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SPA Professor Edits Handbook on Global Public Administration and Policy

SPA Scholar in Residence Karen Baehler, also AU Associate Dean of Faculty, served as senior editor of The Oxford Handbook of Governance and Public Management for Social Policy

One notable challenge to public affairs scholarship is explaining how policy, public administration, and governance work together to produce favorable outcomes for society. SPA Scholar in Residence and AU Associate Dean of Faculty Karen Baehler, whose expertise sits precisely at this multi-disciplinary juncture, served as senior editor for The Oxford Handbook of Governance and Public Management for Social Policy, published April 11 by Oxford University Press.

This reference for scholars, practitioners, and students, part of a larger series edited by Neil Gilbert and Douglas Besharov, presents contemporary public affairs practices and challenges across six geographical regions: Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, Latin America, and the U.S. and Canada. Each regional section of the book contains chapters on that region’s history, social trends, institutions and organizations, and social policy financing arrangements and innovations.

As senior editor, Baehler spearheaded the remarkable five-year process, pulling together the work of 107 authors across sixty-six chapters. Regionally based co-editors determined how to organize material, recruited local contributors through their own networks, and wrote, shared, and revised drafts, which underwent peer review before publication. In addition to Baehler, the book includes chapters by SPA Professors Jocelyn Johnston, Kenneth Meier, and Barbara Romzek, and PhD alumnus Austin McCrea, currently assistant professor of public administration at Texas Tech University.

Baehler, who joined SPA in 2010, compared the challenge of developing social policies and programs to mounting a space mission.

“Those designing a spacecraft need to understand the places where the spacecraft is going to operate and the people who will be driving and coordinating the space mission,” she explained. “They must account for physical forces on Earth, in outer space, and wherever the craft is landing. In addition, a space mission depends very much on key personnel: some in the control room on the ground, others piloting and operating the spacecraft, and others worrying about security breaches, space debris, and a thousand operational risks.”

Social policymaking, she argued, is even more complex than space travel, as multiple stakeholders interacting in often unpredictable ways determine whether and how families, communities, governments, and international organizations address income and wealth gaps, education gaps, healthcare gaps, justice-system gaps, and livelihood and opportunity gaps within regions and on a global scale. “The book illustrates important differences in social and political cultures and public policy models between regions,” Baehler noted, “but it also emphasizes how much we all could and should be learning from colleagues in other parts of the world about how to support human development in our own communities.” 

“Public administration is such an important part of this,” she continued. “Some branches of PA scholarship focus on larger forces like long-term family and community trends, big economic shifts, changing cultural attitudes, and political realignments. Those invisible forces are as important as gravity. They can make it very hard to get a policy adopted and implemented, or, if we know how to work with them, they may give us the equation for success.”

“We should almost never be talking about formulating a social policy (designing a spacecraft) without making sure we are up to speed on what public administration scholars are telling us about the larger environment,” she added. “That knowledge gives us a base for understanding what public management scholars are telling us about the organizations on the ground doing the work.”

The book also contains integrative chapters authored by Baehler and co-editors. Some of these discuss social policy themes shared among regions. One such theme, familiar to students of public administration, is New Public Management (NPM), a movement dating back to the 1980s that exhorts public administrators to apply core principles from private industry to the design and management of public organizations. Several of the book’s authors trace the diversity of ways in which NPM has been adopted, adapted, and replaced over time in different parts of the globe. Other paradigms, including social investment and social transformation, emerge as important counter-themes to NPM throughout the book.

Baehler views the handbook as a valuable pre-COVID snapshot of trends and knowledge about public administration and social policy.

“We quickly learned that the book would be occupying a very important niche, setting a baseline for how things were working before,” she said. “As we move through the COVID era, as systems shift because of that enormous social disruption, we will have a benchmark of what social administration looked like in every part of the world pre-COVID. I hope scholars and practitioners will use this book in that way in the future.”

Finally, she sees this work as emblematic of the larger mission of American University and SPA, to make change by careful collaboration on today’s big questions and challenges.

“Being changemakers requires cross-disciplinary work,” Baehler said, “because social problems don’t obey disciplinary boundaries. The different disciplines must talk to each other, as must the different schools of thought within them. I think there are tremendous opportunities for macro-focused public administration scholars and meso-focused public management researchers to communicate. The title of this book, Governance and Public Management for Social Policy, is meant to bring these intellectual streams together and focus them on social policy.

“That integration across schools of thought, aimed at the big social challenges, spurred all 107 of us to get this done.”