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Can We Really Learn Something from McNamara? Redemption of Equity and Fairness in Public Service

By Tosha Wilson-Davis

Remember Robert McNamara? I am sure those in public administration know exactly who he is or who he wasn’t considering his love for his position over human rights and public service. His actions are reminiscent of why equity, integrity and fairness in social policy matters. The central issue in the McNamara case is the undeniable betrayal, dishonor and unethical actions by a government official who was more concerned about his personal gain of power and position rather that the common good and interest of the nation. The McNamara case study has such purposeful meaning and demonstrates the absolute necessity of integrity, equity and fairness in social policy and public service.  It showcases the hidden disloyalty and treason that continues to haunt and corrupt our American government, even today as we reflect on scandals such as the Bernie Madoff scandal in 2008, the continued unevenness of our tax policy and recipients of many social services programs to include Food Stamps, TANF, etc.

This leads to an overwhelming concern and skepticism of the American people as they build a wall of distrust for the government and public officials that are supposed to protect and serve and ensure the highest quality of equality, especially in social and public policy.  As McNamara illustrated with his actions during the Vietnam War, some administrators may fall short of their public service duty. According to Dwight Waldo, in the 2005 book titled, Public Administration: Concepts and Cases, “Those in government who decide and act on behalf of the public will from time to time, out of necessity as I see it, be lying, stealing, cheating and killing.” The McNamara case study surely exemplifies such and even makes one wonder, can we trust these high ranking public officials who are supposed to provide liberty and justice for all, protect and serve the American people and swear under oath to be fair and equitable?

Is there a solution and can public administrators learn from the McNamara case in terms of equity and fairness in public service? Surely there are lessons to be learned. In the case of McNamara and the Vietnam War, there was a gross negligence of integrity and equity. Nonetheless, McNamara redeemed himself in the issuance of a directive, Directive 520.26 signed by President Harry S. Truman. This directive served as the epitome of social equity and quite the redemption tactic for McNamara. This directive was titled, “Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces,” and specifically dealt with the issue of racial and gender discrimination within military communities. The directive declared, “Every military commander has the responsibility to oppose discriminatory practices affecting his men and their dependents and to foster equal opportunity for them, not only in areas under his immediate control, but also in nearby communities where they may live or gather in off-duty hours.”

It is worth noting that America is praised by others for its American Dream which simply includes financial and social equality and justice for all, such as access to renowned educational institutions and lucrative job opportunities. There are prominent phrases in some of our most famous national documents to include the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence with such phrases as “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justiceinsure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

There are no limitations mentioned in these documents regarding social class, socioeconomic status or other extralegal factors, yet a frank notion of equity and fairness for all humankind. Not only justice for the lower class, poor or those disadvantaged groups who cannot afford adequate counsel, but justice and equality which spans as far up as our President of the United States (impeachment if and when necessary). Now that is “Justice for All,” in a fair and equal sense of the word.  It is at this point when such penalties and fines, along with jail time and removal from office, is observed by American citizens that their mistrust in government will subside and will lead to a fairer nation, more effective and just social policy and effective public service.

As I close this column, I would like to provide some additional information on the characteristics of an effective administrator and ways for them to improve equity and fairness in social policy. First, we must agree that the McNamara case study and his redemption directive, as I like to call it, are very valuable examples of both right and wrong tactics as a public administrator. We must also understand that equity and fairness in public service is top priority for any public official and starts at the very top of the chain of command.

As a public administrator one should be grounded in their beliefs and speak out for the greater good. He or she should always evaluate and re-evaluate major decisions to assess what works, what doesn’t and always consider the repercussions. Increasing fairness and equity in social policy starts with three basic steps:

1) Leveling the playing field to allow resources to be within arm’s reach for all.

2)  Implementing necessary changes in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.

3) Evaluating the results.

This third step, evaluating results, is absolutely crucial to the success of social policy. Within policymaking, it is the evaluation phase which is usually overlooked or neglected and evidently leads to pitfalls. Policy evaluation creates a map of the policy to determine its direction. In other words, it holds the answer to questions like, is the policy working as intended? Are changes necessary to ensure its effectiveness? Becoming overly committed to existing policies and programs simply hinders our capacity to learn from experience and improve government performance.

Public administrators must possess good leadership, judgment and decision-making skills. They must review policies and create diversity and inclusiveness from all possible angles including race, age and gender. Likewise, public administrators must be concerned about the public’s viewpoint of him or her because their reputation is what makes them marketable and sustainable within the public’s eye. Exhibiting the utmost moral and ethical character, critically thinking about improvements and taking actions to implement them in a fair and honest manner is what public service is all about. Simply put, it is service before self.


Tosha Wilson-Davis is an adjunct professor of political science and faculty mentor at Georgia Military College. She is also an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Bainbridge State College. She has served as a faculty mentor for over a year at Georgia Military College and an adjunct professor both classroom and online for over three years. She is currently finishing her second masters degree in criminal justice at Troy University. Tosha also served as a former Civilian Contract Specialist (GS-11) for the Department of Defense at Robins AFB where she worked on several spares and services acquisitions, was selected to work a GSA Unique Large-Dollar acquisition and a Firetruck Overhaul Source Selection.  She was nominated for and received the Notable Achievement Award at Robins AFB in 2011 and a 10-Hour Performance Award in August 2013. She holds a Masters of Public Administration with a Government Contracting Specialization from Troy University and two Bachelor of Arts degrees, one in Sociology and the other in Criminal Justice. She has been an ASPA member since 2010. To contact Tosha, email her at [email protected] or [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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