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Prioritizing Social Equity: Repairing Old and Building New Relationships

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

By Brandi Blessett
January 13, 2017

As the world embarks on a new year, public administrators should be reflective of the past, present and future actions of the profession. As a practical field, public administration is the lifeblood of government and governance in the United States. Therefore, public administrators working in public institutions using public resources on behalf of the public interest requires thoughtful consideration of all factions in society.

History tells us the political landscape in any democracy ebbs and flows from progressive to conservative, resulting in a change in values and restructured priorities for each respective administration. In a previous column, I discussed how such a change every few years place people who have intersecting identities (e.g. formerly incarcerated people, people of color, people who are poor, people who identify as LGBTQ, people who are differently abled) within the crosshairs of policy decisions that could be detrimental to their quality of life. From a public administration perspective, these groups have been rendered invisible by scholarship, pedagogy and practice.

Social equity, despite its historical underpinnings at the 1968 Minnowbrook Conference, remains a niche area in the field of public administration. Arguably, social equity is difficult to define, thus making it problematic for administrators to develop indicators, measure performance, and evaluate the success of social equity efforts. Social equity’s lack of conceptual clarity and empirical validity has not led to the same type of prominence as other concepts foundational to public administration, such as budgeting and financial management. Therefore, until social equity is fully investigated, implemented and evaluated, the field remains disconnected from relevant social issues and their subsequent consequences, which deeply affect all parts of society. In words of Frederickson, public policy specifically, but public administration broadly need to consider “whether an existing public program or proposed program is effective or good. The second question is more important. For whom is this program effective or good?”

With respect to teaching, public administration is far from an inclusive academic field. Yes, there have been improvements. The types of articles published, the people standing at the front of the class and the student composition is indeed more diverse. However, the field still has a long way to go. For example, much of the “traditional” scholarship of public administration curriculum lacks perspectives from people of color, women, LGBTQ persons or immigrants. Core courses still prioritize foundational works that present white, male, heterosexual and affluent perspective, therefore devoid of history, race or context. While Woodrow Wilson’s politics-administration dichotomy is a relevant discussion in an introductory class, having this discussion without consideration for the social, political and economic climate in the United States is misleading. Furthermore, to frame public administrators as “neutral” actors unaffected by personal, professional or political motivations is disingenuous as well. Professors must do a better job of integrating different voices into core curriculum.

Society is too complex to ignore equity, fairness and justice considerations, yet too often to mention these words or the associated rights and privileges of non-white people increases the likelihood of widespread animosity. Rather than be fringe topics, these concepts should be embedded into the administrative ethic of the profession. Integrity, ethics and cultural competency should be part of the cadre of knowledge, skills and behaviors foundational to public administration in the 21st century.circle-312343_640

Professional standards and codes of ethics need to be more than words on a piece of paper, particularly in a post-election 2016 era. These ideals need to reflect the values of a democratic society in reality, not just rhetorically. This reaffirmed commitment to integrity and ethics will need to be personally rooted and professionally grounded, especially since the Republican House of Representatives recently voted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. While this vote is specific to Congress, it sets the stage for what could be considered appropriate actions by public service professionals. I am often reminded that what is unethical is not illegal and what is legal is not ethical. Practically speaking, undermining opportunities to increase transparency and accountability in the work of public officials damages the legitimacy of public institutions and the institution of democracy itself.

Now more than ever, public administration scholars and practitioners should focus on ways to be cognizant of and responsive to the needs of all citizens, particularly persons who are traditionally marginalized. Consequently, to be unresponsive to the inequity and disparity experienced in communities of color has resulted in widespread protests movements such as Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock who were voicing their concerns about longstanding issues too often ignored, such as police brutality and having access to clean water.

There were many lessons to learn from in 2016 alone. A historical inventory of administrative actions will inform ways to move forward for the benefit of everyone in society. Looking toward the future, research can inform practice about the best ways to address disparity. Prioritizing social equity research will help move the United States toward a more equitable and inclusive society. As a result, a demonstrated commitment can be the linchpin needed to repair old and build new relationships with groups who have been traditionally marginalized.

Author: Brandi Blessett is an assistant professor in the department of public policy and administration at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research broadly focuses on issues of social justice. Her areas of study include cultural competency, social equity, administrative responsibility and disenfranchisement. She can be reached at [email protected].

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