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The field of public administration tackles some of society’s most intractable challenges in areas like housing, poverty and the environment. Whether they work in government or the nonprofit sector, public administrators translate theory into practice, enacting policies that set quantifiable goals and achieve measurable results.
If you feel passionate about public service, public administration could be the career track for you. But what is public administration, exactly?
In this article, we outline the scope of the field, including the skills and public administration degrees that prepare candidates for careers in this field.
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Defining Public Administration
Public administration is the planning, preparation and execution of policy meant to build and strengthen civil society. Public administration officials analyze and evaluate all aspects of public policy programs, especially budgets, as part of creating and implementing those programs.
Public administrators typically work for local, state or federal government agencies. They may also work for mission-driven nonprofits focused on particular policy areas like homelessness and emergency preparedness.
Public Policy vs. Public Administration
These fields are often discussed as being the same, but there is a key difference between public policy vs. public administration. Public policy focuses more on the analysis and creation of policies intended to benefit society, while public administration concentrates on the implementation of those policies.
Skills for Public Administrators
Analytical skills involve the ability to gather information from large bodies of data and make decisions based on conclusions drawn from the data. In public administration, this can mean scrutinizing budgets and reviewing the outcomes of past programs to Improve efficiency and achieve the best results from new or continuing policies.
Because public administrators often liaise between government agencies and the public, effective communication is an essential part of their role. They should be able to describe needs to funders and policy planners while also ensuring transparent decision-making and policy processes.
Decision-making in public administration affects people’s lives and should therefore rely on the best available data and reflect a clear understanding of the end goals to be achieved.
While it’s impossible to predict all the potential outcomes of a given decision, public administrators are expected to base their decisions on objective analysis with an understanding of potential consequences.
Leadership in public administration entails a demonstrated understanding of the relevant issues. Public administration leaders must be able to weigh the needs of stakeholders and establish consensus about policies to achieve the maximum good.
Since profit isn’t a big motive in public service, leaders should also know how to inspire team members in an effective, ethics-driven way.
In public administration, problem-solving means first identifying the real-world problem that needs to be fixed. Public administrators must then review available data to reach a potential policy solution, also incorporating input from the communities directly affected by the problem.
The final step is to choose the best possible proposal given any constraints at hand, whether related to budget, time or personnel.
Time management promotes efficiency in public administration. Because policy initiatives are often time-driven, with quantifiable results expected by a given deadline, the ability to determine priorities and set schedules is essential.
Degrees in Public Administration
Bachelor of Public Administration
A bachelor’s degree in public administration is the first step toward a career in public service. The degree typically entails four years of undergraduate study and 120 credit hours.
To apply to the best bachelor of public administration programs, you will need a high school diploma (or GED equivalent) and GPA and SAT/ACT scores.
Master of Public Administration (MPA)
Ready to take the next step beyond a bachelor’s degree? An MPA degree prepares candidates for leadership roles in public service. Curricula focus intensely on finance and budgeting, program analysis and management.
Full-time MPA students can complete their master’s in two years. Part-time students can expect to take three to four years, depending on the number of credits required to graduate (generally a minimum of 42). To apply, you should have an accredited bachelor’s degree and a minimum 3.0 GPA. Relevant work experience can sometimes compensate for a lower GPA.
Before you apply, remember that any MPA program should be fully accredited by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration, the internationally recognized accreditation agency for public administration degree programs.
Master of Public Policy (MPP)
Another step beyond a bachelor’s degree in public administration is a master of public policy, which further hones your skills in policy analysis, quantitative methods, and communications.
While MPA programs prepare students to manage agencies, the MPP degree focuses on research and the close analysis of policy, intending to Improve it.
All candidates should have an accredited bachelor’s degree. Programs usually require a minimum of 30 credits to graduate and take one to two years to complete, depending on the institution.
MBA in Public Administration
Where an MPA prepares you for a career in the government or at a nonprofit, the master of business administration is typically the springboard to a career at a private company. Applicants to MBA degree programs should have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution.
Ph.D. in Public Administration
Requiring a minimum of three to four years, a Ph.D. in public administration involves writing academic papers, giving lectures and teaching undergraduate courses, all while conducting extensive research that culminates in a dissertation.
Candidates should have an MPA with a GPA of 3.0. They should also have management experience in the public service sector.
Ph.D. in Public Policy
A Ph.D. in public policy provides advanced graduate training for top research positions in academia and government. This degree can also prepare learners for executive roles with nonprofits and other institutions that make policy.
A master’s degree is the prerequisite for a Ph.D. in public policy. Prospective candidates should expect to spend at least four years earning this degree, and the Ph.D. is usually conferred upon completion of a dissertation.
Careers in Public Administration
Emergency Management Director
Median Annual Salary: $76,730 per year
Required Education: Bachelor’s degree
Job Description: Emergency management directors establish the plans and procedures for responding to public emergencies like natural disasters and large-scale accidents. These professionals also help prepare for such emergencies before they happen.
Social and Community Service Manager
Median Annual Salary: $74,000 per year
Required Education: Bachelor’s degree
Job Description: Social and community service managers oversee social service programs and organizations that support the well-being of a given community.
Urban and Regional Planner
Median Annual Salary: $78,500 per year
Required Education: Master’s degree
Job Description: Urban and regional planners are responsible for land use plans and programs that help build communities, prepare for growing populations and renew infrastructure.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Public Administration
What is public administration?
Public administration is a profession centered on the conception, management and implementation of policies meant to Improve the public good. The term “public administration” also refers to the academic study and professional training that leads to careers in government or with nonprofits.
What is the job of a public administrator?
Public administrators are the frontline personnel who work to help society by developing and executing programs that address issues such as poverty or environmental degradation. These professionals’ responsibilities involve budget analysis, human resources, networking and public relations.