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Public Administration, Social Equity and a New Dichotomy

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

By Ben Tafoya
June 12, 2019

Public Administration exhibits tensions over the matter of social equity. The debate began over the scientific nature of public management and today brings us to the need for social equity as a fundamental principle of the field. The nature of the literature is critical to how we teach the subject and how it is then practiced by those who have advanced through the academy into the field. Public administration has been marked by two seminal dichotomies through its history, but now needs a third to clarify the commitment to social equity.

We can trace the founding of the field to the seminal essay from Woodrow Wilson in 1887. Wilson conceived of a science of administration that enables the new-found constitutional polity to manage the government to their goals and objectives. Recognizing that the success of the democratic enterprise rested on the capability of those whose role was implementation, he charged the administrator to determine, “How law should be administered with enlightenment, with equity, with speed and without friction.” He argued for a positivistic interpretation of the role: one devoid of the grimness of politics which lead to, “The poisonous atmosphere of city government, the crooked secrets of state administration, the confusion, sinecurism, and corruption ever and again discovered in the bureaux at Washington.”

The 1960s brought currents of social change related to civil and human rights, questions of peace and war, the expansion of the social safety net, urban renewal and more. During this era leadership at the federal level led to the passage of landmark legislation with the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Fair Housing Act (1968), the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965). In 1968, a conference deemed Minnowbrook (after the conference center affiliated with Syracuse University) brought together scholars concerned about the lack of a specific ethic of social justice in the field of public administration. This gathering formed the intellectual basis for the New Public Administration, which solidified the notion that administrators are not value-free but rather should be guided by fundamental normative values.

This view rejected the constraints of the scientific conception of public management and offered an alternative proposal which contained values to guide the profession. In 1976, H. George Frederickson set out five norms to act as a guide. These included responsiveness, worker and citizen participation, social equity, citizen choice and administrative responsibility for program effectiveness. Admitting that these norms can conflict in a given situation, he addresses the idea of a trade-off in efficiency (centralized decision-making and delivery) with de-centralized citizen choice and participation in all aspects of administrative work. These norms argue for governance closer to the expressed needs of the community and movement toward justice.

As the profession implemented steps toward equity embodied in the Great Society, a reaction developed which brought about the second dichotomy—that of equity versus efficiency. The notion of efficiency was different than that posed by Frederickson but rather contained in the argument from Arthur Okun. Okun surmised that a focus on equity causes a drop in efficiency which leads to lost monies—what he called the leaky bucket. Briefly, this is the idea that efficiency could be enhanced, and therefore economic growth advanced, by limiting the public sector in size and scope. This thinking has dominated the era of austerity brought about through a conservative ascendancy in the United States and parts of Europe since the late 1970’s.

It is not enough that we acknowledge the goal of social equity. Our discipline needs to solidify the method of achieving social equity through a set of mechanisms that contributes to the richness of democracy. This framework is also capable of demonstrating the need for intersectional concern for equity across gender, race, ethnicity, national origin and more. The idea is that we are all equal in citizenship, and differences should not enable some to have fundamental advantages across social, economic and political spheres of society.

The thinking toward social equity and the responsibility of both public officials and administrators to further the goal of a more equitable society has evolved in the post-Minnowbrook era. The discipline recognizes the need, in an age of growing inequality and severe austerity, for an established ethical imperative to make sure that all members of society have access to government services. This is what I refer to as lower order or legalistic equity. Further, there is a challenge to conceive of actions, and implement policies, that can improve equity based on human rights, economic justice and political participation. I believe now is the time to take actions that close the chasm of inequality in the social, political, and economic sectors of society—particularly at the state and local level. This set of actions is what I posit as higher order or programmatic equity. I will be writing more about this in the future.

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.

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