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Feb 21, 2010

Speaking Truth to Academics: The Wisdom of the Practitioners

February 21, 2010

Mowat Centre associate Ken Kernaghan on the role of Canadian scholars in encouraging public engagement in research.

Governments are paying increasing attention to the inter-generational transfer of knowledge within the public service and to the threat posed by what has been termed “institutional amnesia” or “organizational Alzheimer’s.” The large number of impending retirements from the public service and the consequent loss of organizational knowledge have raised concern about the extent to which public servants are effectively transferring their knowledge to their successors.

A related concern is the extent to which public servants are transferring their knowledge to academic scholars, especially through contributions to scholarly writings on public administration. Academic scholars, both as researchers and teachers, need the ideas and insights from the real world of the public service.

My thoughts on this matter were provoked during the midst of a presentation by an academic scholar. I overheard a public servant, sitting behind me, say ‘‘that’s simply not true.’’ On reflection, several thoughts came to mind. The first was that the academic’s assertion did need some qualification grounded in firsthand experience. The second was that the public servant could have delivered a good descriptive paper on the same subject. The third was that the academic and the practitioner, working together, could have prepared an even better paper – one that combined conceptual, theoretical, empirical and practical considerations.

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Public servants can “speak truth to academics” in the broad sense of providing information, analysis and counsel concerning the public service, and candid commentary on scholarly writings. A helpful way of conceptualizing the thinking and action of scholarly practitioners is to refer to theory and practice surrounding the notion of “the reflective practitioner” expounded in the classic work of the same title by Donald Schon.

Schon critiques the model of technical rationality that has long been the dominant paradigm concerning the institutional relations between research, education and practice in the professions. In that model, the role of the academic is seen as distinct from, and “usually superior to,” that of the practitioner. Knowledge, in the form of theories and techniques developed in teaching and research institutions, is applied by professional practitioners to solve problems.

Schon argues that the technical rationality model does not take account of the knowledge generated by professional practitioners through what he terms reflection-in-action. Practitioners develop their own theories about their practice as opposed to relying solely on those developed in institutions of higher learning. For Schon, practitioners who reflect on practice are engaged in a form of research. He also developed a related concept that is the focus here, namely reflection-on-action. This involves a deliberate effort to analyze events and actions so as to draw out lessons and inform future decisions. In the public administration context, this involves practitioners thinking about, articulating and disseminating what they have learned from practice.

Public servants rarely speak truth to academics by providing candid commentary in the form of public critiques of academics’ publications. There are, however, several less public ways in which critical assessments of academic work occur. These include peer reviews by public servants of academic papers submitted to scholarly journals and the exchange of views when academics co-author papers with practitioners, serve on government advisory bodies, or prepare research studies for governments. These are opportunities for academics to learn more about the realities of the public service as a partial basis for their theoretical work.

Governments’ success in managing the institutional memory of public organizations will increase the stock of knowledge that can be made available to academic scholars. Yet, as Brian Marson has observed, “most public organizations have no systematic way of capturing, managing and transferring the accumulated knowledge and experience of the retiring generation.” Nor is there a systematic and coordinated means of disseminating this knowledge to the public administration academic community.

Some initiatives have already been undertaken to encourage practitioners to contribute to scholarly research and publication. These initiatives have included a special section for practitioners in Canadian Public Administration and the publication in that journal of symposia to which practitioners have been invited to contribute. The Institute of Public Administration of Canada has fostered collaborative academic/practitioner research and publication. There have also been successful ventures in co-authorship by practitioners and researchers. Still another approach is a program of scholars-in-residence involving academic sabbaticals in government, with a possible exchange dimension enabling a public servant to spend an equal sabbatical at the university.

To sustain and extend the tradition of Canada’s public service as a “learned profession” promoted by reflective practitioners, the public administration community, including its scholars, needs to make a concerted effort to document and disseminate the wisdom of practitioners.


Ken Kernaghan

Release Date

February 21, 2010