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Democracy, the Public and the Inclusive We

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

By Parisa Vinzant
August 29, 2022

Can public policy represent the public interest if not all of the public is represented? For too long the fields of public policy and public administration in the United States have exchanged the term citizen for the public in their understanding of the traditional relationship between the people and the public servants who work for them. Too often this misconception distorts community engagement efforts to inform and involve the public in the development of policy. Even with the most proactive commitment to equity and inclusion, an approach to public governance that places noncitizen immigrants outside the bounds of participatory policy development, creates a permanent invisible caste and policies that are deficient, counterproductive or broadly damaging.

Of the 45.7 million immigrants living in the United States in 2017, the Pew Research Center estimates that 77 percent are in the country legally, 45 percent of whom are naturalized citizens eligible to vote. This means that 14.5 million noncitizen immigrants who live here legally are virtually invisible members of the public.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric has shaped our immigration policies for the worse, making immigrants the scapegoat for America’s economic and social ills. In a January 2022 article by Victor Ray, Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan, language that characterizes unauthorized immigrants as “cheaters who need to ‘get in line’ and naturalize the right way,” is used to legitimize “how the immigration process, via burdens, shape the agency of racially marginalized groups,” and to justify “exceptional burdens around the naturalization process, which takes years and requires navigating a byzantine bureaucratic process.” These racialized burdens become tools of public administration to “enable the switch from openly racist appeals to the nominally neutral targeting of cumbersome, routine, bureaucratic minutia disproportionately toward racially marginalized groups.” In other words, when aspiring citizens are unable to pay considerable immigration fees or hire lawyers to navigate the complex administrative process to apply for naturalization, public administrators can point to legal or organizational requirements for seemingly neutral justification for discriminatory policy impacts.

Contrary to popular belief, citizen and noncitizen immigrants pay taxes and boost our economy, including the contribution of $2 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product in 2016, and in 2018, $458.7 billion in state, local and federal taxes. Despite these substantial economic contributions, noncitizens are formally excluded from participation in our democracy and have no say in the laws that affect them.

This situation runs counter to our democratic principles. The theory of representative bureaucracycharacterized by Samuel Krislov as “all social groups hav[ing] a right to participation in their governing institutions”ought to include the interests and needs of noncitizen immigrants. Yet, much of the literature exploring representative bureaucracy limits research to citizen rather than the more inclusive wording of persons, residents, the public or interested parties. As Norma Riccucci and Gregg Van Ryzin outline in their January 2017 article, there is ample evidence that a bureaucracy representative of the diversity of the people it serves—such as by race, ethnicity or gender—can lead to more equitable and efficient policy outcomes and enhance the public’s trust in its government. For optimal democratic governance, Frederick Mosher states in his 1968 book that career bureaucrats must use their administrative discretion to ensure that the values and preferences of all people are represented in policy outcomes. In this way, a representative bureaucracy serves as a stop gap when representation fails through other political institutions such as elected bodies. However, a disconnect can occur between theory and practice because of limiting, organizational norms around discretion.

How large are the gaps that public administrators must close—and especially those at state and local levels—to realize truly representative bureaucracies? Considering that noncitizen immigrants are blocked from direct participation in civic life, what new tactics might public administrators use to ensure that these voices are included in policy development, implementation and outcomes? For example, how might IAP2’s Spectrum of Public Participation be meaningfully applied to address these gaps?

Over the last decade, the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) and trailblazing cities such as Seattle, Portland and the City of Ottawa have pushed to build the capacity of local governments to embed equity lenses—with explicit focus on race—into every aspect of how cities do their jobs. This initiative could go a long way toward mitigating the racialized administrative burdens identified by Ray, Herd and Moynihan, but the reach and success of these efforts depend largely on the extent to which cities embrace the value of coproduction.

Forging a coproductive relationship by way of resident-led commissions is not a new idea, but an innovation in California has furthered it. In October 2019, Governor Newsom approved a new policy that opened participation on appointed commissions and boards at the local and state level to all Californians regardless of citizenship status. With 10 million of California’s 40 million people comprising immigrants from over 60 different countries, the state acknowledges that “diverse backgrounds benefit the state through providing a diversity of experiences and expertise, and this diversity is especially beneficial in creating public policy that supports and protects all people.”

Developing policy that “supports and protects all people” is a worthy objective that benefits all members of the public. Working together we can surely discover other ways in which the field of public administration could create a better, more inclusive representative bureaucracy—a vital mechanism that would strengthen and preserve our democracy. 

Author: Parisa Vinzant, MPA, is an equity/inclusion consultant, strategist, and technology/innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Parisa applies a social/racial equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging from ethics, education, democracy, technology, and community engagement. Any views expressed herein are hers alone. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant (Twitter).

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