Data, Strategy, and the MPA Degree

The strategic use of data is everywhere in the field of Public Administration. For public service leaders to be effective in the modern era, the skills to collect, analyze, report, and operationalize data are essential. In an article in Public Administration Times entitled “Data Insights Lead to Better Public Administration,” Bill Brantley writes, “good policy analysis has always relied on data and statistical analysis to understand policy issues and formulate appropriate policy responses.” He also points out that “our ability to collect data” has changed and that we have more tools and more capacity to collect data than ever before. The federal government is currently working an overarching data strategy with a goal to “leverage data as a strategic asset to grow the economy, increase the effectiveness of the Federal Government, facilitate oversight, and promote transparency.”

Word Cloud prepared by the author.

With that in mind, the MPA program at UNC requires coursework in data analysis. All students take a data-driven Research and Analysis class each semester of their first year in the program. Another required course, Organizational Theory, gets into the topics of performance management and strategic planning. Students can also dig deeper into data with electives in topics like performance management, productivity, decision analysis, and benchmarking.

Earlier this week our student ICMA chapter invited UNC MPA alumni Monica Chaparro and Josh Edwards to discuss their professional experience with data and strategic planning in local government. Monica is the Program Manager of Strategic Planning and Performance Management in the Budget Department in the City of Raleigh and Josh is the Assistant Budget Director of Strategy and Performance as well as the Director of the Innovation Team for the City of Durham.

Reflecting on her UNC MPA experience, Monica shared that “David Ammon’s Productivity in Local Government class coupled with Maureen Berner’s program evaluation class piqued my interest in the intersection of data and strategy. Beyond piquing my interest, those classes equipped me with the foundational skills I needed to flourish in my first job, which involved managing the Balanced Scorecard for one of the City of Charlotte’s largest departments.” Josh had a similar comment, adding, “whether I am working on building data capacity in my organization, helping a department develop key performance measures, or analyzing data to help improve city services, I am thankful for how well Professor Berner, Professor Ammons, and Professor Morse helped develop my analytical toolkit at the MPA Program.”

Current MPA student and Wake County Budget and Management Intern Aaron Brown is also very interested in the intersection of data and strategy. He is taking Performance Management with Professor Rivenbark because it brings together data analysis and strategic planning. Aaron thinks that strategic planning is key because “I want my data analysis to matter.” He told me that he believes public service leaders can use data to give them a “tangible direction” and can help measure progress on “real goals that you can reach out and touch.”

Student Perspective: MPA and Emergency Management

This week’s blog post looks at the MPA degree in the context of emergency management and shares the perspective of Max Dixon, a current MPA student.

One of the most crucial responsibilities of the public sector is emergency management: preparing and responding to disasters. The recent devastating effects of hurricanes in the southeast remind us how important this work actually is. When the worst happens, we have to rely on trained professionals to help us. University of New Orleans Professor and former chair of ASPA’s Section on Emergency and Crisis Management John K. Kiefer says that Emergency Management is “at its core, public management” (2013). Esteemed scholar of Emergency Management William Waugh further defines it as “the management of risk so that societies can live with environmental and technical hazards and deal with the disasters that they cause” (2000, cited in the above-linked paper).

Chapel Hill is among many communities in North Carolina that have seen flooding in recent hurricanes. (Photo: Durham Herald Sun.)

An MPA degree is important because government agencies and nonprofit aid organizations need skilled professionals who effectively and efficiently guide emergency responses, getting resources where they need to be as soon as possible to help those with immediate needs. The MPA Program can help prepare professionals for these situations. For example, we need people who are able to manage relationships across levels of government (Intergovernmental Relations), understand funding streams and reporting responsibilities (Public Budgeting), and lead and motivate teams in times of crisis (Public Service Leadership and Organizational Theory). We also need the skills to evaluate previous disasters and collect relevant data to analyze how we did and how we can do better in the future (Analysis & Evaluation, Performance Management).

Max Dixon is a current second year MPA student. His Professional Work Experience this past summer was with Cumberland County Emergency Management and he has served in many different roles in the United States Army. I asked him about how MPA courses affected his experience. He said that “organizational theory set me up well for understanding how the system is put together with overlapping layers of local, regional, state and federal resources and trying to figure out the lines of responsibility and authority.” He added that “PUBA 711 (Public Service Leadership) will likely be beneficial to anyone going straight from the MPA program into emergency management.” For those at the beginning of their careers with little experience in the field, “understanding their own leadership styles and how stress effects them should prove very useful.”

Checking in on the Network

The last two weeks of work have given me an opportunity to step off campus and go out to different areas of the country to see the Carolina MPA in action.  I visited Atlanta and D.C. for Happy Hour Hubs where we invite our alumni out for an evening together to network with each other and tell us about what they’re doing.  And let me tell you, I know alumni networking occurs because I see or hear about it happening every day in NC with our ‘locals’ but to see it happening for real in two other major cities in the United States was really special. 

I left feeling humbled by the work of our alumni, the positivity with which they reflect on the education they received at UNC, and amazement at the applicability of the MPA degree to a variety of positions and fields.  The following is a recap of the things I heard, and saw at these events:

  • The strength of the on-campus cohort model, it is apparent people aren’t just classmates, they are friends. They attend each other’s weddings, talk on a continual basis, have fun, and help each other in their careers.  There are stories that go well beyond their 2 years in school.
  • They know us by name and feel connected to the program. I talked to many people who refer to their former professors by name because they are colleagues now.  They cared to ask about current student demographics, initiatives we are taking toward diversity and future growth.
  • They are passionate about leadership and about what they learned in the program. I talked to one alum who mentioned he recently moved into the private sector working as a project manager for a software company.  On his first day, he was told he was hired because of his understanding of leadership.  They had never hired someone with a MPA before, but our alum knew he was right for the role when they asked about leadership – because MPAers truly understand that the bottom line is not always about saving a dollar or making money. It is also about effectively implementing the right team to achieve goals that include making money.
  • The opportunities are boundless. I spoke to an entrepreneur who started her own Environmental Consulting company, an elected official in the State of Georgia General Assembly, someone working for the IRS, and someone who works for the federal government auditing health care and mental health programs that have direct implications on the opioid crisis.
  • I saw exchanges of business cards and plans for having lunch to discuss a potential career move. I heard questions about how to do their job better, conversations of real life issues with advice offering, and felt a real camaraderie among people at the event.

I left feeling even more inspired and proud to be a part of the Carolina MPA family.  Not them though, they already knew it.  I could see they left more certain and more charged than before to go out there and do it well.

Nice to Meet You!

Hello! My name is Josh Rosenstein and I am a second year MPA student at the UNC School of Government. I’m excited to share my student experience with you, as well as to explore all the cool and amazing things that people are doing out in the real world with an MPA degree. In my first blog, I’m going to tell you a little about myself and how I got here.

I took a strange and interesting path into this degree program. I studied Cultural Anthropology and History at the University of Georgia. While in Athens, I was very involved in the music scene and volunteered as an organizer around higher education and immigration issues. After graduating, I moved to western North Carolina and worked for a nonprofit, resident school with an environmental focus. I was a dorm parent, outdoor leader, and taught music and history. During the summers, I ran teen leadership programs at summer camps in western North Carolina and the Bay Area of California. I then decided to focus on my creative ambitions in music and comedy while working as hotel front-desk agent and a door-to-door fundraiser for an environmental non-profit in Asheville. I also toured with some friends in Australia as a stand-up comedian and when I got back, eventually settled in Chapel Hill looking for something new.

I quickly found myself hosting a local open mic at a place called Zog’s on Henderson Street. I fell in love with running the show, creating a space for talented people to get a chance to hone their skills. The bar’s owner, Mandey Brown, is an artist and was serving on the Town’s Cultural Arts Commission (you may have seen her in local media recently for turning her business into an impromptu Hurricane Florence Supply Donation Center). The Commission was recruiting new members and she encouraged me to apply.

Above are photos of me with a recent public art project at the Chapel Hill Public Library.

I joined the Commission in 2015, and got so much out of the work. I deeply enjoyed learning about the inner-workings of local government. While working on the Cultural Arts Master Plan, something clicked (what many MPA professors would refer to technically as an “a-ha moment”). I realized we were doing the same thing on the Commission as with open mic: helping create spaces for artists to engage with their communities. I starting talking to folks about careers in public art and realized I could do this for a living, not just as a hobby or a volunteer. I knew I wanted to work in a local or state government arts office or a non-profit. I knew I needed to know more about things like public and non-profit budgeting, human resources, program evaluation, and leadership and management skills.

With all that in my head, I went to an Open House for the MPA program and knew it was right for me. Everyone in my cohort has his or her own interesting journey taken to be here. Some of us want to run non-profits. Some want to be city managers or budget analysts. Others want to work for the federal government or in international policy. What binds all of us together is a desire to serve the public. Beyond that, we are in the program to gain technical skills and master the competencies required to serve the public well. We want to be folks who change organizations for the better and help fulfill the noble mission to make people’s lives better.

MPA Professor Elected as NAPA Fellow

MPA Professor Leisha DeHart-Davis has been elected as a Fellow of the prestigious National Academy of Public Administration.  Leisha is one of 41 new Fellows elected in 2018 for their exemplary contributions to the field of public administration.  This is a wonderful and well-deserved honor for one of our best.  Come to find out, she joins two other UNC School of Government faculty members Carl Stenberg and David Ammons and MPA alum Tom Lundy (former Catawba County Manager) as current NAPA Fellows.  Now, what does this all mean?

Luckily, when this announcement came, it provided a little bit of background on what this organization and honor is all about.  The National Academy of Public Administration is an independent, non-profit, and non-partisan organization established to assist government leaders in building more effective, efficient, accountable, and transparent organizations.  It is headquartered in Washington, DC, but they work with all levels of government across the United States and world. 




One interesting feature of the Academy is that its members include practitioners and academics all focused on public administration.  The Academy’s 850 Fellows include former cabinet officers, members of Congress, governors, mayors, senior federal and state government executives, city and county managers, prominent scholars, and nonprofit and foundation leaders.  For example, its members include Sandra Day O’Connor and Colin Powell.  In fact, Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director, joins Leisha as a Fellow in the class of 2018.  The network of Fellows are at the top of their game and responsible for providing expert advice on current and emerging issues faced by government leaders.

It’s worth checking out this renowned group of leaders and consultants for public administration to find out what they have done in their careers.  And UNC MPA’s program is proud to have representation from 4 (and counting!) of our faculty and alumni.



Alumni Spotlight – Stephanie Watkins-Cruz ‘18

From time to time, we will be featuring alumni and students in our program.  Mostly so you can hear about what people do with an MPA and what gets them ticking with regards to public service and public administration.  Here is our first!

“Public service is a great way to extend the reach of those fighting for their communities, homes, and livelihood”

Stephanie came into the program passionate about public service and specifically affordable housing and housing insecurities.  “Housing is more than a roof and four walls,” she said. “It involves your surroundings, the health of your environment, and what you have and don’t have access to. At home is where your identity takes root.”

Continue reading “Alumni Spotlight – Stephanie Watkins-Cruz ‘18”

How to Succeed in the Carolina MPA Program – an Interview with Kim Nelson

Kim Nelson, Albert and Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Term Associate Professor of Public Administration and Government

I sat in on a recent session with Professor Kim Nelson talking about what it takes to be a successful graduate student in our MPA program at UNC.  I took some notes and decided to turn it into a blog post because I know there are many people out there wondering what graduate school and our MPA program is really like.  Well, here they are coming straight from the MPA at UNC faculty.

Continue reading “How to Succeed in the Carolina MPA Program – an Interview with Kim Nelson”

Welcome & Welcome Back!

This day has been coming for a while!  It kept creeping up on us here at UNC, as we were finalizing new fall admissions for both our on-campus and online formats, and we were busy registering our returning students, taking our vacations, and working hard to prep for the academic year amid the quietness of the MPA hallway.  Quick fact, our MPA program at UNC houses about 170 students who are currently enrolled!  Continue reading “Welcome & Welcome Back!”

MPA Matters

As strange as it may seem, I didn’t REALLY know what a MPA degree was until I landed the role of Director of Admissions for the MPA program at UNC.  I am pretty certain I could have told you it stood for ‘Master of Public Administration’, but I couldn’t really tell you what that meant.  Sure, I knew it was government related, but I thought it was a degree for someone who wanted to run for public office eventually.  Sometimes they do, but it is so much more than that.  And sometimes, it’s not even government related. Continue reading “MPA Matters”


MPA Matters seeks to explore and explain all the current happenings and pursuits of those interested in public administration and public service. Special focus will be put on highlighting careers in public administration and the current initiatives of the MPA at UNC program including our faculty, current students, and alumni.