Public Administrators and the Imperative for Social Equity

Multiple systems we helped build and operate have enabled, and far too often exacerbated, structural inequities that trace race and income lines.

As public administrators working to advance the public good, we want every human being to be safe and healthy with the opportunity to live a happy, vibrant life. Administrators in all areas—education, transportation, energy, health, human services, commerce, environmental protection, and elsewhere—contribute to a free and equal civil society. 

Widespread civil unrest is rolling across the nation in the wake of a long line of unconscionable deaths of Black men and women at the very hands of a system meant to protect. And, as laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple systems we helped build and operate have enabled, and far too often exacerbated, structural inequities that trace race and income lines. These events have spotlighted how deeply embedded our nation’s history of bias and discrimination is built into the very fabric of our health, social and economic systems. 

In 2019, the National Academy of Public Administration identified “Foster Social Equity” as one of the 12 Grand Challenges in Public Administration. In fact, social equity is a key element in advancing all of the Grand Challenges. The pandemic has further revealed the uneven foundation on which our society is built. Stark health disparities are deeply intertwined with social injustice, wealth and income inequality, housing discrimination, broadband access, and quality childcare and education. 

For example, the infection, hospitalization, and death rates are higher across the board for Black, Latinx, and Native American individuals. Overall female unemployment rates are at double digits for the first time since 1948; rates are highest for Black and Hispanic women.  People with disabilities face increased barriers in education around COVID-19 and are often at higher risk for contraction of the virus without equitable access to care. And as working conditions are increasingly differentiated among socio-economic classes, with disproportionate negative impacts on communities of color, some workers are being forced to return to work before it is safe to do so.

Now more than ever, Americans of all stripes acknowledge the need to advance social equity. What does this mean in practice?

We must understand that creating equal access to an inequitable system does not advance social equity. In all aspects of our civil society, we can no longer ignore disparities in structures and systems that ensure access to broadband, personal safety, jobs, banking, childcare, education, preventative health care, public transportation, and so much more. In considering these issues, we must ask multiple, layered questions to get at root causes, resisting our default tendency to apply a quick fix to only the most visible symptoms. We must call out the parts of our systems that perpetuate or protect inequities. We must understand the impact of our public policies on the very institutions we charge with carrying them out.

We must reverse engineer the structures we’ve built, step-by-step, to see what underpins them. When inequitable outcomes are driven by the persistent structures that shaped them, we must proactively dismantle these structures, using all of the levers available to us—policy, fiscal, practice, and operations. We must foster enabling conditions that remove barriers both in design and in implementation. This requires identifying long-standing, structural, and often unconscious biases embedded in institutional practices and mindsets. 

We must ensure that policy decisions flow from meaningful, reliable data. We must embed new ways of ensuring the data collected by our public institutions is complete and transparently understood in the full context of people and places. We must examine data through a social equity lens. In our design of services and programs, what data is to be collected and examined? Do we know not only what we are measuring, but why? Is it inclusive of communities impacted and informed by trauma? How do we know? How is the data disaggregated? Are we intentionally evaluating for whom a policy works and for whom it doesn’t? Who interprets the data?

We must do a major reset of how we manage programs and engage communities. Fortunately, some states and localities are recognizing that the circuit breakers have been tripped and they are taking action. For example, some are leading the way with dedicated cross-sector task forces to address the inequities playing out in this pandemic; these efforts need to be permanently embedded in all we do, not just part of a pandemic response. We must give states and localities greater flexibility to target resources to communities with the greatest need, and investments should promote economic and social changes that allow families and communities to flourish. 

The pandemic and nationwide protests about police brutality are illuminating the unbalanced conditions that have been hiding in plain sight for a very long time. We must work with communities to redesign our systems and bridge this untenable divide—not as a special initiative or demonstration project, but as a fundamentally different way of operating. 

As administrators of the public good, we must work together with our political leaders to heed the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the need to consider how to restructure the architecture of our society. Only then will all of us be free to live our lives to our fullest potential.

Tracy Wareing Evans is President and CEO of the American Public Human Services Association and a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.