Research Methods for Public Administrators
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Research Methods for Public Administrators

Gary Rassel, Suzanne Leland, Zachary Mohr, Elizabethann O'Sullivan

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eBook - ePub

Research Methods for Public Administrators

Gary Rassel, Suzanne Leland, Zachary Mohr, Elizabethann O'Sullivan

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About This Book

Research Methods for Public Administrators contains a thorough overview of research methods and statistical applications for advanced undergraduate and graduate students, and practitioners. The material is based on established social science methods. Concepts and applications are discussed and illustrated with examples from actual research.

The book covers research design, methods of data collection, instructions on formulating research plans, measurement, sampling procedures, and statistical applications from basic statistics to more advance techniques. The basics of conducting experiments, survey research, case studies, and focus groups are discussed. Data organization, management, and analysis are also covered, as are data analysis and hypothesis testing. Descriptive and inferential statistics are discussed and illustrated with examples. The book also includes a chapter on obtaining and analyzing secondary data (data already collected for other purposes) and a chapter on reporting and presenting research results to a variety of audiences.

This is a general textbook written primarily for students of public administration and practitioners in public and not-for-profit organizations. It includes materials shown to be useful in gathering and assessing information for making decisions and implementing policies. The material is discussed at a level to be accessible and with enough detail to be useful.

New to the seventh edition:

  • Additional and expanded material on qualitative research, big data, metadata, literature reviews, and causal inference

  • New material on experiments and experimental research

  • New examples and case studies, including those dealing with public policy

  • Expanded material on using computers for data management

  • Information on new NSF and NIH ethics and protection of human subjects requirements for researchers

  • New data sets and Power Point slides for each chapter.

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Beginning a Research Project

In this chapter, you will learn:
  1. Why knowledge of research methods is valuable for public administrators.
  2. How to develop a research project.
  3. About building and using models.
  4. Strategies for presenting models.
  5. Definitions of common research terms, including variables and hypotheses.
  6. About selecting a research topic and stating a research question.
Public administrators often ask questions that begin “how many,” “how much,” “how efficient,” “how effective,” “how adequate,” and “why.” They may want to learn something about a group of people, how much a program will cost, or what it can accomplish for each dollar spent. They need to decide how serious a problem is, whether a policy or administrative action solved a problem, what distinguishes more effective programs from less effective ones, and whether clients are satisfied with program performance. They are accountable to politicians, parents, citizens, recipients of program services, and the courts for providing public services. Public and nonprofit organization employees may also be accountable to funding agencies.
Administrators rely on data to make better decisions, to monitor results, and to examine effects. Data is another word for information. Understanding research methods is key to gathering, using, and evaluating information appropriately. As a current or future public administrator, you know that adequate information is essential to making effective decisions.
In the role of administrator, you may need to collect and summarize data and act on your findings or supervise others who do so. You may conduct studies or contract with others to perform studies for you to answer questions about programs under your jurisdiction. You may receive regular reports to monitor the performance of your organization and employees. You may read research and get ideas you wish to implement. Even if you never initiate a study, your knowledge of the research process should leave you better able to determine the adequacy of data, interpret reports, question results, and judge the value of published research.1
This text will provide you with the skills to produce information using a variety of research tools. More importantly, we hope it will provide you with the tools to make empirically informed judgments as you sort and use information produced by others to make decisions in your role as a public administrator.2
In this text, we discuss both research design and research methods and why each is important. Research design is the overall plan for a research project and includes components to ensure that when the research is completed, the purpose of the project will have been met. Research methods deal with specific research design issues and will include criteria regarding the amount of control the researcher has over the research context, assignment of research subjects, and extent of comparison among subjects and over time. Types of specific designs include experimental, time series, and cross-sectional, to name just a few. Different designs will be used depending on the purposes of the studies.
Research methods are the activities that implement the plan and refer to the various components of selecting study subjects, such as sampling, and types of data collection. The various types of samples and procedures for collecting data with surveys and questionnaires are typical topics of methods texts.

Starting the Project

Research should begin with careful planning. Even though determining the purposes of a study and whether it will produce the desired information is tedious, experience has convinced us that time used to clearly define the purpose of a study and carefully critique the research plan is time well spent. Administrators who make this preliminary investment will have a better understanding of the problem being studied and will avoid conducting poorly conceived research studies and collecting useless data. In this chapter, we present guidelines for better research planning. No matter who actually conducts a study, administrators who spend time defining the problem, planning the study, debating it with others, and reviewing related research markedly improve their work and experience fewer disappointments and wasted efforts.
An excellent starting point for any administrator involved with research is to understand if a decision needs to be made, when it needs to be made, the nature of that decision, and what information would be helpful to the decision makers. Focusing on the decision can help identify the true purpose of a study. In terms of timing, if it is not possible to influence the decision, then one must consider whether the study will really be of value. When considering the nature of the decision, what level of importance does the decision warrant? Trying to measure the impact of a multimillion-dollar program affecting thousands of citizens may be more important than evaluating an internal office recycling program. Are lives, jobs, or public safety at stake? Or is it a pet project of the mayor or council? Last, identifying the information decision makers need in order to make a decision is fundamental and will provide a starting point for developing research questions.
Establishing a study’s purpose goes beyond stating exactly why it is being done. An investigator must know who wants the study done, how and when the person plans to use its findings, what resources exist to support the study, and what research has previously been done on the issue. After an investigator answers these questions, she can list the research questions and decide what evidence will provide adequate answers. She also avoids planning a study that exceeds the available resources or yields information only after it is needed. It is seldom wise to plan a large study when a smaller one will obtain the necessary information. A study’s purpose evolves to become more focused and better understood as investigators and decision makers begin their work together.
Students and practitioners who have never conducted formal research are often unsure of how to proceed and unaware of the various activities involved. Courses and books on research are intended to help by teaching the activities involved and skills needed. Research methods textbooks typically present a format for conducting research projects, and course instructors include similar guidelines in course material. These formats are helpful instructions for carrying out the research. When told of the early steps in the research project, beginners often ask about the reasons for tasks and how they relate to the overall project. An overview of the entire process can help show how parts of the project fit together and why they are necessary. Familiarity with this information can also help managers understand how researchers approach their work and help them work together. Illustration 1.1 outlines the typical steps in conducting a research project. We advise the reader to review this outline as a prelude to the topics discussed in this book.
Illustration 1.1. A Format for Conducting Research Projects3
Illustration 1.1. A Format for Conducting Research Projects3

Developing a Research Question

Once the researcher and administrator understand what a study can provide—and what it cannot—the researcher should begin by stating the research question. The research question, or questions, when answered, should provide information necessary to accomplish the purpose of the research. Empirical, that is, observable, information is required to answer it. By definition, research involves the study of observable information, so without it, no research can take place. This text stresses numerical or quantitative information; however, qualitative, that is, non-numerical, information is also empirical and important and may be used to answer research questions. The authors of a well-known source on research design state that principles of good research apply to both qualitative as well as quantitative research and that both can be systematic and scientific.4 They also note that much research cannot be easily categorized as either qualitative or quantitative—that projects often use a combination of the two approaches. They cite excellent examples of this.5
Consider the research question: “To what extent does employee telecommuting improve organizational productivity?” This question has more than one possible answer, and obtaining an answer requires empirical information. Still, this simple question can mask the amount of work that lies ahead. What is meant by “telecommuting”? How would you define and measure “productivity”? Which employees? All employees or just people holding certain positions? Does it involve the productivity of the entire organization or just certain parts of it? How much improvement is expected? To help limit the study’s focus, the administrator indicates the purpose of a study. A study to determine whether to adopt a change in employment procedures will be different from a study to evaluate an existing procedure or policy.

Using Models to Organize the Research Study

After stating the research question and the study’s purpose, the researcher should build a preliminary research model. Investigators use models to simplify reality by identifying important items and eliminating irrelevant details.
Research models consist of variables and relationships. A single variable does not constitute a model; it must be linked with another to be part of a model. Variables that are not related to at least one other variable should be eliminated from a model. Variables that are only weakly linked to others also may be eliminated. Explicit models are the words, schematics, or equations that represent the variables and their relationships. The strength of explicit models is that they give others access to the researcher’s proposals and allow them to critique, replicate, or improve them.

Thinking About Models

One can think about a model visually by sketching out the variables and the expected relationships or links among them. For example, Example 1.1 presents a model developed as part of a study to identify ways to slow the rate of increase in Medicaid costs.6 A research question this model might be intended to answer is: “What factors are related to the increase in Medicaid costs?”7
Example 1.1 Applying a Model
Research question: How may the rapid increase in Medicaid costs be reduced?
Purpose: To recommend change(s) in the Medicaid program that will contain the costs of the program.
Procedure: An initial model is sketched out with the major variables representing general strategies to reduce costs: reducing these variables will reduce costs. The research will identify and evaluate the basic types of strategies available.
Discussion: The sketch places each variable in a separate “box.” The variables, which also may be identified as “inputs,” are placed in boxes. Lines indicate the links between variables, and arrows indicate the direction of the links. Here, each strategy was linked to the outcome of reducing the rate of increased costs. The arrows suggest that each strategy should reduce the rate of increase in Medicaid costs. A sketch keeps track of the model’s variables and relationships, helps communicate the model to others, and facilitates discussion about the model and the research plan.
With the variables identified, the investigators may:
  1. Identify feasible strategies associated with each variable. Should the number of beneficiaries be reduced by changing income requirements or age limits? What services should be reduced? How might less be paid for services?
  2. Incorporate the specific strategies into the model.
  3. Develop a research plan: What variables and relationships will be studied first? How will they be studied?

Knowing Which Variables to Include and How to Link Them

In deciding what to include, researchers draw on their own ideas and experiences and those of colleague...

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