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Over the years, public administrators have contributed much in helping to create a more equitable, fairer, and more just America. Yet we have much more to contribute. As a core value in public administration, social equity is no longer novel or new. Nevertheless, during the past thirty years, as social equity has grown in importance in public administration, there is an irony: Americans have become less equal in virtually all aspects of social, economic, and political life. In our literature, in our classrooms, and in our administrative practices we have learned to talk the social equity talk. But if the data on the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in American are any clue, we are not walking the social equity talk. In this essay, I attempt to describe the changing terrain of public administration and sketch the challenges administrators face as they navigate both the theory and the reality of that terrain. Finally, I offer some suggestions for walking the social equity talk in the years ahead.
The Evolution of Social Equity in American Public Administration
In his seminal essay of almost a century ago, "General Principles of Management," Henri Fayol listed equity as one of fourteen general principles. His description of equity was entirely internal, having to do with equitable or fair treatment of employees. Fayol put it this way: "Desire for equity and equality of treatment are aspirations to be taken into account in dealing with employees. In order to satisfy these requirements as much as possible without neglecting any principles of losing sight of the general interest, the head of the business must frequently summon up his highest faculties. He should strive to instill a sense of equity throughout all levels of the scalar chain" (p. 58).
Though claiming equity to be a primary principle of management, Fayol did not consider the details of how to achieve equity in the context of the "scalar chain," or hierarchy, which contains such obvious inequalities as difference in pay, authority, and responsibility. Furthermore, because his founding essay had primarily to do with business organization, Fayol did not wrestle with the unique public administration challenges of equity in public policy or service delivery. Except for an essay by Woodrow Wilson, none of the other founding documents consider what we now call social equity in public administration.
Wilson pointed out that it is "harder to run a constitution than to frame one" and claimed that "administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics"; nevertheless, he describes a form of public administration social equity. Consider these words from his founding essay, "The Study of Administration": "The ideal for us is a civil service cultured and self-sufficient enough to act with sense and vigor, and yet so intimately connected with the popular thought, by means of elections and constant public counsel, as to find arbitrariness or class spirit quite out of the question" (p. 24).
Aside from these glancing blows, and the more considered treatment of justice in the early literature, for the first several generations of the field of public administration it was simply assumed that good administration of government was equally good for everyone. It was during the 1960s that it became increasingly evident that the results of governmental policy and the work of public administrators implementing those policies were much better for some citizens than for others. Issues of racial and class inequality and injustice were everywhere evident and the subject of open anger, indignation, outrage, and passion. Riots in the streets over racial injustice and an unpopular war tend to concentrate the mind. It was in this state of concentration that the phrase social equity entered the literature and later the practices of public administration. Certainly there had always been concern for fairness in the better practices of public administration, but it was not until the 1960s that the phrase social equity became a feature of public administration with an attendant set of concepts and a cluster of shared values.
In a brief and summary form, the initial elements of the concept of social equity are found in the claim that justice, fairness, and equality have everything to …