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Implementing Equity as a Core Operational Value

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 13, 2020

When discussing the ongoing racial protests and unrest, I have had friends say things along the lines of, “Glad this isn’t a problem here.” I understand the comment. When I am pulled over by police, I do not feel an ounce of fear. When I go the convenience store, nobody shadows me, thinking I will steal something. When I moved into my neighborhood, nobody called the police to report suspicious activity. Nobody ever tried to change my sexual orientation through therapy. When my son was in a fight at school, he was not suspended. When I say I am a college professor, nobody acts too surprised. I am a straight white male. But I have seen all of these things happen to minorities in my community. While discrimination may not be my daily experienced reality, it is part of our shared reality. This shared reality demonstrates why social equity is the most important pillar of Public Administration (PA), and why it must be treated as a core operational concept in local government.

I was a latecomer to social equity. It was not a major part of my masters or Ph.D. programs. It came up, usually in regards to a specific policy area, but was dwarfed by the attention paid to efficiency, effectiveness and economy. In my academic career I have seen social equity described as a “soft” idea that sits on the periphery of relevance to the practice of PA. I have had practitioners themselves tell me that, while they think equity is important, it is not a core operational issue. This attitude, that social equity is something to be discussed at the margins after all the core work is complete, is highly problematic.

I used to describe the four pillars of PA as a stool that supports our government. If you take away any one pillar, the stool will still stand for a bit, but it will be much more vulnerable to shocks. Hence, the fundamental purpose of the stool, to support a governed society, will be unsustainable over the long-term without social equity. But I think there are major flaws in my analogy, foremost that the pillar of effectiveness is impossible without equity. In a democracy, a government cannot be truly effective if it is not serving all identifiable subgroups. In other words, a government that fails for some is by definition failing.

While writing this, the Minneapolis City Council made the extraordinary announcement that they intend to disband their city’s police department. My initial reaction to hearing this, and to seeing the Defund the Police movement grow, was amazement. How will the law be enforced? Do people want anarchy? But, once again, I think I initially missed the point. These actions demonstrate that a substantial number of people believe existing criminal justice institutions are damaged beyond repair, leaving no choice but to start over. For a substantial part of the population, the anarchy exists in the status quo. That belief may not be my personal reality, but that belief is part of our shared reality, and that shared reality is the context in which our local governments operate. Another reality is the percentage of local government resources allocated for police. In my city, for example, about 30% of the operations budget goes to the police department. For too many, the single largest budget item in local government is allocated to an institution in which they have no confidence.

What can local government do? An enabling step is establishing the problem of inequity in the language of government. Currently the problem is being established in the language of collective social action, which is certainty drawing needed attention to systemic racial inequities. But the language of government is comprised of metrics, policies and feedback mechanisms. The PA field has made huge strides in how we measure social equity, and it is past time that local governments incorporate equity metrics into their normal operations. Metrics can establish the problem in a way that informs policies, enables measurable goal-setting and allows for accountability and course correction. Establishing the problem of inequity in the language of government makes systemic improvement possible.

Major advances in PA are often a function of significant shocks to society. The tragic murder of George Floyd, and the worldwide response it is inspiring, is a shock that cannot be ignored by any government leader. We must continue the work of making social equity a core operational value at the center of everything governments do.

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, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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