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We’ve Been Here Before

Social Equality in Public Administration

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

By Wayne Jones
August 30, 2016

Social equality in public administration. We have been here before. What is different this time are the multifaceted aspects the current problem presents. However, that should not preclude public administration and administrators from providing a high level of professional public service.

Social equality concerns the equal and fair treatment of every individual. The desire for the equal treatment of all persons has been a tenet of public administration for decades. We have used numerous expressions to describe and discuss it including social equality, social equity in public administration, and social justice in public administration.

Scholars have written about the importance, necessity and forthrightness of providing a consistent level of professional service to the public. Two examples include Justice for All: Promoting Social Equity in Public Administration by Norman Johnson & James Savara and The State of Social Equity in American Public Administration by H. George Frederickson. ASPA’s Code of Ethics calls us to “strengthen social equity” via “treat all persons with fairness, justice, and equality and respect individual differences, rights and freedoms. Promote affirmative actions and other initiatives to reduce unfairness, injustice and inequality in society.”

We must also acknowledge that history tells a different story that public administration and some public administrators were complacent in the times they lived in. They remained silent while individuals from traditionally disadvantaged groups received less than equal application of public services and their rights as citizens. These groups included African-Americans, women and the indigent and homeless.

For African-Americans, the simple process of voting—a right guaranteed by the Constitution—was circumvented by public officials who administered sham literacy tests, arbitrarily closed voting registration offices at unusual times, and participated in application of poll taxes. Women have seen (and still witness) a glass ceiling that prevents them from reaching their full potential. The poor and homeless have struggled for years to obtain basic human services that many of us take for granted.

As time advanced what changed was the makeup of the individuals who would experience less than full application of the rights and services. These individuals include immigrants, Muslims and those with different sexual orientations, especially those who wish to have their relationship legalized by marriage. The problem here was evidenced when court clerks (who can be considered public administrators) in several states refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples in spite of documented court rulings.

Our society is now at a time where the latest group subjected to questionable treatment about the services they receive are transgendered individuals. The primary discussion centers on the choice of restrooms for persons who personally identify with a gender designation opposite that of their birth. This controversial issue is currently being addressed in several states.

What should the response of public administration be to these calls for social equality?

First, we should realize our unique position – we are citizens – we are professionals – we are public administrators. All three areas have implications for us. As citizens – we vote – we pay taxes – we participate in the political process – we have our political opinions and our personal lives and values. As professionals, we have a responsibility to perform our jobs uniformly with integrity, without bias and with a goal of making our community, our state and our country a better place to live. As public administrators, we have decided this is a discipline to which we feel a calling. We have years of college level training, with advanced and/or terminal degrees in public administration and public policy.

We understand the difficulty that change can bring, especially in areas that many people have very strong views. Many of these people are elected policymakers who have voted to implement decisions that we find objectionable. We are also impacted by court rulings that mandate actions many find objectionable. While we may vehemently disagree with the views and decisions of these policymakers, and courts, this should not preclude us from the professional performance of our duties whether we are a classified employee, an appointed official or elected officer of the court.

For those of us in the area of educating current and future public administrators, we must continue to stress the foundations of our discipline along with explaining the need to balance personal feelings with professional duties and responsibilities. At the end of the day, our obligation to provide fair, objective, professional, unbiased and equal service to all persons is paramount to the agencies and organizations we serve and to society.

Social equality in public administration is as important now as it was when Woodrow Wilson wrote The Study of Administration, saying that “administration should be administered with enlightenment, with equity, with speed and without friction.”

Social equality continues to be an area we should be actively involved. What an excellent time for public administration to set the example of what the right course of action is. It will not erase the history of those times many would like to forget. But it will provide the basis for us to contribute to making our ever-changing, more inclusive and diverse society less stressful for all.


Author: Wayne A. Jones is a full time faculty member in the department of political science and public administration at Virginia State University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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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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