In Defense of Big Questions: An Excerpt

This blog was originally part of a longer article published on the blog of Governance

Bubbling in the background of public management research is a huge puzzle: are researchers spending far too little time on the really big questions in the field, because of a growing instinct to drill ever-deeper into ever-smaller questions?

It’s impossible to ignore the complaints of practitioners and theorists outside the field that public management is missing big trends and the potential for big impacts on big questions. Francis Fukuyama, for example, has written a devastating critique arguing that many governments—most of all in the United States—are plagued by “political decay” that hinders their capacity to do what they promise. No matter what advances the field has made in becoming more scientific, that progress will matter little if the fundamental capacity of the state to deliver on its policies is in doubt, and if the field misses the chance to engage this debate.

So what would it take to ask the big questions?

First, public management scholars need to spend more time looking outside the field to understand the big trends shaping the world of governance. There’s a fundamental paradox that one of the biggest questions facing public management—whether the practice of public management itself is in decay—is being asked and debated almost completely outside the field. The field needs to lean forward in defining its research agenda, even as it looks back to define holes in existing theory that need to be filled.

Second, those in the field need to think much more creatively about how to develop new research tools and how to develop new datasets on which to use them. Many government agencies have big puzzles, rich data, and not enough staff to analyze them. Partnerships, including memoranda of understanding, can open doors to manageable questions that need better research, which is far more likely to have an impact.

Finally, those in the field need to think about how to mentor younger scholars to take these steps. Most of them came into public management with a keen interest in making government work better and with a taste for the important questions. It’s not necessary to wring that out of them in the pursuit of a more scientifically grounded discipline. More-established scholars in the field can frame discussions on the big questions, help younger scholars figure out how best to attack them, and then support these scholars when it comes time to write references in the tenure process.

There’s never been a more exciting time in the history of governance and public management. Fundamental models, like authority and hierarchy, that governed the practice of government for hundreds of years are under assault. New and untried models are rising to challenge them. We need more deep dives into existing theory to cement the propositions on which we build. But we surely need to encourage—indeed, to make it safe—for scholars, including younger ones to ask the big questions.

Those questions won’t go away. They are reshaping governance. And they’ll reshape it without the insights of the field if public management does not engage them.