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Social Equity Requires Smart Practice

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Christine Springer
February 6, 2015

Social equity is not only difficult to define but difficult to implement. It has been defined as: the fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract; and the fair and equitable distribution of public services, and implementation of public policy; and the commitment to promote fairness, justice and equity in the formation of public policy. For public managers that means fixing the lack of justice that many marginalized groups have been afforded and the economic disparities between the wealthiest and the poorest citizens. It also means that federal, state and local agencies must be involved in the regulation of land use in neighborhoods and cities, with particular emphasis on the impact that use has on vulnerable groups. Finally, it means fair treatment of all in public organizations and the leadership requiring an integration of social equity into human resource management.

Smart practice of social equity means personal focus and self-awareness by the public manager. Treating all people exactly the same can lead to unequal results. What one person thinks is fair may differ markedly from what another thinks is fair due to different moral values as well as environmental considerations. Philosophers such as John Rawls propose that an equitable society is based upon distributive justice while legal theorists have suggested that it is based upon procedural fairness. It may require both depending upon the goal and circumstance.

Smart practice as a public manager involved in managing social equity, in my experience, requires:

  1. Discovery of self.
  2. Knowing and appreciating constituents.
  3. Affirming shared values.
  4. Executing and adjusting delivery based upon results and feedback.

By doing so, credibility of the individual and the social equity objective is developed and maintained so that delivery is possible.

By taking time to discover one’s self, managers become aware of the level of commitment they are prepared to make and why they are prepared to be committed as well as what it will take to achieve success and what is required to be successful – a lot of money, time, work and/or sacrifice?  Such self-knowledge is required to achieve desired outcomes – knowing who you are, your values as a person and how best to use those values to be successful so that managers become the maker of their own lives. Managers need to know the level of commitment that they are willing to make by aligning their values with competencies and with their will to make and use those competencies to achieve the specific social equity outcome.

Knowing and appreciating constituents is required so that an approach to social equity can be specifically designed for the targeted group rather than for all constituencies. This requires that interests of others be put ahead of our own or others in the organization. This requires that managers be constituent –based more than into their own agenda, advancement and well-being. By being constituent-oriented, managers become credible and trustworthy to others and to themselves. To do so, requires continued listening and learning from others and the building of personal relationships through listening. It also requires the willingness to revise approaches based upon messages received.

To be successful, managers need to build consensus within the organization and the community around shared values that direct decisions and action. There also needs to be an agreement on the principles that are used to resolve inevitable conflicts that arise. The shared values need to be clearly defined and articulated so that managers see themselves as part of a larger community in which survival and success depend on a common understanding of purpose and principles as well as identified outcomes which may be revised in accordance with the shared values.

Executing and delivering on social equity goals sometimes means developing first the capacity of those involved to put the goals into practice. Five key elements in developing capacity are:

  1. Competence – People involved need to have the skills and knowledge to deliver.
  2. Choice – They must have the flexibility to make choices based on what they believe should be done.
  3. Confidence – They must believe that they can do it.
  4. Culture – They must feel that they are allowed to take some risks and make some mistakes as long as they do not place others or the outcome at risk.
  5. Communication – They must be constantly informed and also informing others about what is going on in order to keep up to date and adjust what they are doing. 

The purpose of achieving social equity should be front and center in everyone’s mind as well as the guiding principles of the organization. At the end of the day, individuals involved should be able to say to themselves and others: We Did What We Said We Would Do! Everyone should feel that they are serving a well defined purpose—constituents, the organization and also the guiding principles of the organization.


Author: In September 2006, Dr. Springer was appointed as the Director of the executive master’s degree in Emergency and Crisis Management at UNLV and is also a professor of public administration. She has served on congressional panels developing performance metrics for DHS/FEMA and is currently evaluating FEMA’s flood mapping coordination with other federal and state and local agencies. She serves on the Nevada Citizen Corps, The World Affairs board of directors as well as the National Academy of Public Administration’s board of directors. She received her Ph.D. from Indiana University. Springer is also CEO of Red Tape Limited, a consulting firm established in 1994.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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