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Radical Reset: Facilitating Empathy and Ethics in Public Administration Praxis and Pedagogy

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

By Karen D. Sweeting
October 17, 2022

We are recovering from a global pandemic and reckoning with attacks on civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, voting rights, climate change, economic inflation, global strife and war. Many are grappling with the loss of loved ones, health issues, mental health, displacement, brain fog and isolation, while others are ready for some sense of normalcy. Radical reset calls for the facilitation of empathy, equity and ethical responsibility and obligation in public administration praxis and pedagogy to reckon with our current reality and political and partisan polarization. In an upcoming special issue of Public Integrity, the 4Es: Empathy, Equity, Engagement, and Ethics, contributors offer insightful ways to engage academics and practitioners to foster the 4Es. Kris Norman-Major (2021) in How Many Es? What Must Public Administrators Consider in Providing for the Public Good? argued that the 3Es of economy, efficiency and effectiveness and the new 4Es of engagement, empathy, equity and ethics are all essential to public service, but there is much work to be done.  

Empathy, equity and ethics need more weight in practice and pedagogy. Ethics at their simplest, reflect thoughtful concern for standards of right and wrong. There are different approaches to guide how to understand and address ethical dilemmas and ponder the implications for ethical action. Empathy engages emotional awareness and sensitivity to understand, appreciate and share the feeling of others by requiring selflessness. Real empathy according to Delgado (1996) in Rodrigo’s Eleventh Chronicle: Empathy and False Empathy, takes us beyond our own needs and understanding to recognize our biases and reaction to others in distress based on how we perceive the normalcy or abnormalcy of given situations.

Gallup (2022) in The State of the Global Report noted that only 33 percent of the workforce reported feeling engaged. Employees in the United States and Canada reported experiencing daily negative emotions in the workplace: worry 41 percent, daily stress 50 percent, daily anger 18 percent and daily sadness 22 percent. Many of us are emotionally exhausted as we commit ourselves as human beings to the profession recognizing that empathy, equity and ethics in public service practice and pedagogy make a difference. Sweeting (2022) in Strategies to Foster Engagement, Empathy, Equity and Ethics in Public Service: A Conceptual Model for Public and Nonprofit Administrators advocated for more actionable and responsive practices to focus on the experiences and outcomes of the people we serve. We must find creative ways to move beyond present tenets and constructs to:

  • facilitate ethical leadership engagement, empathy and responsiveness
  • specify strategic and operational goals
  • incorporate cultural awareness and sensitivity in policies, practices, programs and procedures
  • integrate diversity, equity, inclusion and justice into human resource management
  • cultivate a supportive, equitable and inclusive organizational culture and climate
  • reinforce and sustain a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice
  • employ sensitive and inclusive communications
  • implement targeted training and professional development

We must remain dedicated to uplifting the human experience and take steps to outline bold agendas to reduce burdens, improve equity, practice ethics and reaffirm a commitment to public service that is inclusive and serves all people. We have an obligation to ensure that future practitioners are ethically trained and incorporate empathy in practice recognizing the diverse needs of the people they serve. To begin, we need to eradicate those damning notions that differences are negative.

As the 2022-2023 academic year gets underway, our students will bring current issues into the classroom, so how do we as faculty, with our dread, empathize with our students and figure out creative ways to integrate what is happening around us into our courses. We have a duty to be intentional, expose and engage students in conversations that put readings in context and deconstruct the metaphorical walls that limit our field and pedagogical approaches. As faculty, we have a responsibility to:

  • pioneer innovative and inclusive pedagogy to expand efforts that integrate diverse cultures and foster civic engagement as essential attributes of our pedagogy.
  • advance equity and inclusion in the classroom—this may include a review of course syllabi to ensure that diverse perspectives are infused, textbooks are affordable and scholarly work is connected to praxis in ways that endorse reality.
  • embed reflective, experiential and application activities and assignments like service learning to foster empathy and raise the collective consciousness about social equity and ethical practices.  

We all share a duty to learn, grow and do better. There is no magic strategy or easy solution. We need to show up, pull together and commit to action steeped in equity, ethics and empathy to disarm the minefield of explosive social, political, economic, environmental and global challenges that many continue to tiptoe around. It is vital that we empathize, support and invest in each other as we reorient ourselves and focus on building more human experiences in our daily interactions. The work we articulate requires courage and passion to not perpetuate oppressive systems, structures and ideologies. We need to stand together in solidarity based on shared humanity and commit to consistent, ongoing action to drive functional and structural change.

Author: Karen D. Sweeting, Ph.D. (preferred pronouns she/her/hers) is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island. Dr. Sweeting worked in public service for over 20 years. Her research focuses on social equity, inclusion, public personnel administration, and the nexus between public administration theory and practice. Email: [email protected]

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