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Social Vulnerability: Reframing Our Models of Service Delivery

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

By Thomas Poulin
June 5, 2021

Public agencies aim to provide service delivery in a professional, unbiased manner to the entire community. Generally, they do well providing services to the majority, but they might not always be serving the needs of all equally. This may be a form of benign neglect in pursuit of economies of scale. Attempting to tailor services at an individual level would be costly and time-consuming, based on what Alvin Toffler referred to as, “Diseconomies of complexity.” However, public agencies might be well served in achieving this mission if they altered their approaches in identifying socially vulnerable groups.

In identifying vulnerable groups, the starting point is often those protected by law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 identified protected classes. These included, “Race, color, religion, sex and national origin.” Since then, additional groups have been protected by federal law, based on sexual orientation or having a physical or mental disability. These protections are reflected in state law or local policy, though variations in the forms of protection and the manner in which these groups are defined may differ notably.

While services must be provided to these groups in an equitable manner, this traditional group typology does not encompass other forms of potential vulnerability. Emerging forms of social vulnerability have been identified and tied to economic, social or cultural characteristics. In the past, these may have been unaddressed by legislative act or organizational action for varied reasons, creating the potential for public service gaps. In addition to concerns for service delivery, identifying these groups within the public workforce might also be critical in providing an equitable workplace environment. Individual vulnerability increases for those fitting into multiple groups.

  • Class: As an ideal, the United States is a classless society, but growing wealth and income inequalities have created groups vulnerable due to an inability to provide for their own basic needs. Even if there are services available, depending on travel distance, work hours or other factors, they might be unable to avail themselves of these services under normal circumstances.
  • Gender: In 1964, the Civil Rights Act provided protection for sex, which was defined biologically. Existing federal protections for sexual orientation tend to cover homosexuality, but the definition of gender is evolving, now covering lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ). As our understanding of the group evolves, so must efforts to provide services in an equitable manner.
  • Health: Existing laws provide protections for service delivery for the disabled, but not necessarily for those with significant health issues who do not meet the legal standard for disability. Though not legally disabled, health issues affecting quality of life for this group might generate unique service needs.
  • Language/Literacy: Public agencies rely heavily on printed or electronic marketing of services. This presumes the public will have access to read and understand these materials. The literacy rate in the United States is 99%. This means more than 3.3 million people cannot read service information, even if they can access it.
  • Electronic Deserts: Nearly 20 million people in the United States lack reliable, high-speed internet access, with the lack being more sorely felt in rural areas, isolating them from the wealth of information agencies try to make available solely on-line.
  • Single Parent and Essential Worker Households: In decades past, families often relied on extended families for support, but changing demographics have altered the equation. Single-family households and those where all adults are essential workers face unique challenges in service needs, especially if there are young children in the household; more so if those working adults work non-traditional hours or must be deployed great distances when working.
  • Rural Households: In many communities, people have relied on the support of neighbors, regardless of whether they live in a close-knit neighborhood, a loose network of casual acquaintances or simply a collection of familiar strangers. While this support might still be present in urban and suburban areas, rural or isolated households might create differing service needs not always recognized by agencies based upon this lack of interpersonal support.

The mission of public agencies is to fulfill community needs and expectations. By and large, they do so effectively. Despite their best intentions, it is possible for vulnerable groups to become marginalized. They might require specialized services, challenging public agencies to find means to tailor approaches to groups or individuals with unique needs. They might not require services different from anyone else, but for various reasons they may not know of the services or they may be unable to access them. Public agencies owe a duty to all in their communities, and it is a duty they wish to fulfill. Before they can develop any form of individualized services, and before they can develop any alternative forms of outreach and accessibility, they must first identify the socially vulnerable groups within the community and the workforce, appreciating that the definition of vulnerable is perpetually evolving. The provision of quality public services becomes a moving target, and only with focus and practice will public agencies become adept at this challenging skill.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych) is an independent scholar and HRM Consultant. Previously, he served in local government for over 30 years, teaching in various areas of public administration for over 15. He currently serves as President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA, and may be reached at [email protected]

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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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