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The Importance of Cultural Competence in Public Administration

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

By Catherine E. Wilson
June 12, 2015

The advancement of culturally competent practices in the field of public administration is growing ever more important. The U.S. Census reports that in 2013 of an estimated 316 million residents living in the United States , roughly 39.4 percent of these residents categorized themselves as ethnic and racial minorities – including Latinos and those of two or more races. In addition, 12.9 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born in 2010, with the majority of the foreign-born hailing from Latin America and the Caribbean, followed by Asia. Given these demographic trends, public, private and nonprofit organizations are finding innovative ways to provide services to this increasingly diverse population that are respectful of and attentive to distinct cultural beliefs and traditions.

In 2010, states like California, Nevada, Florida and New York, registered a foreign-born population of 15 percent or greater. Douglas S. Massey and Chiara Capoferro maintain in New Faces in New Places (2010) that a dispersion of immigrant flows has been underway in the United States since the 1990s. The authors explain that the “big five” immigrant receiving states (New York, Illinois, Texas, California and Florida) absorbed the majority of immigrant flows in 1980 and 1990, whereas new state-level destinations such as Georgia and North Carolina began receiving greater numbers of immigrants between 1980 and 2005. The number of flows to second tier states like New Jersey, Washington, Maryland, Virginia and Massachusetts, remained constant at 12.1 percent in both 1980 and 2005.

Accompanying this dispersion of immigrant flows is the decision by many immigrants to live in the suburbs. In 21st Century Gateways, Susan W. Hardwick examines the immigrant composition of these “rapidly diversifying suburban landscapes.” According to Hardwick, the United States at the turn of the 21st century can be characterized as a “suburban immigrant nation” and perhaps even a “melting pot suburbs.” As a response to these flows, U.S. metropolitan regions are now leading the way in inclusive community-building and immigrant integration in the social, economic and cultural spheres of life.

This metropolitan response contrasts to more restrictive state activity concerning immigration over the last several years. In addition to the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070 in 2010 — the majority of whose controversial provisions were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 — Arizona state legislators in 2011 attempted to redefine birthright citizenship under SB 1308 and SB 1309, in order to prompt change in the 14th Amendment. These latter efforts failed since citizenship has been considered federal domain since the 14th Amendment’s passage in 1868. As Edward Erler states in The Founders on Citizenship and Immigration (2007), the 14th Amendment made “United States citizenship primary and state citizenship derivative.”

Since immigration is no longer an issue confined to a particular region but one that has wide-ranging demographic consequences, public administrators – especially at the local level – should consider a variety of approaches to deliver culturally competent services in a more effective fashion. Kristen A. Norman-Major and Susan T. Gooden claim in Cultural Competency for Public Administrators (2012) that “cultural competency is a characteristic of good government.” First, public administrators should strive to create greater awareness of the demographic change diversifying the landscape. Second, they should continue to tailor public services, foster cross-sector partnerships and rely on the shared cultural expertise of nonprofits representing these diverse communities.

Take for instance the city of Philadelphia. According to the U.S. Census, out of an estimated population of 1.6 million approximately 12 percent of city residents between 2009 and 2013 were foreign-born. The American Community Survey found thatwhile 22 percent of Philadelphia residents spoke a language other than English in 2012, 10 percent of these residents spoke English less than “very well” – characterizing them as limited English proficient persons.

In response to this demographic change, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter established the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs (MOIMA) in 2013. MOIMA guarantees that immigrants and other cultural groups have equal access to city services, supports their active civic participation in community life and champion a range of cultural and economic contributions. As a municipal office, MOIMA works alongside other nonprofit, public and private organizations to assist these groups offering information about language access and other needed services offered by community providers. Additionally, the office strives to recognize the cultural accomplishments of its residents through initiatives such as xCultural Passport to PHL Week held every September.

This office, along with other initiatives taking place throughout the country, demonstrate that municipalities are becoming welcoming spaces for immigrants and other cultural groups. Through their adoption of culturally competent practices, these municipalities are taking part in good government. Through the trends identified, these practices will be essential to local governance in the 21st century.

Author: Catherine E. Wilson is associate professor and interim chair, department of public administration at Villanova University. She can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @CEWilsonVU.

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One Response to The Importance of Cultural Competence in Public Administration

  1. Pingback: Immigrants, the Aging Government Workforce and the Age of Millennials | PA TIMES Online

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