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Embrace the Boring: Weaving Diversity and Inclusion into the Fabric of Government

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

By Michael R. Ford
December 14, 2019

Social equity is the fourth, and at times the forgotten, pillar of Public Administration. While the concept itself is relatively simple to understand, its practical application in government can prove difficult. But what is the practical application of social equity? More importantly, how can those of us working in public administration weave diversity and inclusion into the fabric of our government?

Norman Johnson and James Svara wrote that, “Social equity refers to the promotion of equality in a society with deep social and economic disparities.” In order to accept this description of social equity, you must first accept that deep social and economic disparities do indeed exist in American society. However, throughout my career I have encountered smart well-meaning people who reject the notion that these disparities even exist. Some people have gotten defensive at the mere suggestion, as if the acceptance of structural inequities somehow devalues their success.

If people reject the fundamental premise of inequity, applying the principals of social equity to policy and practice is impossible. What good is a prescription without a diagnosis? Thus it is important to first establish the problem. In academic public administration this has already been done, but to apply it in government, we must establish the problem locally. My go-to is to point out racial and socio-economic achievement gaps in K-12 education. School is something we can all relate to, and widespread standardized testing, love it or hate it, provides ample opportunity to establish the problem. In my home of Oshkosh WI, for example, there is a 33.5 percentage point White-Black achievement gap in reading. Though the size of the gap changes every year, it is consistent in its existence and in its substantial size. I find there is little room to be defensive when confronted with hard irrefutable data showing clear inequities. Of course, inequities exist in other areas that are less familiar or hard to measure. These inequities matter too, but bringing up areas of obvious inequity (like the achievement gap) can establish that social equity is a legitimate topic of discussion in local government.

Once established as a priority, social equity can be applied through policies focused on increasing diversity and inclusion. Again, in my experience, the concepts of diversity and inclusion can be seen as threatening to those with entrenched power. And as Norton Long wrote, power is finite, meaning any gain in power for one group means a loss for another. The nature of power can lead to concepts like diversity and inclusion being viewed as problems, rather than assets for a community. Susan Gooden’s work on racial equity as a nervous area of government is an even more descriptive articulation of the barriers to advancing social equity in government.

So how do we overcome the barriers to advancing equity in government? My solution is to embrace the, “Boring,” areas where public administration scholars and practitioners have a comparative advantage. For example, here in Oshkosh, WI we just developed, and the city council just passed, a new debt policy. A debt policy is something that many might find, “Boring,” (I use scare quotes because there is nothing boring about municipal debt!). The new policy includes a test of social equity, specifically saying that the city must consider how any new bond issue increases fairness in the delivery of services to all residents. In this case the implementation of social equity is simple and non-controversial; debt guaranteed by the city’s ability to raise revenue from the general public must be used for something that benefits the general public.

There are other, “Boring,” areas where we can make diversity and inclusion the status quo for local government. Land-use policies, the budgeting process, park plans and capital improvement plans are all places where a simple line or two addressing social equity can normalize the consideration of diversity and inclusion in our governing processes. I know some places are already doing this. But I also know from my interactions with students, alumni and others that many are on the grounds that their community is just not ready.

Changing people’s minds is difficult. The pillar of social equity can be threatening to those who see its implementation as being in conflict with the nuts and bolts, i.e. the business, of running government. Where we cannot readily change minds we can establish the reality of inequities, and change government policies in order to demonstrate exactly how social equity is essential to the effectiveness of government. Change the policies and the minds will follow.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference.

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