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NIU’s renowned public administration program stepping up its profile on world stage

April 27, 2011

Obuya Bagaka

The Division of Public Administration at Northern Illinois University has long played a major role in advancing statewide and national good-government movements. Now it’s becoming a player on the global stage, with the latest development getting a boost from alumnus Obuya Bagaka.

In 2009, Bagaka earned his Ph.D. in political science at NIU, specializing in public administration and public policy. NIU’s Division of Public Administration produces one-third of Illinois city managers and is ranked as one of the very best programs in the country for city management and public finance.

Bagaka, however, is putting the expertise he gained at NIU to use in his homeland of Kenya, where he is working for the Kenya Institute of Administration (KIA).

The agency just last month inked a memorandum of understanding with the University of Nairobi to offer a master’s level program in public administration—the first of its kind in east central Africa.

“We are the pioneers in the region to create this,” said Bagaka, who will serve as coordinator of the program.

“I’m very proud to have undertaken my studies at NIU,” he said on a recent visit to campus. “When I first came here I didn’t realize how beneficial it would be to my home country. Now I can replicate some of the things I learned at NIU.”

NIU professor Kurt Thurmaier, director of the Division of Public Administration, is proud of his former student.

“Obuya’s principle task since graduating from NIU and returning to Kenya was to start a master of public administration program there,” Thurmaier said. “His work demonstrates the global reach of NIU, as well as the success of our international students.”

Thurmaier said Bagaka also is helping NIU explore a strategic relationship with the Kenya Institute of Administration and the University of Nairobi, with initial discussions involving faculty exchanges. Thurmaier will visit Kenya this summer to encourage more Kenyan doctoral students to attend NIU and to discuss the potential of having NIU faculty help teach and develop the Kenyan program.

One of the division’s strategic goals is to become a globally active program.

“We have already developed strategic partnerships with two universities in China and one in Taiwan, along with the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) in Thailand,” Thurmaier said. “We are working with NIDA to professionalize Thai local government management, and we are working on student exchange programs with the Chinese universities.”

The University of Nairobi master’s in public administration program will be based at KIA, which has a long tradition of training civil servants in public administration.  Its first intake of 30 students in September will be fully sponsored by the government and is expected to include students from Southern Sudan, which is to become an independent country on July 1, 2011.

“The main goal of the new program is to improve the capacity of public service,” Bagaka explained, adding that the concept of public service is not ingrained in Africans as it is in the United States.

“Our training efforts will instill the concept of advancing the public interest, instead of self-interest,” he said.

After its citizens voted in favor of a new constitution in 2010, the Republic of Kenya now is transitioning toward a decentralized political system, placing new powers in the hands of county governments, which will have their own administrative staffs.

The new public administration program will train students who will work in public sector jobs and with non-governmental organizations.

“In some ways, the timing of this program is ideal because it will produce graduates who can manage newly empowered local governments as they develop their administrative structures,” Bagaka said.

“At NIU, many students work on the master’s degree in public administration while also working jobs. Our program mimics that,” he added. “We also are borrowing heavily from NIU regarding the notion of city management taking care of local affairs. We do have the equivalent of city managers in Kenya, but they don’t currently have professionalized training.”

Bagaka and Thurmaier also together run a month-long NIU Study Abroad program to Tanzania. About 10 students from NIU are participating in this year’s program, which will begin on June 23. Students will help finish building a dormitory for girls at a secondary school there while learning about non-governmental organizations in developing countries and about the government and politics of Tanzania and the East African Union.