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The Politics of Cultural Competency Education

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

By Tony Carrizales
August 24, 2020

Integrating the study and practice of Cultural Competence into public administration education is important. How important is it? As an advocate for a culturally competent public sector, I would argue that its study and integration are as important as any core course in a public administration program. This would mean placing it among the ranks of policy, law, human resources, economics and budgeting, to name a few. Thus, we enter the politics of cultural competency education—an on-going discussion on the degree of its importance.

This article is deliberately framed as a “political” discussion—not in the left/right battle of ideologies—but in a broader sense of the word. Curriculum policy is part of an on-going and evolving discourse of competing interests. These interests include what faculty and the field view as critical knowledge, skills and values to have in the public administration profession. Also, there are practical interests in what the faculty are able and willing to teach. Even if there were to be universal agreement that cultural competency should be a core course, this does not equate to the same program offering such a course.

What is preventing a thorough adoption of cultural competence into the public administration curriculum? Terminology can at times mask the importance of cultural competency. It is not diversity management, affirmative action nor representative bureaucracy. Although related in underscoring the importance of a diverse public sector at all levels, cultural competency reflects specific policies and programs that public agencies can adopt to further their effectiveness in diverse communities. Cultural competence is not limited to hiring or management practices.

Is there enough research in the field of public administration to support curriculum courses and integration? The short answer is, yes. However, it may have not always been the case limiting earlier attempts for curriculum integration. Fifteen years ago a few chapters and articles were addressing cultural competence in public service. That is not to say it is a new and unproven area of study. Public health, education, nursing and social work have spent decades researching and teaching on the importance of cultural competence. Although public administration may have been late to the conversation, there is now a breadth of research including articles, case examples, books and courses.

How important is it? Should students of public administration entering into public service spend more time understanding what it means to work in diverse communities than they do on other subject areas? Will having an appreciation for differences in customs, language and communication make for a better public servant? Should an understanding of how communities can react differently to policies, programs or public events impact the way one manages in the public sector? If you have read this far in this essay, then you may find that these are the wrong questions. Developing and fostering a more efficient, effective and equitable public sector is directly linked with having a culturally component organization and workforce.

This brings us back to the political aspects of cultural competency education and how best to integrate the study into a public administration program. Does the study of cultural competence require a stand-alone course, should it be integrated across the program curriculum or a combination of both? Is a required course an elective or a required program course? The answers to these questions may be found in the ideological perspective on the importance of cultural competence education. If the faculty and stakeholders of a public administration program value the importance, then it may well be integrated across the curriculum along with a required core course. At the other end, cultural competence education may be regulated to a week’s discussion within an existing course.

As noted in the opening, I am an advocate for integrating cultural competence into public administration education as prominently as possible. Discussions to this end will undoubtedly vary by school and faculty. However, these are discussions that are hopefully taking place continuously. These discussions can be framed within the following question: Are our students graduating with the knowledge, skills and values to advance culturally competent policies and programs within their organizations?

The advancement of cultural competence in public administration education faces its share of challenges. Most notably, expanding into limited curriculum space, any additional requirements within the curriculum will require a decrease in another area. Therein lies the politics of cultural competency education.

Author: Tony Carrizales is an Associate Professor of Public Administration at Marist College and Chair of the Department of Public and Nonprofit Administration. His research interests include diversity and education in the public sector. [email protected]

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