Stephen M. Walt

Where have all the public policy stars gone?

Imagine that you were the dean of a public policy school, and of course you wanted to boost your school’s reputation and attract lots of outstanding applicants for admission. There are several ways to do this, but one familiar strategy would be to hire some really famous, world-class faculty: people with truly global reputations who ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Imagine that you were the dean of a public policy school, and of course you wanted to boost your school’s reputation and attract lots of outstanding applicants for admission. There are several ways to do this, but one familiar strategy would be to hire some really famous, world-class faculty: people with truly global reputations who would raise the visibility of your school and make more prospective students want to attend and rub shoulders with them.

I can think of lots of high-profile academics to go after in economics, political science, history, and a few other fields. For example, an ambitious dean could try to recruit global superstars like Paul Krugman, Robert Putnam, Amartya Sen, Joe Stiglitz, Theda Skocpol, Anthony Giddens, Martha Nussbaum, K. Anthony Appiah, Elinor Ostrom, John Lewis Gaddis, or Frank Fukuyama. Or you could go after a highly visible former politician or policy-maker (e.g., Kofi Annan, Condoleezza Rice, Javier Solana, etc.) and use their fame to generate buzz and attract more applicants.

So here’s a puzzle: even though public policy schools are supposed to train people to work in and lead public sector organizations (to include government agencies, non-profits, I can’t think of a scholar of public management or public administration with the same sort of marquee value as the people I just mentioned, and whose hiring would catapult a school up the rankings dramatically.

Please note: I am not saying that there are no excellent scholars in these domains — among other things, I think I have some pretty terrific colleagues who work in this area — and I’m not saying that an ambitious dean couldn’t raise his or her school’s profile somewhat by recruiting the best people in this area. And I’m certainly not suggesting that scholars who work in this area aren’t doing useful work teaching students and advising government agencies and other organizations about how they could operate more effectively. But my sense is that the sub-fields of public management or public administration aren’t producing highly visible "public intellectuals" or attracting a lot of attention outside of the sub-field itself.

But I’m not sure why this is the case. For starters, intellectuals studying the workings of public sector organizations used to be a prominent part of sociology and political science (going all the way back to Max Weber), and this body of work was a central part of the social sciences for much of the twentieth century. I am thinking here of scholars such as Dwight Waldo, Robert K. Merton, Aaron Wildavsky, Charles Perrow, James Q. Wilson, Charles Lindblom, James March, Herbert Simon, or Anthony Downs; all of whom cast long shadows over their respective fields and had an enormous impact on how we think about bureaucracies and public organizations. Moreover, management experts at business schools have and continue to enjoy a lot of global visibility — think Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Clayton Christenson, Michael Porter, etc. — which suggests that it is not the topic of "management" or organizational behavior itself that is the problem.

Finally, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a continued need for bold ideas that would help improve the quality of public management. The public sector consumes more than 40 percent of GDP in a lot of advanced industrial countries, and the lack of effective public institutions is a major obstacle to economic and social advancement in many developing countries. So the lack of superstar figures in this field isn’t because the topic itself is unimportant.

So how might one explain this pattern? I’m not sure. One possibility, which I’m not sure is correct, is that the long effort to discredit public sector organizations and to encourage privatization has made studying such organizations less fashionable. A second possibility is that the field of organizational behavior has gradually become more "micro-oriented" — drawing more on social psychology than on political science, sociology, or history — and that this trend has made the field more rigorous in purely academic terms but also less interesting to anyone but specialists within the field. Or perhaps the lack of towering figures in the study of public administration at present is just a manifestation of the broader "cult of irrelevance" that I’ve discussed before: even though we need public institutions that work well, the scholars that inhabit elite departments of political science, economics, or sociology just aren’t that interested in doing that anymore. Which is too bad.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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