P7 Computational public administration: theory, applications and challenges

Panel Chairs:
Jan Boon, Wouter Van Dooren and Peter Kruyen

Corresponding Chair:
Jan Boon, jan.boon@uantwerp.be

Recent years have seen a growing excitement surrounding computational methods for digital data collection and analysis. These applications are situated in the overlapping areas of the social sciences and computer science. They relate inter alia to data mining, natural language processing, automated text analysis, web scraping, data visualization, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Government agencies and policymakers produce large amounts of text, often too numerous for hand-coding, yet with large potential for research and practice. In the last years, large amounts of digital information (both text and visual data) have become ever more accessible for research purposes due to advancements in computational methods. Public administration scholars have started to delve into the possibilities of computational techniques to address big questions through big data. While first results are highly promising, they often raise as many – if not more – questions as answers.

With the door to realizing the full potential of computational techniques slowly opening, it is time to take stock. What exactly is the full potential of computational methods, both in terms of theory and practice, and how do we achieve this? What is the range of applications of computational methods? Where does its utility stop, both in terms of theory and practice? Which data (text, image, or other) is feasible, and which theoretical questions and foundations can be addressed? What are the main challenges related to computational Public Administration research?

This panel seeks to bring together a growing, yet so far fragmented, community of public administration, public management, and policy scholars using computational methods. We invite both conceptual-theoretical and empirical contributions.

In particular, we are looking for research that develops, synthesizes and applies data collection and analysis techniques relying primarily on computational methods and tools, with the objective to answer substantive theory-driven questions in the fields of public administration, public management or policy sciences. Despite their potential, computational methods have only had marginal impact on core tenets in these fields: it is still pursued by a small minority of researchers, often remains undertheorized, and can sometimes showcase methodological rigor at the expense of well-defined theoretical mechanisms.

We plan to map the potential of computational methods for the public administration community and to demonstrate its broad appeal beyond that of highly technically skilled, often quantitatively oriented, researchers, focusing on approaches and perspectives that not only demonstrate its methodological innovation but, most importantly, illustrate its theoretical, practical, and institutional relevance, as well as challenges in realizing its potential. Participants are therefore invited to go beyond merely applying computational methods, and to explicitly state the relevance and added value of using computational methods in addressing their research questions.