What Is Public Administration?

Public administration is the study and practice of policy-making and management. Working within local, state, and federal governments as well as nonprofit organizations and private partners, public administration professionals use their expertise in management and public policy to effect positive change for their communities.

To advance their education in the field, students pursue either a Master of Public Administration (MPA) or an Executive MPA, depending on their level of experience and career goals. These master’s programs offer a wide range of courses focusing on government and nonprofit decision-making. Topics typically include financial management, human resource management, law, policy analysis, problem solving, public budgeting, and public speaking.

While skills like problem solving, project management, and strategic analysis are also beneficial in private administration, the values, goals, and organizational structure is what separates public administration from business administration.

Public Administration vs Public Policy: What’s the Difference?

To understand the scope of public administration and how it compares to other fields such as public policy, it can help to first look at the master’s degrees associated with each field. A brief breakdown of each master’s degree and related careers is provided below.

Master of Public Administration (MPA) and Executive MPA: These programs prepare students to become leaders in their communities as they learn about policy analysis, policy implementation, managerial leadership, and ethical decision-making. In particular, Executive MPA programs explore skills such as defining human resources and managing hiring processes, formulating policy and predicting policy outcomes, and leading strategic organizational change.

Master of Public Policy (MPP): With an emphasis on policy analysis, research, and evaluation, a Master of Public Policy differs from an MPA by focusing less on implementation and public management and more on policy evaluation and analysis. MPP graduates can also pursue careers in public and nonprofit sectors like budget analyst, development manager, policy analyst, program analyst, and legislative aide.

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What Does a Public Administrator Do?

Public administrators translate policy into action. This can be done either directly or indirectly. Whether it’s providing police or fire protection, implementing new government policies to improve education systems, or managing a contract to provide clean drinking water to underserved communities, public administrators act as managers, collaborators, and leaders.

Another question you may ask is how much power do public administrators wield? The answer isn’t so straightforward since public administration covers a wide range of careers and industries, including in government agencies, nonprofits, and private firms. Public administrators spend their time and energy managing complex organizations to deliver services in the most efficient and ethical way possible to serve the public good and the needs of their community.

Public Administration Careers and Industry Outlook

After earning an EMPA, you will have the opportunity to serve the public good in a variety of settings. Whether you want to work in nonprofits supporting policy advocacy or run for local office, a degree in public administration can give you the expertise to follow your passion for your community.

Industries for MPA and EMPA Graduates

Some of the fields that public administrators pursue include the following:

  • Public sector consulting
  • Public sector finance
  • Economic development
  • Education policy
  • Energy and environment
  • Foundations and philanthropy
  • Government relations and advocacy
  • Nonprofit management
  • Public health
  • Public relations
  • State and local government
  • Think tanks and research institutions
  • U.S. federal government agencies and Capitol Hill

Some of the types of public administration jobs that MPA and EMPA graduates can pursue include the following:

  • Executive director of a nonprofit
  • Budget director, agency
  • City commissioner for economic development
  • Director of human resources
  • County executive
  • Director of legislative affairs
  • Director of public affairs for government department
  • Clinical manager, agency
  • Senior VP/COO, housing authority
  • Director of development, foundation relations
  • Fire chief
  • Director of communications/public relations
  • Director of financial services for public clients

Featured Roles for Executive MPA Graduates

City Planner: Communities look to city or town managers, city planners, or county or state administrators to meet their needs for everything from education to transportation. Opportunities in state and local government would allow you to evaluate your community’s natural resources, infrastructure, local economy, and other assets to decide how they should be used to benefit the population. Your public administration skills would help you navigate laws and build relationships with individuals across sectors to plan new roads, schools, and public housing projects.

Budget Analyst: Top officials rely on the skills of budget analysts to make key decisions affecting broad populations. As a budget analyst, you would not only analyze and revise existing budgets but also create and communicate new ones each year. Although budget analysts can work in the public and nonprofit sectors, they play an important role in the public sector by ensuring adequate funds for key programs and services.

Nonprofit Director: Many nonprofits rely on grants to provide products or services to their clients. As a nonprofit director, you would be responsible for the full-scale operations of the nonprofit organization, including securing the funding necessary to hire staff, deliver services, market your offerings, and achieve growth. An education in public administration could help you lead organizational change as well as develop and implement the critical internal strategic decisions necessary to secure grants. 

Challenges Facing Modern Public Administration Leaders

Current day politics is highly polarized and trust in government has been declining. The tendency for our modern population to lean toward partisanship and incivility has increased the importance of training a cadre of professional public managers whose position it is to conduct the public’s business for the public benefit, consistent with our laws and values. Political appointees and elected officials cannot effectively manage the complexity of government organizations without the capacity and continuity of a trained civil service. 

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Why Should I Study Public Administration?

If you’re an experienced professional with a passion for public service, or you want to help others bring their ideas to life, an executive master’s in public administration can give you the tools to make a real difference in your community.

5 Reasons Why Studying Public Administration Is Important

Studying public administration at the executive level can help you develop the leadership and management skills you need to serve others. Here are five top skills you’ll refine by studying public administration:

  1. Performance management, policy, and financial analysis
  2. Forecasting and decision-making
  3. Collaboration and conflict management
  4. Organizational development and mentoring
  5. Process improvement and strategy

Gain the leadership and management skills that will help you serve your community.

Earn your Executive MPA from the #1-ranked Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in as few as 15 months.1

1 Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs was ranked #1 by U.S. News & World Report, 2021 Best Public Affairs Schools. (Accessed June 2020)arrow_upwardReturn to footnote reference