Dr. Sean McCandless, Assistant Professor of Public Administration
Publish Date

Accountability for Social Equity

At the end of 2021, I am again reminded why public administration is so important. We are closing out the second year of a global pandemic. We see disparities throughout numerous dimensions of public service. Long standing policy and administrative issues are leading to new ones. Across all of these considerations, the important work of public administrators is evident, and it is precisely because of this importance that it is critical that public service agencies must be accountable for social equity.

First off, if you look up definitions of public administration, you will see quite a few out there. In fact, during comprehensive exams for doctoral degrees concerning public administration, it is common for committees to ask doctoral candidates questions like “What is public administration?” With each classic definition out there--that public administration is largely associated with the executive branch; that it is really about management; that it is both distinct from but also part of policy and politics; that it is intersectoral--you will probably find both elements you agree with and disagree with, and I bet you would also find issues with how definitions do not quite encapsulate aspects of public administration. 

So, with this in mind (and assuming in advance that readers will find things they both agree with and disagree with), I see (or at least idealize) public administration as the interbranch, intergovernmental, and intersectoral endeavor operating within a constitutional framework to provide efficient, effective, economical, and socially equitable services so as to improve people’s lives. 

Okay, so that is a lot to parse. 

  • Public administration is interbranch because it covers legislative, judicial, and executive functions. All countries, even if they do not have the three distinct branches of government in the U.S., have these elements).
  • Public administration is intergovernmental in that it covers multiple levels of government. In the United States, we can conceive of this as the federal, state, and local levels. Other countries have more centralized, unitary power, but they still exhibit levels of where government occurs.
  • And public administration is also intersectoral in that the creation of services involves the public sector, nonprofit sector, and private sector.
  • Constitutional frameworks, which include both constitutions as well as acts and court rulings made under constitutions, establish where governments can and cannot legally act, what they are supposed to do (Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution is a great example of this), and also set in motion the endeavor of our working together.
  • And we work together for numerous reasons, but from a moral standpoint, we work together to provide common benefit (i.e., improve our lives) that we could not get by going it alone. Therefore, public administration should well use resources (efficiency), achieve goals (effective), cost the right amount (economical), and be fair for all (socially equitable). 

The scope of public administration covers so much. In fact, I cannot think of a single area of my own life that does not have public administration involved in some way, both directly and indirectly. And it is this pervasiveness that it is important that public administration treat everyone fairly. 

Susan Gooden provides one of the most useful frameworks to think about social equity in public administration. In her already-classic work Race and Social Equity: A Nervous Area of Government, she notes that public administration must take responsibility for promoting fairness for all. 

First off, public administrators must name inequities. What are inequities? There are many definitions, but I and others tend to define them as differences between groups due to prejudice and discrimination against that group. To Gooden, to name an inequity means to identify it in no uncertain terms. This can be a difficult process, not the least of which because people may not want to name an inequity. People may disagree with whether some difference between groups is or is not an inequity. And talking about inequity gets people nervous. In fact, in the opening of Race and Social Equity, Gooden aptly describes what happens when people get nervous--hearts beat faster, palms get sweaty, we shake, and more. Yet we need to both embrace and move beyond nervousness because as is the case with anything worth doing, if we let nervousness lead to inaction, we will not achieve anything new. This is also why to Johnson and Svara in Justice for All: Promoting Social Equity in Public Administration that admitting inequities is a critical step in resolving them. Naming inequities necessitates difficult work, not the least of which is listening to groups historically shut out from policy-making and administrative processes. More people must be at the table to have this conversation. As we will see below, listening has to lead to more. 

Naming inequities should proceed to blaming inequities. Blaming is a complex process, and it does not mean pointing fingers. Rather, it is a process through which the causes and effects of an inequity are thoroughly explored and understood. To understand the cause of an inequity, we need to understand history, socio-economics, politics, constitutional structures, who is involved, how different people and groups interact, and so much more. The essence is investigating how, when, and why prejudice and discrimination at multiple levels (individual, group, agency, systemic, and societal) led to some policy and/or administrative action. Who and/or what is responsible? 

Blaming inequities culminates in claiming inequities. Claiming refers to taking diverse, inclusive, and meaningful actions to address and remedy inequities. It is about accountability, or having the responsibility to accept responsibility, act transparently, being willing to be judged on performance, having consequences for wrongdoing, promoting confidence in public service systems, and promoting fair services. To Johnson and Svara, these steps include:

  1. Making fairness a priority
  2. Measuring inequities and track progress
  3. Reaching out to historically marginalized populations
  4. Providing meaningful seats at the table
  5. Reshaping agency policy and practice to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive

I have seen numerous examples of these principles at work, and I am working with a colleague on how these principles particularly manifest in public budgeting processes. The Government Alliance on Race and Equity has a fantastic toolkit to help public administrators engage in the process of promoting social equity, especially racial equity. What is evident therein is how promoting social equity means that we have to center values of accountability, communication, transparency, and more. In fact, its essences are six overarching sets of questions (pp. 6-7):

  1. Proposal: What is the policy, program, practice or budget decision under consideration? What are the desired results and outcomes?
  2. Data: What’s the data? What does the data tell us?
  3. Community engagement: How have communities been engaged? Are there opportunities to expand engagement?
  4. Analysis and strategies: Who will benefit from or be burdened by your proposal? What are your strategies for advancing racial equity or mitigating unintended consequences?
  5. Implementation: What is your plan for implementation? 
  6. Accountability and communication: How will you ensure accountability, communicate, and evaluate results?

These may be simple questions, but they are powerful. Above all, they prompt greater intentionality to ensure that public policies truly do serve everyone fairly and that historic inequities are reversed. 

These tools are also important for public administration education programs. It is an increasing expectation that public service officials, especially graduates of public administration programs, are not only aware of social equity but also have competence in achieving it. In fact, I am willing to bet that if you take a look at job ads at multiple levels, you will find more emphasis on demonstrating competence in social equity than was evident in job ads in years past. Throughout all of the skills needed, principle among these and woven throughout is ensuring that public administrators themselves value and center equity, that they reach out, and that they work to name, blame, and claim inequities. 

When they do, the results are public services that live up to their potential, namely to achieve what I think of as the highest goal of public administration, to improve people’s lives. 

Dr. Sean McCandless received his PhD in Public Affairs from the School of Public Affairs of the University of Colorado Denver. In addition to working as an assistant professor of Public Administration in the School of Public Management and Policy at UIS, Dr. McCandless serves as associate director of the Doctorate in Public Administration (DPA) program. His research concerns accountability for social equity, or how public service institutions become fairer in terms of access, processes, quality, and outcomes of public services. With Dr. Mary E. Guy, he is co-editor of the book Achieving Social Equity: From Problems to Solutions. He is currently editing other scholarly book volumes and journal symposia focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in public administration.

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