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Public Administration, Community Development and Social Equity

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

By William Hatcher
February 10, 2015

Community development is the bettering of political, social and economic institutions. But often development theory and practice is overly concerned with only the building of economic assets in a community. In many discussions regarding the future of our communities, economic development is given more attention than the cultivating of local social and political institutions. However, the role of community development in strengthening social and political assets should not be forgotten. In fact, community development scholars and practitioners should embrace this role.

In the past, I have discussed how community development can build social capital and political capital in our communities. This month, I want to discuss how community development, rooted in the principles of new public administration (NPA), can also aid communities in achieving social equity.

The assets model of development helps communities incorporate strategies to grow both economic assets and social ones. Furthermore, public administration offers a wealth of normative and descriptive literature on social equity in organizations. Developers, utilizing the best practices for social equity in the public administration literature to implement the assets model, are more likely to promote development outcomes that are effective and also fair to as many citizens as possible in our communities.

Public Administration and Social Equity 

To understand the role that community development and public administration can play in promoting social equity, we first need to define the concept. According to Professor McSherry with the Melbourne Social Equity Institute, social equity holds various meanings. It is difficult to define because the concept is value-laden. The meaning of social equity in administration often revolves around “fairness” in governmental action.

Public administration has a responsibility to develop administrative theories and practices that promote efficiency, effectiveness and equity in government and nonprofit organizations. Nevertheless, whether it is the practices of Frederick Taylor or the theories of new public management, public administration has often focused on efficiency at the expense of effectiveness and equity. Such a focus may produce highly efficient organizations that are either ineffective or undemocratic… or both.

George Frederickson and other scholars of the new public administration (NPA) school of thought made this point succinctly in the late 1960s.  The scholars were concerned with public administration promoting social equity and democratic values. To the scholars, public administration can never be value neutral. Public administration should actively pursue fairness, equity and democratic ethos in public organizations. According to Frederickson and other NPA scholars, public administration can promote social equity in the following ways.

  • First, public administration needs to discard the idea of complete political neutrality. It is an unattainable goal and may keep organizations from being fair. Public administration can argue for best practices that ensure the protection of groups that have suffered or are suffering from discriminatory practices, especially when it comes to hiring and firing procedures. 
  • Second, public administration needs to be more representative of the communities it serves. This includes both active and passive representative bureaucracy, where public organizations mirror the demographic makeups of their communities and also serve their policy wishes. 
  • Lastly, when possible, public administration needs to institute democratic decision-making procedures. From budgeting to planning, there needs to be public involvement, especially at the local government level. 

Community Development and Social Equity

Community development theory and practice offers prescriptions for the promotion of social equity. The assets model calls for planners, developers, business owners, citizens and the overall community to work together in the crafting and implementing of local visions. This type of collective decision-making will help engage groups that have lacked a voice in past development decisions. The same actors, such as landowners, prominent citizens and officials, should not always be the ones at the decision table. By promoting collective decision-making, the assets model and community development calls for a broadening of participation in key governmental decisions.

The model also argues for sustainable development, which at its foundation is concerned with fairness and social equity in the allocation of economic resources in our communities. According to President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development, social equity should be a foundational goal of development-related policies.

The scholarship and practice in public administration and community development provide public managers with the administrative tools needed to achieve social equity in their organizations and communities. By focusing on the ideas of NPA and the assets model, these managers will help ensure that administrative practices are not just concerned with efficiency and effectiveness but also fairness.

Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Government at Eastern Kentucky University. He can be reached at [email protected] (His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.)

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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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