Teaching Students in Public Administration Using Experiments

Claire A. Dunlop and Claudio M. Radaelli ask 'how can we teach graduate students about the limits of control in the context of decision making and regulatory policy appraisal'?

Extended Abstract

Donald Schön’s assertion that becoming an effective professional requires more than technical rationality underpins the pedagogy of Masters in Public Administration (MPA) programmes. This article explores how public administrators can be taught to think reflectively and reflexively about the limits of control in the context of decision making and regulatory policy appraisal. It reports on an in-class pedagogical experiment on illusions of control used to generate a real-life experience of the cognitive and emotional dimensions of control. Our pedagogical experiment shows that experimenting with public managers in the classroom gives a real-life experience of the cognitive and emotional dimensions of concepts (in our case, illusion of control and regulatory humility). Further, our experiment paved the way for a wider reflection on why the outcomes occurred – and how deviations for the theoretical expectations can be developed into new intuitions about the role of public managers in situations of risk and uncertainty.By doing so, the article introduces the concept of ‘regulatory humility’ and contributes to the literature on experiments as pedagogical tools, and to debates on teaching methods in public administration and political science.

More broadly, there is a practical implication to our findings. At the moment, governments and regulators look at the appraisal of new regulations in terms of an evidence-base for decisions, the quality of data and how to use cost-benefit analysis. Yet, the estimation of costs and benefits should be extended to behavioural aspects: the same rule can have different effects depending on how it is presented to firms and citizens. This observation is key to the current efforts of the OECD governments to moderate the adverse impact of regulation by considering ‘irritating’ burdens, ‘perceptions of administrative obligations’ and ‘nudging consumers’. With this article, we have added another dimension: ‘illusion of control as source of bias in the way a decision maker thinks’. More realistic knowledge on how regulators think should inform the design of tools like regulatory impact assessment and how they are used by governments.

Keywords: experiments; illusion of control; learning; public administration; regulation; regulatory humility

Author Bio

Claire A. Dunlop is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science and Claudio M. Radaelli is Professor of Political Science, both at the University of Exeter. Claire’s research interests centre upon the politics of expertise, epistemic communities, risk governance and the science-policy interface while Claudio’s interests cover the fields of regulation, Europeanisation and policy analysis .

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