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DSJ: Social Equity Across the Academy

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

By Brandi Blessett and Sean McCandless
July 27, 2020 

Social equity is a cornerstone of public administration. Most recently, COVID-19 and the graphic displays of police violence demonstrate disconnects between public administration’s aspirations for equity and the field’s ability to achieve it. As a discipline—research, pedagogy and practice—public administration, as well as other disciplines (medicine, criminal justice, education and social work) must reconcile how equity and justice continually fall short for people with marginalized and intersecting identities.

Social equity is 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.” Working to advance social equity requires an all-hands-on-deck approach from actors across sectors and disciplines to bring about real change.

The social determinants of health (SDOH) model acknowledges the interplay between conditions (social, economic and physical) and environment (school, church, workplace and neighborhood) that affect someone’s overall quality of life. To be under-resourced or underserved in one area likely creates adverse ripple effects for individuals, families and communities. Similar to efforts to advance social equity, we must coordinate efforts and establish a commitment, as demonstrated by infrastructure, resources and personnel, across all sectors to bring about meaningful change.

The interdisciplinary nature of PA requires intentional engagement with actors and institutions. It necessitates that we ask different questions, use different methodologies, seek knowledge and value knowledge from the lived experience of those people closest to the problem. Critical approaches are needed to interrogate standard patterns of practice, debunk myths associated with the deficiencies of people and place, as well as examine the administrative practices that create divergent realities benefitting some and burdening others. Cooperation is needed to advance an inclusive and comprehensive agenda, which is a very different approach than what has historically occurred.

Cooperation across the disciplines is particularly needed in three major areas. These areas are boundaries public administration must dismantle with the help of other disciplines to ensure that social equity is realized.

Legal Considerations: Administrators are bound at both federal and state levels to protect numerous constitutional rights, whether ensuring the right of people to be sure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, to be protected from deprivation of life, liberty, and property without due process of law, and to be given the equal protection of the law. Too often, persons from historically marginalized communities do not receive these protections, resulting in extensive distrust of government and its agents. Yet public administrators may be woefully underprepared to fully know these constitutional duties. Awareness of and action on these legal dimensions is paramount toward improving social equity.

Policy Boundaries: It has been stated that the principle policymaking power is the ability to define what a problem is. How policymakers define a problem sets the stage for the “solutions” they propose. In the case of social equity and policing, decisionmakers—whether elected or unelected—debate what the problem is. With respect to law enforcement, is the problem a few bad cops? Is it a lack of community understanding of policing? Is it centuries of terrorizing practices meant to subjugate populations? Entrenched power structures often determine the answers to these questions, and those with privilege often define the “answers” without consulting (or sharing meaningful decisionmaking power with) the very communities most affected by policing. If social equity is to be improved, the boundaries by which persons most affected by inequitable policing (i.e., persons of color) and their abilities to voice concerns and substantively shape policy must be broken down. If not, policing will remain a tool of the oppressor.

Implementation and Evaluation Boundaries: If policy sets the broad objectives of government, then implementation and evaluation turn these objectives into reality. Questions like, “Who benefits from this policy,” and, “How is it accountable for improving social equity?” need to be cornerstones of administrative practice. Also, incorporating the perspectives of marginalized voices on the question of, “What does success look like,” will help design programs that are inclusive and responsive to the needs of diverse constituents. Administrators have enormous power to implement broad directives, and these decisions matter. Yet without representation in public service agencies, extensive and meaningful engagement with communities most affected by a policy, will re-create and extend disadvantage and injustice.

Returning to the SDOH model, social, economic, physical and environmental conditions interact, and when boundaries exist in legal, policy and implementation/evaluation dimensions, public administration cannot work alone to promote equity. Siloed, discipline-specific approaches to problems only exacerbate these problems, especially regarding social equity. If social equity is to be improved in any one domain, public administrators must work with sociologists. Social workers must work with community planners. Communities and historians must talk with policymakers. All must work together to hear, incorporate and foster substantive decisionmaking input and power for communities most often left out of conversations of policy and administration. We hope you continue to join us for our column each month as we explore several ways to foster such interdisciplinary collaboration.


Brandi Blessett, Ph.D. is an associate professor and Director of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Cincinnati. 
Twitter: urbanrambl
[email protected]

Sean McCandless, Ph.D. is an assistant professor and associate director of the Doctorate in Public Administration program at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Twitter: seanmcc_pa
[email protected]

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2 Responses to DSJ: Social Equity Across the Academy

  1. Hurley Reply

    August 3, 2020 at 4:24 pm

    Your article is interesting political commentary. Social equity is a political agenda of one major party, but not the other major party. Many agree with the goals. Most career public administrators see social equity as a highly partisan matter and not a cornerstone of PA.

    Thanks for sharing your point of view.

  2. James A Nordin Reply

    July 31, 2020 at 3:05 pm

    Brandi, Sean,

    I agree with your sentiments – although your “solution” is more an ideal than practical.

    I would ask you to consider another feature of public administration in your future writings. According to democratic theory, “the people” are self governing. They govern themselves through elected officials. Therefore, it is the elected officials who should set policy and the standards for determining whether the policy is met or not.

    Your description of policing (the tool of the oppressor) begs the central question: did “the people” decide on this policy through their elected officials? If so, there is either a gigantic problem with democratic theory or you (we) are suggesting that public administrators should override the will of “the people.”

    I would be most interested in seeing how you would address this issue. In truth, I don’t see a way out of the problem. Americans get the government they deserve – the one they voted for. Is our role to become more political (maybe mostly political) and impact elections? I don’t know the answer to this, so I look to you who are wiser and more deeply versed in the issue.

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