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Public Administration, Social Equity and a New Dichotomy: Part II

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

By Ben Tafoya
October 6, 2019

In my last column (June 2019) I discussed a new dichotomy for addressing the commitment of the discipline of public administration to address social equity. The need for a concentrated commitment to social equity was highlighted in discussions such as the Minnowbrook conference held in 1968. This gathering crystalized an intellectual movement to insure that populations were served by public administrators regardless of class, race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. The new paradigm marked a significant departure from the previous ideas of administration as science, and the concern over efficiency versus equity. It challenged the discipline to offer greater openness, diversity and concrete action toward narrowing the gaps in societal equality.

What we have seen in this thrust offers the field the opportunity to evolve to a heightened commitment to equity. This is a basic requirement for public administration (such as in the Code of Ethics of ASPA). This commitment comes at two levels. The first is depicted through the legal commitment that certain rights are universal despite the demographics or characteristics of individuals and communities. For example, all have a right to fair housing and that right is enforced through law and policy from federal and local officials. Discrimination charges are brought and agreements are reached to resolve any cases of discrimination.     

As a supplement to this, we see a higher order, or programmatic approach, to social equity which calls on the profession to take specific actions to close the widening gap of inequality. This requirement has a growing urgency at the state and local level given the inaction of federal officials, and the differences in layers of equity between states and localities. Actions to provide localized increases in the minimum wage, implement paid sick leave or statewide policies for family and medical leave and provide tuition free community college are all examples of efforts to narrow the chasm of inequality across the spheres of our society.

On Monday, June 25, 2018, workers at the National Grid gas utility reported to work, finding that they were, “Locked out,” by company management. The workers were members of United Steel Workers of America (USWA) Locals 12003 and 12012-14 which had 1200 members scattered across Massachusetts. On the day their contract expired company management determined that they would not allow their USWA represented employees to continue working without a multiyear agreement. Once the, “Lockout,” began, National Grid hired temporary workers to fill the roles of the union members. The union members set up picket lines at company facilities, and both parties used the bully pulpit of communications and social media to promote their point-of-view. Immediately, cities and towns in Massachusetts decided to prohibit the temporary workers from performing work in their communities, citing community safety as a cause for the prohibition. Ultimately, this action spurred the resolution of the contract negotiations with an agreement that the workers ratified in January 2019.

How did local government and local public administrators get involved in this labor dispute? While the framing was that of community safety, was the basis which cities and towns used to withhold the permits from the firm in reality an issue of both social justice and public administration? Were the city councils, mayors and administrators using their control over permits to further the cause of workers (who are community members) that were turned away from their jobs, denying them pay, healthcare and other benefits? In an era of growing inequality of wealth and income, public administration at the state and local level has taken major responsibility to shore up the welfare state, expand economic opportunity, promote equity in hiring, promotion and pay and address the imbalances faced by women and people of color in search of equality.

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) has a Standing Panel on Social Equity in Governance which offered a set of organizing principles that included, “Fair and equitable public services,” as well as, “To promote fairness, justice and equity in the formation of public policy.” This is the closest that any of the organizations come to expressing support for a high level of commitment to social equity. The panel offers public meetings, conferences and papers on the topic as part of the organization’s broader mission to further the, “Ideas and practices that advance the theory and practice of public administration.”

The dichotomy posed in this article is a useful guide to measuring the impact of state and local actions on the inequality and disadvantage that plagues our society. Ethics statements from the array of professional and academic organizations that compose the discipline all point in a positive direction toward lessening inequality. It is not enough to treat all equally before the law; That is a necessary but not sufficient condition to promote full societal participation. It is a requirement that societal actions focus on the expansion of full democratic rights to all members.

Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya is an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University. He can be reached at [email protected] and is a former academic program director at Walden University. All opinions and mistakes are his alone. He is the author of a chapter in the upcoming volume, Public Affairs Practicuum from Birkdale Publishers.




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