What’s in a name? Pursuing a Masters of Public Administration degree versus a Masters of Public Policy

I am currently attached to two different programs in two different universities. My home university is the University of Victoria where I am appointed in the School of Public Administration (SPA) and where I mostly teach in the Masters in Public Administration (MPA) program. I am, however, currently on sabbatical and am spending it in the School of Public Policy (SPP) at the University of Calgary which offers a Masters in Public Policy.

Because of my dual affiliation, I have been trying to make sure I plug both programs, which have admissions deadlines around the same time. The SPA MPA applications for both the campus and online program are due Jan. 15 while SPP MPP applications are due Feb. 1.

Plugging both programs, however, raised some questions. First, how can I plug competing programs? Second, is there a difference between MPA and MPP programs? Third, how does someone pick between an MPA and MPP or advise students accordingly?

For me, there is (or at least SHOULD BE) a substantial difference between an MPA and MPP and several of my colleagues asked me if I could do up a blog post explaining the difference.

Rather than face just my perspective on this, I asked my good friend and colleague Dr. Catherine Althaus to help me with this. Her training is in public policy and public administration and seemed well suited to help with these questions.

Origins

I always like to talk to my students about the origins of economics, which are rooted in moral philosophy so I was pleased when Catherine started here. It was Woodrow Wilson back in 1887 who first distinguished between politics and administration by noting that administration was about operationalizing political decision, which concerns both implementation and management. 

But is operationalizing these political decisions good policy? That question led to the founding of public policy as a discipline. Public policy analysts are focused on challenging political decision makers with information about policy options and consequences of each of these policy options.

So the root origins of these disciplines are the public policy folks  work upwards to influence policy decisions whereas public administrators work downwards, implementing the decision that is made once the public policy folks have done their job.

Theoretical Distinguishment between MPA and MPP

This then leads into thinking about programs that are designed to train these players. Given the origins outlined above, an MPA is meant to be focused on implementation and management while an MPP is meant to be focused on design and analysis. Here are some ways to think about this difference:

  • An MPA is more practical and professional while an MPP is more technical, theoretical, and academic.
  • An MPA is more generalist (jack of all, master of none) where as an MPP is more specialized.
  • An MPA is about learning how to manage people, projects, programs, and things (including money), where as the MPP is about learning to analyze problems and develop solutions

As a result, you are more likely to see more technical courses in an MPP program (more focus on economics, statistics, and research methodology) and more management courses in an MPA (HR, leadership, financial management, and strategic planning)

Implementation Issues that Blur the Lines Between an MPA and MPP

While the focus of administrators vs public policy analysts may be moderately different, both players must interact with political decision makers and, hopefully, each other. The latter especially true since policy design and policy implementation are intricately linked. As a result, even within this understanding, there is still a fair amount of skills overlap between these two players and MPP and MPA programs can appear quite similar.

These programs are equally likely to include training in economics, statistics, government, and the public policy process. But the depth of training in these areas will differ (more economics in an MPP, more institutional and process courses in an MPA). In addition, how the same courses are delivered will also likely be quite different. For example, both programs are likely to include a core course is statistics, but the MPA program may be more concerned with numeracy, whereas the MPP program more concerned with actual data analysis.

Existing programs may also offer fluidity as well. All programs offer electives which allows students to build more depth. For example, the MPA program may allow specialization in data analysis through electives, making it appear very similar to an MPP.

Existing programs may target different audiences as well. For example, at UVic we have an MPA targeted to students with little or no job experience and are new graduates of undergraduate programs, along with an MPA that is targeted to students with at least five years of job experience. As a result, these two MPA programs are different. The former is about training entry level bureaucrats, the latter about training those who wish to move up to more senior administrative positions. The former includes more analysis, the latter more management.

Existing programs may also not be true to these outlined origins. Public policy training has become more popular than the traditional public administration training and programs have morphed over time as a way to chase students. In addition, there have also been a number of combination programs created, including a Masters in Public Service, Public Management, Public Governance, and Public Affairs. These variously combine administration and management, governance and policy, and so on.

Finally, these various programs across Canada are housed in very different faculties. Some MPA programs are delivered by business schools. Some MPP programs delivered by economics departments. And so on. Who delivers the program will also matter to the design and implementation of the program itself.

What do you do then?

If you don’t know what career possibilities exist or what the program titles actually mean or how the delivery of the content differs, how should one choose or advise a student? No wonder there is confusion.

First, what are your strengths and interests. If you excel at math and data analysis, the MPP might be a better fit. If you excel at softer skills, the MPA might be more suitable.

Second, what are your career aspirations? You need to look beyond the fact that you want a job when you graduate (who doesn’t) but more what you want to be and what do you want to do. What skills will get you there? What courses will you need to build those skills? One thing that I like about our School at UVic is that we don’t just deliver an MPA. We also deliver degrees and diplomas in community development, dispute resolution, and evaluation (and hopefully two more diplomas in in demand areas will come on line in short order). This diversity gives our MPA students a much broader access to courses and skills development.  For example, and MPA student can acquire skills in negotiation and community consultation and engagement or in working with the non-profit sector (all vital skills for modern day public administrators)

Third, how is the program delivered? Does it include coops? Real world case studies? What competencies does it build? What are the core course requirements? What electives are available (be sure not to rely on the calendar because all programs has courses on the books that rarely get taught)? Does the faculty have actual professional experience (yes it matters) to go along with the academic credentials? How up to date is the curriculum? Does the curriculum represent the current knowledge and skills desired and required by employers? Does the program have a vision for its graduates and does that accord with your aspirations?

Beyond that, you need to consider the reputation of the School and faculty that actually teach in the program along with the employment outcome of the graduates of the program? All the usual stuff.

Basically, look beyond the rhetoric and into the substantive content of the program and find the program(s) that best suit you! What appeals to a friend or neighbour may not be right for you.

Do not hesitate to contact the program to obtain more information (but be sure to have exhausted the information provided on their website first).

A Shameless Plug

So here is where we do a bit of a shameless plug. We at UVic SPA have put a lot of work into updating our MPA programs (we have two as noted above) and integrating it with our suite of programs. We did this because we  believe that our graduates need to navigate not just the public sector, but also the community sector and with skills that transcend policy analysis and implementation to address public engagement and alternative dispute resolution.

Our approach embraces a vision of society where we see our students being public entrepreneurs, able to navigate multiple jurisdictions, sectors, and disciplines to innovatively confront complex problems in order to make the world a better place. We see our education style inspired by our unique place on the west coast of Canada so we pay attention to our Indigenous beginnings, to cultural fluency, ecological awareness, and personalized, transformational, memorable learning. Our MPA grads emerge not just with work-ready skills to advise governments, engage with the public interest, manage resources, and take leadership roles. They also are able to connect in meaningful and innovative ways with the community sector, pursue collaborative partnerships, and negotiate respectfully and successfully through complex and contested issues.

We also promote problem-based learning using teamwork with live cases. In Fall 2014 this culminated in our newly admitted students presenting various stakeholder perspectives on BC’s Energy Policy to the actual Energy Minister Bill Bennett.

We boast a highly successful Coop program that places all our students in paid work experience, locally, and across the globe.

Conclusion?

What’s in a name? When considering a MPA versus a MPP, sometimes there is a lot more to a name than just a program title.

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6 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Pursuing a Masters of Public Administration degree versus a Masters of Public Policy

  1. Hi Lindsay,

    I really enjoyed this post. I have been working in the non-profit sector since graduating from university in 2010 and I currently coordinate two programs for low-income seniors in Vancouver. I have decided to pursue a master’s degree and considered the MPA at UVic. However, when I looked at the courses and the faculty profiles it seemed like the program was heavily slanted towards a career in government. As I hope to remain in the non-profit sector and not in government, I decided not to apply. After reading your post I am wondering if I was a bit too hasty in dismissing the UVic program. Can you tell me a bit more about the program and whether or not it would be suitable for someone hoping to remain in the non-profit sector?

    Thanks!

    Josh

    • Josh, it really depends on what you want to do/are doing in the non-profit sector and what skills you want. We also offer a Masters in Community Development which is specifically targeted to non-profit careers.

      I would encourage you to contact our graduate advisor, who this year is Herman Bakvis

      https://www.uvic.ca/hsd/publicadmin/people/home/faculty/bakvisherman.php

      He can help you navigate the programs and give you the information you need to make the best choice for you.

      • Great, thank you very much. I did my undergrad at UVic and would love to go back. I know the program has a great reputation, I’m just not sure if it is right for me. I’ll contact the advisor.

  2. This was a great article! I am deciding between UVic’s MPA and SFU’s MPP. I am interested in public policy since it’s more upstream compared to public administration. However, learning to implement the decisions are also important to me. Furthermore, UVic has 3 co-op terms which seems very appealing. Would you be able to provide more information in regards to those two schools? What do you think of someone with an MPP and a PMP (project management professional) which is very much all about managing “people, projects, programs, and things (including money)”? Thanks!

    • I actually don’t know much about PMP designation, but Dr. Kim Speers on our faculty is our resident expert on project management. I would suggest your reach out to our Graduate Advisor, Dr. Lynne Siemens, and she can put you on the right track regarding these comparisons. We can talk to you about our programs, but it is best to talk to SFU about their MPP and do the comparison yourself.

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