August 24, 2018

“Ein Gespenst geht um in Minnowbrook – das Gespenst des Advocacy-as-Science. Wissenschaftler aller Laender, vereinigt euch!”

(Free interpretation of the intro to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848): The Communist Manifesto. "A spectre is haunting Minnowbrook – the spectre of advocacy-as-science. Scientists of all countries, unite!")
 

I was at “Minnowbrook at 50” – here are some impressions.
In the following, I will provide some of my impressions of the “Minnowbrook at 50” event which took place in the Adirondack Mountains, August 17-20, 2018.

My thoughts largely align with those of Professor Sebastian Jilke who also attended the event. Please do read his impressions here. He just has a very efficient German way of writing it. We also share an interest in free interpretations of the Manifesto of the Communist Party.

Here goes a Danish impressionistic view of Minnowbrook:

Setting the Scene
The Minnowbrook Conference Center feels like a nice mix of Twin Peaks and Dawson’s Creek. Lakes, mountains, trees, and amazingly quirky wood cabins and meeting facilities. The interior is like the The Great Nortern Hotel with Native American art, taxidermy in all shapes and sizes, and an overall feeling like a kid’s dream about the US circa 1950 (see appendix on all-you-can-eat popcorn and ice cream). 

Logistically the conference was a massive success. The amazing hosts from The Maxwell School, Tina Nabatchi and Julia Carboni, gave the 45 participants the best possible setting for thinking and talking about PA. In fact, the best I have ever experienced in my professional life as a researcher.

While formally framed as a celebration of the initial Minnowbrook in 1968, the format and aspirations reflected the previous Minnowbrooks. In many ways, the event was therefore a “Minnowbrook 3.5”, a half time show before “Minnowbrook 4” in 2028. The goal from the invitation email was a “disruptive event” and I will try to analyze it as such.

The Burden of a Legacy
There is a lot of debate about what actually happened at Minnowbrook in 1968. However, one thing we know for sure is that they never discussed “the other Minnowbrooks” at the first Minnowbrook. This sets “the other Minnowbrooks” apart from the first one as they always have to live in the shadow of a supposedly legendary event.

The most burdensome legacy to carry on is the (mildly insane?) goal of disrupting the field of PA over the course of a weekend. As the invitation stated, participants should “shape this anniversary event into another defining moment for the field of public administration”. Many participants voiced this aspiration for “Minnowbrook at 50” and there was much talk of “blowing up the field”.

In a sense it can be seen as a success that no one has ever blown up PA over the course of a weekend. Scientific revolutions happens best by new discoveries which “blow up” our understanding of some fundamental aspect of a field. A field with a body of sound theories and evidence compiled over the years cannot be blown up that easy. In many ways, the failure of the past Minnowbrooks speaks to the validity of at least some of the existing knowledge in PA. We got something worth keeping.

Two Ghosts and a Specter     
The ghosts of Dwight Waldo and Herbert Simon were still in the room. Waldo still enjoys a home field advantage. He invented the thing in 1968 and the spirit of the event carries his torch. But “viewpoint diversity” lives on as well and a batch of Simonian belivers had also found their way to the beautiful Minnowbrook conference center.

For the sake of transparency, I consider myself a disciple of Simon but I recognize that public administration implicitly or explicitly has to be seen in the context of democratic institutions, which ultimately is what sets us apart from generic management or social psychology. 

The organizers explicitly noted the continued relevance of this conflict in the invitation email: “What is public administration and what can it be as a field of study? How do (can) we balance Simonian visions that seek a “science of administration” (e.g., behavioral public administration and the use of experimental research) with Waldonian visions that seek to understand administration through big questions addressing normative values, cultural settings, and larger societal shifts?”

Many argued that “Minnowbrook at 50” should compose a common statement which explicitly committed public administration to specific values about social equity and justice. While I personally think a lot of good research speaks to these values, I do not think they are point of departure for doing research in public administration. The defining conflict at “Minnowbrook at 50” was therefore a form of “advocacy-as-science” vs. a “science-of-administration”.

In addition to Waldo and Simon, Minnowbrook was also haunted by the specter of Trump. In many ways the experience of Trump highlighted the “advocacy-as-science” vs. a “science-of-administration” even further. Many spoke of "dark times" and "a defining moment" where PA needs do or say something or otherwise keep quiet for eternity. 

For me personally, the Trump experience has highlighted that PA has forgotten the importance of ethics, corruption and institutional decline as core topics of research. This is also the core argument in a recent PPMG piece by Bozeman and others.  For me the gut response is rather "more research is needed" than "more advocacy is needed".  

American Pessimism
I tend to think of Americans as generally (overly) optimistic. However, the mood of American PA seems very different. Maybe it only reflects the fact that PA is the scientific field covering the part of American society, namely government, which most Americans also are very pessimistic about.  

Serious concerns about the relevance of PA was a recurring theme throughout the conference. The big policy schools hire fewer PA PhDs than previously and in DC the big think thanks are overpopulated with economists and IR scholars.

Francis Fukuyama did not help improve the mood at Minnowbrook as he in the weeks prior to the conference published the article “The Decline of American Public Administration” in The American Interest.

I’m naïve enough to think that a body of credible evidence ultimately determines a field’s relevance. I believe our ticket to relevance is a credible “science of administration”, but again others argued that our lack of relevance was due to our failure to stand up for certain normative principles that speak to the pressing issues of our time.

In any case, the discussion also pointed to that relevance concerns might be a more distinct American concern. At least in Denmark, Sweden, and The Netherlands PA scholars enjoy great access to both national policymakers and the media.  

Not Blowing up the Field, just Repainting it in a Slightly Different Color
Faced with disagreement the academic solution is to do a special issue in a journal. Accordingly, PPMG will published a set of essays from various working groups that were created during Minnowbrook. Topics will range from relevance to social equity and more.

I will be doing an essay with Sebastian Jilke, Bill Resh and Saba Siddiki on the usefulness of explicit levels of analysis in the field of PA. Fittingly titled: “Microbrook, Mesobrook, Macrobrook”. Our core argument will be that much confusion and disappoint in our field stems from lack of clarity about levels of analysis. Don also has some thoughts on this.

We will argue that an engaging scientific enterprise with healthy competition between studies at different levels of analysis can improve the credibility of PA research. Part of this is to require that various levels of analysis are held accountable to what implications can be drawn to other levels of analysis. We look forward to sharing a preliminary draft at some point in the near future.

Concluding remarks: “Minnowbrook 4”
Minnowbrook 4 will take place in 2028. While “Minnowbrook 3.5” failed to change much I still think these events are of great importance to our field. It can almost never be a waste of time to place 45 scholars and practitioners in a room and allow them to talk about the topics they care most about. In that sense the primary outcome of Minnowbrook is a very engaging process which helps further the understanding of the various view points within the field. Long term, I think this is a good thing for the field. I hope this brief impressionistic summary has helped spread the “Minnowbrook process” beyond the 45 participants.

Comments are welcome on Twitter or at ajlo@ifs.ku.dk

Appendix of Random Observations
Some final impressions that need to be reported but do not really fit into any coherent narrative:

  • There is a popcorn machine at the Minnowbrook Conference Centre.
  • Also, all-you-can-eat ice cream, any time of the day, for three straight days causes measurable weight gains.  
  • And an all-you-can-eat popcorn machine is not helping.
  • The Minnowbrook Conference Centre staff deserves a pay raise for their professional service and dedication.