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Has the Term Equity Lost All Practical Meaning?

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

By Michael R. Ford
June 5, 2023

A couple of weeks ago I had a long conversation with a local government manager on how our MPA program could better serve the local government workforce. I asked him what we could do better, and he said we should stop teaching so many peer-reviewed research articles. The answer surprised me given 40 percent of my job is producing those articles, so I asked him to explain. He said his employees need practical skills they can bring to the job more than theory. There it is, I thought, what he really means is we need to do a better job connecting research, i.e., academic Public Administration (PA) to practice, i.e., applied PA.

The tension between academic PA and applied PA is nothing new. Many a PA commentator has pointed out the risk of our field learning more and more about things that are less and less relevant to governing. The long-recognized danger is that the scholarly side of an applied field divorces itself from application to the point of being irrelevant. In reality, disconnects between the academy and practice ebb and flow, and in my opinion, are exaggerated by the outsized focus placed on a few elite institutions that primarily produce researchers. Most MPA program could not survive if they did not offer relevant course material and expertise.

So, while there can be disconnects between research and practice on how best to improve effectiveness, efficiency and economy, there is agreement that these pillars of PA are worth pursuing. But something different is happening with our field’s newest pillar: equity. The relationship between research on equity and equity in practice is more of a chasm than a disconnect. A disconnect can be fixed, a chasm can be too big to cross. I am still fairly new to the world of equity work, but I am a believer in its value, and thought much of the hostility towards equity was a communication problem. For years, I found folks who were reflexively against anything tied to equity became much more open-minded when I described it as fairness in the delivery of public services. However, that is no longer the case, equity has become part of our culture war politics.

Here in Wisconsin the university system banned the use of equity statements in application materials. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation to defund university diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs. I recently surveyed a larger number of municipal managers, and I had several declare that equity initiatives are inherently racist. A large number of survey respondents interpreted equity as a codeword for affirmative action. In early May I testified at a state legislative hearing on free speech where several elected officials voiced frustration with the use of pronouns in email signatures. As I write this I am listening to a state legislative hearing on municipal finance where DEI initiatives are being blamed for local government fiscal challenges.

Equity is having a moment, but probably not the one we in PA expected or wanted. Returning to the question posed in the headline, yes, I think the term equity has lost its practical meaning. It is painful to come to that conclusion given the importance of the concept, and the usefulness of the work done under the equity umbrella. But, the more equity is used as a culture war codeword, the harder it will be to advance equity-based approaches to improving government service. It is time to pivot.

I take comfort in H. George Frederickson’s conclusion that social equity is a work in progress. Part of that progression may be rebranding these concepts core to our field to ensure they are not lost in translation nor weaponized for political purposes. The roadmap for rebranding can be found in the growing body of equity work focused on belonging, fairness in service delivery, gender and racial representation, human resource management, humanity-based governance, free speech and so much more.

At times I wonder whether the progression of equity work should lead to the full integration of equity into the other pillars of efficiency, effectiveness and economy, eliminating the need for it as a standalone pillar. But, given how far we still need to go in advancing social equity, I think eliminating it as a pillar risks devaluing the idea of equity, thus halting progress in our field. Maybe we just need to be more specific and deliberate when connecting equity concepts to practice. Regardless, serious thought needs to be given to how we can achieve the goals of social equity in a time of political backlash.

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 an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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