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Justice, Warning Lights and Organizational Capacity

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

By L. Maria Ingram
April 2, 2021

The subjects of justice and equity are experiencing a surge in public administration. Although justice for all is an expressly stated, foundational objective of the American governmental system, this past year has demonstrated clearly that we are far from saying we have achieved that goal. There are problems in our practices, and there are problems in our structures, and those problems deserve and need attention on many fronts.

Unfortunately, the potential collapse of our institutions from overload also seems to loom—and this possibility endangers our ability to pursue systemic justice. We have seen crumbling water systems produce poison, public parks turned into makeshift morgues and even people breaking up furniture to heat homes where power grids did not meet demand. How can we rely upon institutions to support real movement towards justice when our governments cannot seem to consistently assure basic elements of life themselves, such as clean water, adequate healthcare or reliable energy?

The experience of the past year has often felt like we were passengers in a creaky old bus being driven long after the check engine light has blinked on. New and increasingly insistent warning lights appeared over and over to tell us major systems were under stress. The possibility we could end up broken down with no sign of help seemed very real. We kept driving and pushing, though, because we needed, as a society, to make it to the other side. Fortunately, it is beginning to look like we might have made it. The question, however, remains: how much more can our institutions endure? How much more stress can public administration take?

We need to act in ways that recognize the organizational capacity of our public institutions is also an issue of justice. We are accustomed to thinking about justice in terms of race, gender, class and other aspects of cultural and of socioeconomic identity where untenable disparities of well-being occur at higher rates. However, assuring the efficiency, effectiveness and economy of our administrative structures also represents an issue of equity. This understanding is particularly important in terms of the fair distribution of resources between generations.

Intergenerational justice concerns the equitable conservation or stewardship of various natural and fiscal assets from one generation to the next and even for those far in the future. Typical debates involve the threat of scarcity where the consequences of depletion are most pressing, such as that caused by climate change. Other examples include the waning access to affordable education and to adequate housing for populations and communities increasingly stretched thinner and thinner by growing demands.

If you pay much attention to social media, the tension between generations is both a source of entertainment and a sign of genuine angst and fear. Even though these clashes provide some humor, the need for one generation to ensure sustainable operational capacity for the next is a real issue of fairness. The generations following ours already have a legitimate claim to being tired and stressed, as Anne Helen Peterson noted in a 2019 pre-pandemic Buzzfeed article, How Millennials Became the Burn-out Generation. Asking them to substantially fix the system immediately upon receipt seem a bit, well, unjust.

My area of expertise—public procurement—is seeing much-needed work focusing on sustainability and green purchasing. There are vital pockets of discussion about justice in housing capacity and urban and regional planning. Public-serving entities such as the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) seek to address problems of intergenerational justice and how they impact public institutional capacity across the globe. Progress is occurring, but it is slow, and lacks consistency across all levels and at all locations of government.

In practice, failures happen, breakdowns occur, and even well-maintained vehicles eventually need critical repairs. We must remember that all things are designed with built-in limits. There is only so much duct tape and superficial coats of paint can do to hold things together, particularly in times of stress when we most need those vital instruments to get us through. We do not typically discuss the health and sustainability of public institutions themselves to survive and thrive for the future as a justice issue, but we should.

If 2020 has taught us anything besides the need for more public action in support of justice, it is that governmental capacity—and the resilience of public administrators—is a necessary but depletable resource. We are dangerously close to being overdrawn when public capabilities and expertise are most needed. We are at a point where real people operating under real constraints simply cannot do more with less, and the state cannot be hollowed out any further. A too severe economy undermines efficiency, and ultimately effectiveness, and as a result, equity suffers. Leaving public institutions at least as well off as we received them is a basic matter of equity. At some point, substantial upgrades need to be made. We must consider new options. Succession planning and alternative solutions to existing problems must come to the fore.

It’s only fair.

Author: L. Maria Ingram is a Ph.D. Candidate with the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Tech. She is also a fifth-generation public servant who served as a federal contracting officer with the USDA, Forest Service. Her work is focused on understanding the role of fairness in federal procurement. Her address is [email protected]

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