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What Is So Scary About Equity?

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

Michael R. Ford
October 21, 2022

It is almost a tradition in our field to bemoan the disconnect between academic research and practice. Academics complain that research-supported approaches to governing are not adopted, and practitioners complain that the research being produced in the academy is too esoteric to be useful. I am exaggerating a bit, of course, we all have examples of when the practitioner-academic relationship clicked to the betterment of all. But what do we do when there is a disconnect between one of the academy’s basic values and practice?

I am talking about social equity. As I have written in this column before, social equity needs to be the foundation of democratic governance. If government is not working for one specific demographic group or neighborhood or region, it is by definition not effective. Though the term equity is increasingly politicized in our country’s worsening culture wars, at its core, it simply refers to fairness in the delivery of public services. On its face, fairness in the delivery of public services should not be controversial. Yet it is.

In my County for example, leadership floated the idea of dissolving their diversity affairs commission on the grounds that it has become too divisive. I again return to the meaning of equity. Do people really find fairness to be a divisive concept? I suppose those who are benefiting from the inequitable application of government power may be threatened by the idea of fairness, specifically concerned that it would reduce their own status, power or wealth. But such attitudes are nothing new, and they cannot be allowed to derail progress towards a government that works for all.

Perhaps it is the term itself. Has the word equity become a stand-in for liberal, thus making conservatives reflexively adverse to its use? Returning to my County, it does appear the rationale for dissolving equity efforts is more about the politics of the term than opposition to the idea of fair government. So I do think the term has become politicized, but I do not think that is the whole story. As Susan Gooden eloquently wrote, the specifics of equity are nervous areas of government. So yes, some of the discomfort around equity is political, but there are also layers of discomfort and fear around discussing equity in local government.

In my experience there are many local officials who believe in the tenets of equity but are terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing. Rather than engage on equity issues they outsource it to equity committees and consultants. The intention is pure, officials want to empower traditionally marginalized voices to lead on issues on which many local government leaders feel they have no credibility. Unfortunately, this often puts the onus on external actors like resident committees and consultants to reform government operations. Given these actors are volunteers or contract employees lacking any operational authority, they are set up to fail. The worst-case scenario is a situation where municipal leadership feel they are addressing equity through structures that in reality are ill-equipped to implement productive change.

This is not to say resident equity boards are not needed. They serve in an advisory role as the bridge between the public and local government officials on issues related to equity. But, it is up to local elected officials to pass policy changes, and local government executives to implement policy changes, for there to be real lasting progress towards social equity at the local level. To put it another way, volunteer residents boards are an essential yet insufficient approach to making social equity progress in local government.

In summary, we need to take the discomfort many practitioners feel around discussing equity seriously. That process includes a relentless commitment to sharing the definition of equity, researching the implementation of equity policies in practice and disseminating that research to a practitioner audience. Such steps can limit the space for the term to be politicized for the purpose of stoking abstract fears. Finally, we must continue efforts to teach our future municipal managers how to integrate social equity into the day-to-day operations of government. My hope is that through a combination of deliberate work and turnover to an equity-trained workforce, the benefits of a commitment to social equity in local government management will be obvious to the point of making any efforts to weaponize discomfort around the term laughable.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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One Response to What Is So Scary About Equity?

  1. Jim Bourey Reply

    October 21, 2022 at 4:36 pm

    Michael, you just keep writing excellent columns. Thanks for the most valuable perspective. As a manager, I was always concerned about consultants coming into an organization and making it seemed like there would be change. Critical change like what is needed for equity needs to be ingrained in the management actions on a day to day basis. Additionally, the whole term of equity indeed has becomes politicized as so much else has.

    Jim Bourey

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