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By Will Hatcher, Professor of Public Administration and Chair of Social Sciences, Augusta University

In an impactful episode of the feel-good dramedy Ted Lasso, the show’s titular character and an all-around good guy, is facing off a braggart and a bully at a dart board. Ted understates his skill and goes on to win a significant wager, partly because his antagonist didn’t probe more and underestimated Ted.  The lesson, according to Ted is “Be curious, not judgmental.”


Our political system is full of judgments these days, but elected and appointed officials could benefit by taking Ted’s advice and encouraging public servants to be more curious. This practice leads to decision-making guided by a motivation to learn how the world works based on evidence rather than on previously held ideologies (judgments). Moreover, by being more curious and less judgmental, public administrators may be more likely to practice empathy about their jobs and the people they serve, leading to more caring and compassionate public organizations.


Over the past few years, I have worked to investigate the impact of curiosity in public administration. This research can be found in my recent book, The Curious Public Administrator.  In the book, I define curiosity for public administration, discuss its importance, and analyze survey data about curiosity collected from practicing public administrators and faculty teaching current and future public servants.


As part of that effort, I collected nationwide data from city managers in the United States in a first-of-kind survey that applied a tested instrument of workplace curiosity in business to the public sector. The results show city managers are highly curious in their workplaces and may practice curiosity more than private managers. Additionally, I found faculty in public administration to be highly curious, and most were able to describe possible assignments in their classes that will help teach public servants the importance of curiosity and even how to improve their curiosity skills.


But despite these positive findings, it’s abundantly clear to me that there’s ample room for more curiosity in the public sector. Furthermore, my research uncovered small but vocal groups of city managers and public administration faculty questioning the importance of curiosity in the first place. Some faculty, for example, discussed the teaching of curiosity as being difficult, if not impossible, because they view the concept as an inherent trait and not a skill that can be learned. This view is similar to the “great man theory of leadership,” which  argues that the skills necessary for grand accomplishments are inborn and cannot be developed over time.


But that’s a dated point of view, and as with leadership, curiosity is a skill that can be learned through educational discussion, reflection, and practice.


This is a worthwhile endeavor, as the benefits of curious public administrators are straightforward:


·        A focus on questioning how public workplaces work and how public administration can be efficient but also effective and fair.

·        A motivation among public administrators to learn instead of judge.

·        A desire to practice empathy during interactions with people interacting with government but also with others in their organizations, other cities and states, the federal government, nonprofits, etc.

·        An overall decision-making process that is more rooted in evidence and more compassionate.

·        A public administration that is more effective, more democratic, and caring.


But although I’ve been toiling in the vineyards of public sector curiosity for some time, there’s still a great deal more to learn, and more research is necessary. In this space, I want to encourage other researchers to work at a research agenda that would include:


An analysis of the differences between curious public administrators and those who struggle to practice curiosity. In my book, I found no significant differences between these groups, except for the size of their city. City managers working in smaller cities were more likely to be curious. These managers may be more likely to do a wider variety of tasks than managers in large cities with more professional teams and, overall, more staff members. The diversity of tasks and being generalist-focused may help spark curiosity among city managers who wear many hats in small- to medium-sized cities, but we need more research to say this with greater certainty.


The effect of curiosity on the performance outcomes of public agencies and public administrators other than city managers. City managers are a unique group of public administrators. Future research into curiosity needs to examine public administrators working in state governments, the federal government, other nations, nonprofits, etc. Additionally, this research needs to determine if curious public administrators get better results than public administrators struggling to practice curiosity.


A research-informed guide for how public administrator faculty can teach curiosity. I found that public administration faculty have a wealth of ideas on how to teach curiosity in their classes, but there needs to be more concrete information as to what approaches work best. Additionally, my book and past research have demonstrated how curiosity can be integrated into NASPAA-accredited Master of Public Administration programs.


The contents of this guest column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Barrett and Greene, Inc.


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