Monday, 9 December 2013

The future of public management education – reflections from the roundtable forum at the Centre for Government and Leadership

The British coalition government’s decision to close the National School of Government in March 2012 has been both a setback and an opportunity for public management education. The narrowing of much of the government’s “Civil service learning” programme upon training leaves a crucial gap in public management education. On the other hand, the school’s abolition has allowed universities the chance to compete to fill that gap. The roundtable organised by the Centre for Government and Leadership discussed the future of public management education in the UK and internationally.

Prof Marcel Proulx, the former CEO of the National School of Public Management in Quebec (ENAP), opened the roundtable by sharing some interesting thoughts about how the competency approach must guide but not restrict curricula. For too long, he argued, in western Europe, the training of higher civil servants has focused on policymaking skills and knowledge of public law, and has neglected the development of management skills. He emphasised the need for a truly multidisciplinary approach that does not only dispense knowledge to managers but that also teaches “know how” for everyday management tasks. Professor Proulx argued that topics such as strategic management and policymaking are better suited for higher-level civil servants taking executive MPA courses, undertaken in mid-career. By contrast, mainstream public management courses aimed at professionals in the early years of their careers should provide modules of more immediate practical value to junior public managers on, for example, the running of teams in front-line services  or on topics in the specialised areas in which they can expect to work. By achieving practicality and relevance, he argues that universities can help managers develop their own know-how and become confident professionals.

Les Metcalfe, Professor Emeritus of Public Management, University of Bocconi and Visiting Professor at Queen Mary University of London, argued that MPA courses too often teach public managers how to think about running single organisations or else simple nostrums about outsourcing. Instead, we must offer public managers more sophisticated understandings than they typically do, of how they can diagnose, develop and steer the different kinds of relationships between organisations. Moreover, public management education must provide students with skills for developing strategies that can ensure the resilience of services when relationships with contractors, partners or other authorities collapse or fail.

Professor Martin Laffin, the Head of School of Business and Management, chairing the forum, closed the event by arguing that although universities are measured on the impact of their research,  often the greatest impact we have on the fate of countries arises through the public management teaching we undertake and the skills we teach to those who run or regulate major public services, and who formulate and execute policy. 

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