Running for office

How an MPA can help you run for office

The conventional thinking held by some would dictate that while a Master of Public Administration degree is useful for those looking to work in public service, people seeking to run for office are best served by getting a law degree from a well-regarded institution. However, as is true of so many things in life, that conventional wisdom – while not necessarily “wrong,” per se – is certainly reductive. Such thinking does not treat the matter at hand with the appropriate level of thoughtfulness or a broad enough perspective.

It’s true that the past half-century of American political history shows us that received wisdom regarding prerequisites for winning an election and taking on political power doesn’t always hold water and can be subverted by determined candidates of many career origins: Al Franken was a “Saturday Night Live” performer before becoming a political humorist and then winning a U.S. Senate seat in 2009. Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in dozens of Hollywood films before his two terms as governor of California. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump began their professional lives as a television actor and real estate mogul, respectively. By such standards, beginning one’s political pursuits by seeking higher education in the field of public administration isn’t remotely improbable, and in fact is considerably more viable than any of the aforementioned examples.

The most important factor guaranteeing why working toward and attaining an MPA from a school like Rutgers University Newark will be a great start for aspiring politicians is the broad range of essential subjects covered in this degree program’s curriculum. A law degree can teach students the most obscure ins and outs of our legal system – there’s no doubt about that. But if seeking to learn about the processes that make government function on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis, an MPA will be remarkably effective.

Understanding the Inner Workings of Government

As explained by the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, the best MPA degree programs emphasize the instruction of skills that are necessary for implementing and overseeing the essential programs, policies and procedures of government. On the surface, that sounds obvious, but think of it this way: Learning about a particular law, its history, precedents, descendants and implications is important and should not be taken for granted. However, what about the skills necessary to inform citizens of that law and explain it in understandable terms? Or the techniques needed to manage the enforcement of a law, a process with which any political officeholder is involved – particularly chief executives like mayors and governors but also city councilors, town selectpeople, town or city managers, county sheriffs, state legislators and others?

Processes like these are the unglamorous but eminently vital grease that causes the gears of government and public service to move, and it is the job of public servants to ensure that they move in a manner that is most beneficial to the greater good of all involved. An MPA program’s raison d’etre can be summarized as the need to impress these skills upon the next generation of politicians and government officials, so that they always weigh the needs of the many over the desires of the few – or their own – and act accordingly. If you truly understand this and can impress it upon voters through the outreach strategies of your campaign, selling yourself but also the good of the community, victory won’t be guaranteed but it can certainly bolster your chances.

Different Specializations

The NASPAA’s introductory guidance to the world of MPA and MPP degrees notes that many such programs include a range of specific disciplines under their umbrellas, although those interested in one of these specializations will also be covering topics of general importance to public administration. Nearly all of them will be important for any would-be politician to know – health care management and oversight, financial management skills, state and local government administration, international development and urban affairs. One might imagine that any candidate would ideally build a staff full of like-minded campaign officials who each have specific knowledge of such matters – and, to be clear, doing so is important. But if you, the candidate, don’t have a reasonable understanding of every issue affecting your campaign, from the general to the minute, eventually that lack of knowledge will rear its ugly head. This in turn can lead to costly gaffes, and depending on their nature, such can be enough to torpedo your chances at the polls.

As one example, consider how thoroughly health care and all of its tangential issues dominate the spectrum of political conversation in the U.S. MPA students will learn about the social and historical context of this, as would those studying public policy, law or political science to an extent. But only those in MPA programs, so long as they do their coursework well, are virtually guaranteed to understand it from a multiplicity of angles. Even more importantly, they can labor to know the issue as something affecting people’s daily lives, not as an academic abstract. In a nutshell, voters want assurances that candidates feel their pain on at least some level, to paraphrase a former two-term president, and more importantly, they want to know that the candidates piquing their interest are willing and able to do something about it.

Role of Data Analysis

There has been plenty of debate about the role of data aggregation and analysis in numerous fields during the past decade, and politics is absolutely among them. Specifically, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election is sometimes posited as an example of data analytics’ limitations. According to a February 2017 piece in Advertising Age, this is not necessarily true: It wasn’t that Hillary Clinton’s campaign failed due to over-reliance on data but because of using in-house data tools rather than established platforms and not acting properly on collected information.

The easiest way to approach this subject even-handedly is to say that data analysis should be a part of everything your campaign does – a significant part. It just shouldn’t be the only thing. Reading polling data and demographic research and seeing both the obvious and subtle messages of it means a lot to a campaign, and as a candidate, you need to understand it yourself and not rely on a statistician’s regurgitation of the information. But it won’t mean a thing unless you draw the right conclusions about what to do at every campaign event and in every conversation with potential voters.

Obtaining an MPA will help prospective politicians by bridging the gap between theory and execution. As noted by The Hill, some believe that this is a shortcoming of MPP degree programs, which by and large focus more on analysis and evaluation than on rolling up one’s sleeves and putting ideas to work. MPA degree requirements are more equally divided between the thought and deed that serves as the bedrock of public administration and American government.

Learn More

The online Master of Public Administration from Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) gives students a broad understanding of the field and its relevant issues. Students become competent at defining public problems, analyzing quantitative and qualitative data, developing and communicating creative solutions, and implementing ethical and practical courses of action.

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