22 October 2017 | Tear Down the Distinction Between Applied and Basic Research in Public Management, By Lotte B. Andersen

Kevin, · Categories: monthly_posts

As public management scholars, we invest a lot of energy in doing research on public organizations, and most of us need answers to a very simple question: Why? What will our research be used for? Why should we use so much time to do public management research? Some disciplines divide their research according to two broad answers to this question: Applied research is used to answer specific questions that has direct applications to the world – it solves problems. Basic research is driven purely by curiosity and a desire to expand the knowledge base of the discipline. The last-mentioned type of research is not directly applicable to the real world, but is argued to enhance our understanding of the world around us. This raises two questions: Is this distinction useful for public management, and if not, how should the logics behind basic and applied research be combined?

At first glance, it might seem to be a good idea to specialize in either research that will further our general understanding (without disturbance and influence from the specific details) or in research that helps us understand real world problems and solve them. Each type of research requires specific skills, and real world problems can seldom wait for the very robust research designs demanded in research articles published in top journals. This could for example be experimental methods as discussed in Oliver James’ blog entry in May. The problem is, however, that problem solving often necessitates causal knowledge, and identification of causality is very demanding in terms of research designs. Good research designs are, in other words, necessary for good applied research. It is an important argument for integrating applied analyses in a strong research environment. We cannot do a big field experiment to investigate every problem, but investments in research with advanced research designs give us the basis for making valid inference from general findings to specific problems. It also informs our discussion of the limitations of a given analysis – and knowledge of both logics can strengthen all types of research.

But why should we all do our best to make our research relevant to real world problems? Why not remain in the pure and less noisy ivory tower of basic research? Why get our hands dirty with real (often complex) problems? For me, there are at least two answers to that question. First, it is simply not motivating enough to produce knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I want to have a positive societal impact, and the ultimate goal for me is to do research that can help improve public governance. Second, a little more pragmatically, I do not think that politicians and other decision makers will continue to fund research if it is not used to improve society. I am not talking about only short-term benefits, because I know that real innovations often take many years and are unpredictable. I am talking about being motivated to look for how our knowledge can be used to improve society – and to prioritize this in our already busy everyday research lives.

How can public management research then actually contribute to solve real world problems? Coming from Denmark, the first step is always to disseminate the results in Danish, targeting public managers and decision makers. They will not read PAR or JPART themselves. Another way to translate public management research into societal value is to participate in creating the basis for big decisions. Specifically, I have been part of the Danish government’s public leadership commission for the past six months. Together with nine public managers from different hierarchical levels and parts of the public and private sectors and supported by my peers in Denmark, I try hard to attain the following goals:

This takes a lot of time, but it also gives me unique insight into the problems and potential solutions for many different types of public organizations. The commission uses international and Danish research extensively, and it is very important to translate this general knowledge to specific recommendations. Although the commission’s report will not be published before January, some researchers already prophesize (from their ivory tower) that it will not change anything. I also hear whispers saying that given that it is ordered by politicians, it is less pure and subject to partisan interests. Living in a well-functioning democracy, I actually see it as an honour to try to use my research to increase public service performance – and I acknowledge that politicians also want a say in how we understand performance. As recently argued in PAR there are many competing understanding of this important concept, and as public management scholars we must accept that it is the politicians’ ultimate right to define what performance should be in public organizations.

So what does this mean? In my opinion, we should at least be thinking about the next steps towards attaining potential benefits for society as public management scholars. Even if we are not using our research ourselves to address real world problems, we should prepare our research and its presentation for this. Leaving follow-on research to other researchers might be acceptable for some people, but I strongly urge the public management community to prioritize the application of our research and not to use “applied research” as a disparaging categorization. No “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” – we actually care for the societal benefits of our research. For these reasons, I am very proud to be a member of an association with the following mission:

The Public Management Research Association improves public governance by advancing research on public organizations, strengthening links among interdisciplinary scholars, and furthering professional and academic opportunities in public management.

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