mark Moore labels ‘public value.’ So we look at things like leadership and management. How do you take disparate individuals with a myriad of experiences, identify the public service motivation that we think they share, and craft a dynamic and effective team to best produce that public value to meet the needs and demands of the citizens who empower us to engage in our work?

“We also recognize that much of public organization is the ability to reassure the taxpayer. So, we teach our students how to effectively collect and analyze budget data, administrative data, salary data, and all of these service delivery measures.  We talk about performance metrics a great deal. How do we devise, develop and deploy those systems? How do we report so that we’re accountable?

“Those are the core skills we teach in the MPA. Then we wrap that up at the end in a capstone, where we work with a local partner to help them meet a need that they have. This is part of the service mission of the university and the degree.

“So, if an organization needs the development of a new intake form, perhaps they find services for the unhoused, we help them redesign the form. We make sure that they’re collecting all the information they need when they first interface with an individual. Then, they’re not subsequently deploying new data collection measures each time. We help them with efficiency and how to better spend their volunteer and staff time. The [capstone] projects themselves are varied and interesting, like how do you revitalize a neighborhood using public art as a major anchor to begin to define, express and differentiate that neighborhood? How do you create a sense of space?

“When we think about the MPA, we teach the core of the skills you’ll need to meet organizations’ public missions. Of course, we also recognize that our students have very different interests. Maybe the regulatory piece interests you. Well, great! We’ve got a course in public policy that you can look at. Maybe nonprofits interest you, and you need to understand grant writing to get funds from organizations to keep the lights on. We have options that allow our students to explore their interests, and that will make up several credits in the degree.”

What distinguishes the MPA at UMass Lowell from other programs?

“One of the interesting things about UMass Lowell’s MPA is that it’s interdisciplinary. Some institutions house public administration in the business school or the political science department. If it’s in the business school, they tend to emphasize the business-related aspects. If it’s in the political science department, they’ll emphasize the political limitations you have as a public manager.

“The unique aspect of the UMass Lowell program is that it draws from political science, sociology, criminal justice, English, arts and design. It envisions public administration as interdisciplinary. We serve all those interests across our society. To effectively engage in economic development, you better understand how the arts and political considerations factor. You better understand how the underlying economic features of the community play into the desires to develop a neighborhood.

“Drawing on the interdisciplinary perspective allows us to teach our students about all the resources that are incredibly rich in Massachusetts when it comes to culture, history, and self-governance. The history of the New England town hall meeting is one that is relatively unique in the United States. It’s a tradition that has a lot to teach us about how to involve people in the community and how to develop a sense of being, belonging and place.

“The interdisciplinary MPA at UMass Lowell gives us a wider perspective on what it means to serve the public.”

Does moving the MPA online reduce the overall cost of the program?  

“Yes. Moving the MPA to an online format not only makes it more affordable than the campus-based program. It also makes it one of the most affordable MPA programs in Massachusetts. The online program enables people in any state or country to complete course work when it is convenient for them. And they’ll earn the same diploma as if they came to campus.”

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About Aaron Smith-Walter, Ph.D.

Aaron Smith-Walter, is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, the Interim Director of Master of Public Administration at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the current President of Northern New England Chapter of American Society for American Public Administration, and Associate Editor of Policy Studies Journal. He has written and published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals such as Public Personnel Management, Politics & Policy, International Review of Public Administration, Quality & Quantity, Policy Studies Journal, Public Integrity, Municipal Finance Journal, Applied Economic Letters, the International Review of Public Policy,  and the International Journal of Organizational Theory & Behavior. His research interests revolve primarily around the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF), the Cultural Theory, and images of public administration in popular fiction.