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Moving Towards Cultural Humility in Public Administration

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

By Maria Artaega
June 19, 2023

During the past decade, a shift has occurred in public service delivery, from cultural competency to cultural humility: a new way of interacting with multicultural groups. The cause for this profound change is embedded in public servants’ better understanding of providing culturally responsive care that improves outcomes for communities.


There are various definitions of culture, but culture is simply traditions, norms, values, beliefs, attitudes, symbols, language, spirituality, and many other characteristics that make up a group or subgroup. Culture is constantly changing; it is not static.

Cultural Competency

On the other hand, cultural competency is the ability to interact effectively across cultures to respect the person being served. Often, cultural competency is seen as learning everything about a particular race, ethnic or cultural group regarding their behavior, beliefs, language, values and customs. It does not consider looking introspectively and examining our values, beliefs and biases.

Cultural Humility

Cultural humility centers on the fact that we cannot know everything about everyone’s culture. It involves self-awareness and self-reflection and lifelong learning. Its attributes including demonstrating active listening, being present, empathy, and compassion, and not making an assumption but instead respectfully asking the person being engaged about their culture, values and beliefs so there is common ground. Cultural humility is about recognizing that we need to understand our own biases so we can better engage with people from cultural backgrounds different from our own.

Why is cultural humility important in public administration?

Generally, there is a high level of distrust among citizens engaging with government agencies for various reasons. Some people do not access services because they do not trust that the government will treat them with dignity and respect and understand their concerns or needs. Public servants build trust among citizens by practicing cultural humility to ensure citizens will receive culturally and linguistically appropriate services.

When demonstrating cultural humility, public servants can better understand what is essential to the person being served and how to communicate, engage and sustain that engagement. The community member also will feel valued and respected from the interaction. In addition, the public servant will be as effective and efficient as possible in performing their role because they’re building trust as part of the interaction. Also, public servants can have more confidence in engaging with multicultural communities because cultural humility means that they do not have to be subject matter experts to serve multicultural communities.

From a citizen engagement perspective, citizens may likely have less frustration when interacting with public servants because they will feel heard.

Author: Maria Arteaga is an MPA student at California State University-Northridge. She can be reached via [email protected].

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One Response to Moving Towards Cultural Humility in Public Administration

  1. Willie Lee Patterson III Reply

    June 20, 2023 at 9:39 am

    this is a good reminder of the barriers many cultures face-especially in health care. It takes time and commitment to learn about other cultures.

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