Social Equity and a New Public Administration

The initial conceptualization of social equity in public administration has so far been rather simple and speculative. However, social equity seldom stands still long enough to allow for conclusions. Ideas such as social equity move and evolve, influenced by events, policy, politics, and social change.

[Equity] denotes the spirit and the habit of fairness and justness and right dealing which would regulate the intercourse of men with men,—the rule of doing to all others, as we desire them to do to us; or, as it is expressed by Justinian, “to live honestly, to harm nobody, to render every man his due.” . . . It is, therefore, the synonym of natural right or justice. But in this sense, its obligation is ethical rather than jural, and its discussion belongs to the sphere of morals. It is grounded in the precepts of the conscience, not in any sanction of positive law.

Black’s Law Dictionary (1957)

What new public administration is striving for is equity. So, we can see, the modern version of political economics is now customarily referred to as either “nonmarket economics” or the “public choice” approach. This body of knowledge is rich in tradition and intellectual rigor but somewhat light in empirical evidence. Nevertheless, the public choice theorists are having and will continue to have an important influence on American public administration. Vincent Ostrom essentially ties together public choice logic, public administration history and theory, and political philosophy. In his book The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration (1973), he compares the perspective on public administration developed by Woodrow Wilson, which he labels bureaucratic theory, with the perspectives of the public choice theorist, which he labels a “paradigm of democratic administration.” The Wilsonian perspective is, in Ostrom’s judgment, a sharp departure from the Hamiltonian-Madisonian perspective on the nature of government. Both, however, trace more directly to the political philosophy of Hobbes. The Wilsonian, or bureaucratic, paradigm has the following components: there will always be a dominant center of power in any system of government; society will be controlled by that single center of power, and the more power is unified and directed from a single center the more responsible it will become; the field of politics sets the task for administration, but the field of administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics; perfection in the hierarchical ordering of a professionally trained public service provides the structural conditions necessary for “good” administration; and perfection of “good” administration as above defined is a necessary condition for modernity in human civilization and for the advancement of human welfare.

It is popular to believe that there will be a wilting away of old models in public administration and the emergence of a totally new model. This pattern of theory and model evolution (and devolution) may be common in the life, physical, or natural sciences, as Thomas Kuhn (1970) suggests, but I am of the view that it is not common in the social sciences. My reasons are fairly simple and traced directly to the questions of linkage between theory and value. Public administration is, in many ways, the vehicle for implementing the values or preferences of individuals, groups, social classes, or whole societies. These values are ongoing or enduring, but they are often also competitive. At any point in time, one set of values may be dominant and have a lock on the practice of public administration, as I would contend the classic and neo-bureaucratic models now do. Therefore, efficiency, economy, productivity, and centralization are dominant norms, and bureaucratic behavior, as well as bureaucratic theory, reflect this domination.

If one can accept these arguments, then concepts of new public administration and social equity would have to begin with the argument that a different (and certainly not new) set of values should predominate. These values would be carried out by organizations that are humanistic, decentralized, and democratic and that distribute public services equitably. New public administration, therefore, would be the attempt to organize, describe, design, or make operative organizations that further these norms. This clearly is a markedly less ambitious interpretation of the objectives of new public administration than many who identify with the field would accept. For example, it is standard practice to call for the “radical reconstruction of public administration” or for the development of a “new paradigm that reorients man.” These are catchy notions and often receive unwarranted attention in the academy, where premiums are paid for the freshness of an idea or for being on the cutting edge of “mind-breaking” positions. The critical point is that most of these views are far too utopian to be feasible or so abstract as to be nonoperational. All this is understandable, given the extent to which one takes seriously the label “new.” If newer public administration scholars or practitioners worried less about whether an idea is old or new and worried more about the extent to which the idea can be operational, then it would be possible to develop a truly new public administration. In a very real sense, this is the most radical version of modern public administration because it identifies dominant values and seeks governmental means by which these values can be effectuated.

Obviously, questions of social equity will be central to future policy decisions in public administration. It is incumbent on the public servant to be able to develop and defend criteria and measures of equity and to understand the impact of public services on the dignity and well-being of citizens. It would follow that concepts of social equity would come to be fundamental in the education of modern public administrators. So, too, will concerns for the responsiveness of complex organizations to the needs of both the individuals working in them and the citizens who are receiving their services. This will oblige the public administrator to be deeply concerned about the social consequences of his or her work.

The public servant will very likely be an advocate, but most modern public servants already are. Frequently, however, their advocacy has to do with such public services as fire, police, national defense, environment, and the like. From now on, it will be essential to relate the public servant’s substantive field to questions of equity and social well-being. This should cause the administrator to be far more participatory and open in the management of government agencies. It is difficult to know of citizen needs if the administrator is not in direct and routine interaction with elected officials and legislative bodies. Thus, participation and political interaction are critical to the development of the concept of social equity. The public official will come to be understood as a processor and facilitator with elected officials of government response to rapid social, economic, and political change. In fact, an ability to mobilize government institutions to change may well come to define leadership in the future. The public servant will not be a hero or a Don Quixote, but rather a master of mobilizing and distributing public services fairly and equitably when such services are needed and discontinuing them when they are not needed.

This does not promise more than can be given, nor does it imply unbridled government intervention. Indeed, just the reverse. The public servant, with elected officials and legislative bodies, will plan the processes of change in a systematic way, keeping front and center a dialogue over what it is that government properly ought to be doing and for whom it ought to be done. Only with such a dialogue can the administrator hope to function rationally.

If public administrators are practicing policy guidance and the subject of social equity is shifting in the direction of social class, could it be said that we are engaged in a kind of “class warfare”? In the first place, the phrase “class warfare” is designed to be a conversation stopper, a kind of accusation that someone is taking a position unworthy of serious consideration. The accusation that one is engaged in class warfare is ordinarily followed by the claim that in a time of national crisis we should be united and that it is inappropriate for one to emphasize our differences and the things that divide us. As unelected public administrators, it is not our place to be concerned with matters of fairness and equity between the classes. Nonsense.
-George H. Frederickson (2015)


__Frederickson, H. G. (2015). Social equity and public administration: Origins, developments, and applications: Origins, developments, and applications. Routledge.

__Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (Vol. 111). University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

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