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Revisiting, “Public Administration and Social Equity,” Thirty Years Later

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

By Carmen Ashley
October 7, 2019

Noted public administration scholar, researcher, and author H. George Frederickson closes his hallmark, “Public Administration and Social Equity” journal article with the following:

“As it has evolved in the last 20 years, social equity has served to order the understanding of public administration and to inform the judgment necessary to be both effective and fair.”

The evolutionary period Frederickson referred to was roughly between 1970 and 1990. Can the same be said about social equity and public administration today, almost 30 years after Frederickson’s article was first published?

I would offer that the same cannot be said. I will go even further by claiming that social equity has actually devolved to some degree in its attempts to be a precursor to effective and fair judgment. I present this argument from the lens provided by one of Shafritz Russell, and Borick’s political definitions of public administration:

“Public administration is implementing the public interest…Public interest is the universal label in which political actors wrap the policies and programs that they advocate.”

We all know that individuals and organizations in the public administration field have their own biases for what and what is not in the public interest. If that were not the case, there would be less divisiveness and lack of resolution over current political decisions related to gun control, women’s reproductive rights, same-sex marriages and universal healthcare.

Part of the reason these issues remain unresolved is that public servants—elected or appointed—have failed to use the concepts of social equity to, as Frederickson noted, “…Inform the judgement necessary to be both effective and fair.” Are current federal and state laws that defund certain reproductive clinics and ban abortions effective and fair? If so, for whom? Men? Women? Children? Is it financially viable to provide universal healthcare? If so, is it fair to those who already have health insurance through other means? (I will note here that I am not endorsing either side of these topics. Rather, my intent is to illustrate the broad spectrum of considerations that should be applied among those whose primary responsibility is to serve the public and, therefore, act in the public interest.)

Perhaps a more concrete example of this social justice devolution from the public administration purview is the current opioid epidemic. This epidemic actually started in earnest around the same time Frederickson’s article was written. The 1990s saw a significant increase in the number of doctor-prescribed opioids. Then, a second wave began in 2010 with an increase in heroin-related deaths. Now, we are in the midst the third wave of the opioid epidemic. The number of overdose deaths has increased exponentially, mostly due to the synthetic (illegally made) opioid phenomenon.

What does the opioid epidemic have to do with public administration and social equity, you ask? I believe a great deal.

Several reports and research articles confirm that the opioid epidemic is truly one of social inequity. While this epidemic knows no demographic boundaries, federal and state governments’ responses to it have been far from effective and fair. In the 1980s, for example, there was no drug, “Epidemic.” There was a, “War on drugs.” And while many non-whites in urban America struggled with heroin and other drug addiction, the response from government was essentially punitive and more harmful than helpful; arrests and excessively long prison sentences.

Fast forward to today’s drug, “Epidemic.” There is a sobering heat map illustrating where in the United States this epidemic is most hard-hitting. It is not urban America; it is rural, white America. In today’s “Epidemic,” there is very little, if any, punitive action for people struggling with addiction or for the physicians who knowingly overprescribed. Instead the focus is on efforts to find effective treatment for those who need help, and there is a focus on physician/provider education related to appropriate prescribing practices.

While many (myself included) applaud the energies invested in addressing this current, “Epidemic,” I do not believe that we, as public administrators, adhered to social equity concepts to help inform the decisions made in the public interest. Were our actions and the resulting laws fair to those suffering from addiction in the 1980s? Were they effective? What about now? As one recent review noted, “Physician bias, media portrayal of opioid abuse disorders and governmental regulation are a polyfactorial root of racial inequity in the opioid epidemic.”

I have only skimmed the surface of what clearly deserves a larger platform for discussion. However, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to revisit Frederickson’s paper to see how the public administration field has fared in the area of social equity some 30 years later. Frederickson is spot-on in his description of social justice and the essential role it must play in public administration; it is up to all of us to put it into practice to ensure effectiveness and fairness for the public interest.


Author: Carmen Ashley is a doctoral student at Valdosta State University a branch chief at a federal agency. Her email is [email protected], and her Twitter handle is @CarmenLAshley.

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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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