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Public administration research since 1980: slipping away from the real world?

Christopher Pollitt (Public Governance Institute, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, Belgium)

International Journal of Public Sector Management

ISSN: 0951-3558

Article publication date: 14 August 2017




This paper seeks to explore one particular aspect of recent PA research: the apparently widening gap between top academic research and practitioner concerns. This topic was commissioned by the Editor of IJPSM. Evidence of this sliding away from the “real world” is presented. The reasons for it are discussed including Q1 increased measurement, competition and professionalization within academia. Whilst these trends bring significant benefits, a case can nevertheless be made for re-balancing PA research. The purpose of this paper Q2 is to sketch some ways of approaching these trends.


This paper was commissioned by the editor. The author has chosen to examine the often-cited gap between academic research and current practitioner concerns. The author has done this using as the author’s main evidence base all the main articles published by the highest impact journals over the years 2015 and 2016.


Over the past 30 years more and more of the PA research published in the highest impact journals has become further and further removed from the immediate concerns of practicing administrators and managers. At the same time publication in these journals has become more salient for academic careers.

Research limitations/implications

Whilst the identified trends bring significant benefits (in terms of increasing professionalization and methodological sophistication) they also carry negative consequences for the historically important dialogue between academics and practitioners. A case can be made for attempting to re-balance PA research. Some ways of approaching this are sketched.

Practical implications

The academic practitioner dialogue, which, historically, has been vital for academic PA, is currently under some stress. Professionalization and competition within the academic world seem to have widened the gap between the top journals and the “real world.” A case is made that the PA academic community needs to find ways of giving this issue more systematic discussion.


If the argument is largely correct, then current trends threaten the future of academic PA research. This paper is not the first to identify this threat, but it is one of the first to give it extended consideration and systematically to consider possible causes and remedies.



The author is grateful for the wise counsel generously offered by busy professional colleagues. These include Geert Bouckaert, Gavin Drewry, Mike Mannin, Andrew Massey and one IJPSM reviewer.


Pollitt, C. (2017), "Public administration research since 1980: slipping away from the real world?", International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 30 No. 6-7, pp. 555-565.



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