What Is Public Administration?

Public administration is a field in which leaders serve communities to advance the common good and effect positive change. Public administration professionals are equipped with skills to manage at all levels of government (local, state, and federal) as well as nonprofit organizations. Skills employed across the field of public administration such as project management and program management are often transferrable to the private sector.

The Master of Public Administration prepares students to enter or advance their careers as they explore government and nonprofit decision-making and policy implementation. Students are tasked with becoming competent leaders through course work that involves high-level knowledge and understanding of human resource management, communication skills, budget/financial management, law, data analysis, and theory as it relates to the public sector.

Students emerge with the mastery of various competencies to help strategize, plan, implement, and carry out a wide range of projects and initiatives in their current and future careers.

What Does a Public Administrator Do?

While the day-to-day responsibilities of public administrators can vary greatly depending on the type of organization they work for, the common thread among public administrators is most typically a deep commitment to serve their communities and contribute to their overall improvement. The term “public service” is used frequently in the field of public administration, and it is this desire to serve the public good that calls people to become a public administrator.

As a public administrator, you could pursue a career in government or nonprofit work in areas related to the following interests or departments:

  • Transportation
  • Community and economic development
  • Public health/social services
  • Education/higher education
  • Parks and recreation
  • Housing
  • Law enforcement and public safety
  • Emergency management
  • Disaster response
  • Public works

Specific job titles of a public administrator can include the following:

  • City manager
  • County executive
  • Strategic planning director
  • Community engagement coordinator
  • Labor relations manager
  • Special projects coordinator
  • Grant writer
  • Director of operations
  • Government relations specialist
  • Public affairs director
  • Capital programs coordinator
  • Budget analyst
  • Policy analyst
  • Chief operating officer
  • Performance analyst
  • Director of community engagement
  • Director of community partnerships

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MPA Jobs and Career Outlook

Here are a few examples of the responsibilities of some of the most common positions held by those with an MPA.

City Manager

A local government manager is much like a president of a corporation or chief executive officer. He or she is responsible for ensuring that the day-to-day operations of the local government and the overall strategy are carried out efficiently and effectively. The manager organizes and directs a team to implement the policies of the elected officials for whom they work to impact change in a variety of areas pertaining to local government, such as housing, transportation, education, local business development, etc. He or she incurs a high level of responsibility for the overall budget and human resources of a town or city.

Nonprofit Director

Professionals who lead nonprofits are responsible for managing their overall operations while also focusing on larger-picture initiatives needed to achieve the organization’s vision. On a typical day, a nonprofit director may spend time creating budgets, developing strategic plans, planning fundraising tactics, or collaborating with board members. Nonprofit directors may liaise with members of the government, so knowledge of public administration is a valuable trait.

Budget Analyst

Both public and private institutions employ budget analysts to provide updates and strategic direction on overall finances. These professionals may make budget decisions, analyze economic news, communicate financial recommendations, and collaborate with organizational leadership during periods of political change. Having knowledge of public administration can benefit individuals looking to pursue a budget analyst role within the government or an organization that works directly with the government.

What Is the Difference Between Public Administration and Public Policy?

The importance of public administration lies in serving one’s community. Professionals can serve their communities in a variety of ways, and there are a number of different academic programs and paths that can help people reach their goal of being a public servant. One of the biggest distinctions to make in the field of public administration is answering the question, “What is the difference between public policy and public administration?”

Public policy definitions often refer to the principles or needs on which social laws are based. People who pursue degrees in public policy are often prepared for positions to compile, evaluate, and utilize data sets to write and suggest policy changes. This is a career path that requires strong analysis, research, and oftentimes quantitative abilities, and the public policy curriculum will focus heavily on this. Typically, public policy degree holders will remain behind the scenes engaging in public service.

If public policy careers typically include those who analyze and suggest policy changes based on data, it is the public administrator careers that enact, implement, and oversee these changes in the most efficient and effective way. Public administrators who hold an MPA can typically be seen in more public-facing positions or on the front lines managing the logistics and operations. While those holding an MPA degree will learn the skills needed to handle policy data and analysis or become a policy analyst, the main goal of the degree is cultivating the necessary leadership and management skills to successfully plan and manage complex policies and changes across public organizations and their respective communities.

For more information on the difference between MPA and MPP curricula, visit our MPA degree comparison page.

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Why Earn an Online Master of Public Administration?

The value of an MPA degree lies in the solid foundation it provides for service-oriented professionals to establish themselves as public service leaders. Through the MPA curriculum, you will learn leadership skills, develop your analytical skills, and improve your ability to communicate with stakeholders to carry out policies and strategies. As part of your MPA coursework, you may practice real-world skills such as creating a budget or writing press releases.

MPA degrees are pursued by people with a wide variety of interests. One can earn an advanced degree in public administration at any point in their career. Some people have made a commitment to public service because they grew up with a family who had an orientation to public service. Many discover a passion for civic engagement as they mature, and they choose to pursue academic majors in service-oriented areas.

There are others who pursue different careers and want to build on their foundation and continue to grow in their fields. The MPA degree allows a person to jump-start or grow a career in the public sector. It is a versatile and broad-based degree that helps to create leaders who understand the intersections of law, policy, and government in day-to-day operations. It is a widely recognized degree in the public sector, and is becoming a recognized degree in the private sector because of the transferrable skill set.

People who pursue the MPA degree come from academic majors as varied as art history, communications, human services, business, and political science. The MPA degree also attracts those who have pursued careers as teachers, social workers, nutritionists, lawyers, or legal assistants and want to grow professionally and prepare themselves to take on roles as a leader or administrator in the public sector.

Many people already have an advanced degree when they choose to pursue the MPA. An MPA earned online is a solid choice for those already involved in public administration careers in local, state, or federal government and nonprofit organizations who want to position themselves to grow in their current careers.

Why Get Your MPA Online from UNC?

The UNC School of Government is the largest university-based local government training, advisory, and research organization in the country.2 Each year, more than 12,000 public officials take advantage of over 200 courses, workshops, webinars, and specialized conferences offered at the School.2

Ranked among the top 25 programs in the country by U.S. News & World Report, the program is also listed in the 2018 Best Graduate School Rankings for several areas of expertise, including local government management (2rd), environmental policy and management (14th), public management and leadership (15th), and public finance and budgeting (17th).3

School of Government faculty members are recognized experts to whom public officials at every level frequently turn for training, advice, and research. They are committed to educating current and future leaders in all areas of government, nonprofit, and private-sector organizations. The MPA staff is committed to serving its students in areas of career development, professional work experience, and student life.

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Take On the Challenge of Being an Effective Public Administrator

Learn how UNC’s online MPA program prepares you to make a difference as you pursue roles in the government, nonprofit, or private sector.