The academic-practitioner divide in public management: and how to bridge it

In this post, Professor Jenny Stewart and Dr Fiona Buick from the Public Service Research Group reflect on the ever-present divide between academics and practitioners in public policy. They present a number of strategies to bridge the gap and provide the foundation for academics to undertake research that generates outcomes for both researchers and policymakers.

We’ve all heard it so often before.

‘Academics don’t want to know about the real problems we face. They have their heads in the clouds’.

‘Public servants aren’t interested in research. They won’t fund it and even when they do, they won’t follow-up on the findings.’

These are stereotypes, of course, but stereotypes both reflect and mould behaviour. While there are many academics with an interest in practice, and many public servants with an interest in research, there is a divide between the two worlds which seems to be getting worse, to the detriment of both. 

In a paper commissioned to look at the issues, leading UK academic Christopher Pollitt (Pollitt, 2017) observed that the most prestigious academic journals, the ones academics most want to publish in, are interested mainly in ‘high’ theory, rather than in the problems of practice. For their part, practitioners report that they rarely read academic public administration journals, even those that have a more practical focus. Where once practitioners published regularly in public administration journals, either alone or as part of a research partnership, they now rarely do so.

In a recent paper on practitioner-scholar co-production published in Public Administration Review, Buick, Blackman, O’Flynn, O’Donnell and West (2016) identified a number of reasons for the divide:

1. Academics and practitioners typically focus on different types of problems, and face very different incentives. Academics  focus on peer-reviewed publications and intellectual demands, with practitioners focused on deriving prescriptive solutions and instructions to address problems;

2. The two groups have different research objectives: academics focus on generalisability and transferability of findings, whereas practitioners are focused on context-specific issues;

3. There are different time-horizons, too: academics focus on long-term deliberation and detailed analysis, whereas practitioners adopt a more short-term orientation, in order to meet political and organisational demands for an immediate response.

Understandable as it may be, the implications of the divide are significant for both groups. Academic research loses relevance and ‘bite’. Public servants miss opportunities for reflection, evaluation and critique. With resources for collaborative research becoming scarcer, what should be a productive conversation has become patchy and increasingly difficult to sustain. It’s a lose-lose situation, resulting in diminished Public Service capacity and reduced opportunities for academics to produce impactful research.

What can be done?

We propose a number of ways we can bridge the divide and undertake research that generates outcomes for both academics and practitioners.

  • Develop and support forums that bring academics and practitioners together to share ideas and establish connections and relationships. From here, academics and practitioners can identify mutually beneficial research agendas and establish longer-term partnerships.

  • Allocate more resources for collaborative research: relatively small investments go a long way (e.g. the Strengthening the Performance Framework research project)

  • Improve mobility between academia and practice, with opportunities for academics to work in the public service for short-term projects and support for a greater number of practitioners to undertake PhDs and other doctoral degrees (i.e. Professional Doctorates).

  • Regular secondments from departments and agencies to universities and vice versa would be of real benefit to both groups;

  • Develop the capabilities necessary for effective partnerships, both among academics and practitioners;

  • Endorsement by leading academics of the need for empirically based theory and the importance of real-world case studies;

  • Top journals in the field to give more weight to case-based research with a practical focus.

Time to break down the stereotypes!

Papers cited

Buick, F., Blackman, D., O’Flynn, J., O’Donnell, M. and D. West (2016) ‘Effective practitioner-scholar relationships – lessons from a co-production partnership’, Public Administration Review, Vol. 76, Issue 1, pp. 35–47.

Pollitt, C. (2017) "Public administration research since 1980: slipping away from the real world?", International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 30 Issue: 6-7, pp.555-565,