How can public servants help promote equity and justice?


With the recent protests against the killing of George Floyd, the focus is back on a segment of the population that is at the heart of this issue: the public servant. The police force is part of the machinery that has been, is, and will be a part of our daily lives, whether we like it or not. How they behave and treat the public will determine the future we will for ourselves. So, can we ensure that they are better ‘servants,’ to the public? If so, how?


My own training in public administration was at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious school of public affairs. The school has shaped the study of public administration and one of the founding credos of the school is that administration is not value-neutral. Dwight Waldo, one of the most influential PA scholars to have lived in this century taught at the Maxwell School and pushed forth the idea that bureaucrats come to work with a value framework and they are not ‘neutral’ executors of policy. Using this insight, we may well face the world as it is, rather than how we want it to be. How these bureaucrats manage these values in their public dealings may well determine what kind of society we live in.

If we look at many of the problems that we face: environmental issues, housing, employment; there is usually an issue involving power & the use of discretion in how one uses it. The notion of how ‘street-level bureaucrats’ exercise this power has been studied quite a bit in PA. The concept of administrative discretion originated with Michael Lipsky and has remained a robust one. As many scholars have argued, offering bureaucrats some discretion allows them to make better decisions, based on client needs.

If one looks around, there are instances when abuse of power is often a result of this discretion. Whether a cop pulls a gun on someone or restrains himself/herself, whether an arrest is made or a warning issued, these are instances when the bureaucrat at the street level is making conscious choices – either to escalate a situation or to de-escalate. This is also the case when the work-load on pubic employees is quite high. As Lipsky points out “Employees must use their personal discretion to become ‘inventive strategists’ by developing ways of working to resolve excessive workload, complex cases, and ambiguous performance targets.” One can suggest that this exercise of administrative discretion can also help address issues of discrimination and in equal treatment that many minorities receive when it comes to public health or other related issues. There are definite health disparities between African Americans and other minorities. As the Center for Diseases Control points out “African Americans aged 18-49 are two times as likely to die from heart disease than whites,” and also “African Americans aged 35-64 are 50% more likely to have a high blood pressure than whites.” This is due to a combination of factors, including lack of access to insurance, policies that do not let African Americans access health services, and sometimes, outright discrimination in the system, that keeps them out of reach of healthcare providers.

Some of the recommendations of the CDC are to: encourage healthcare providers to eliminate cultural barriers to care, to connect patients to community resources to help them take medications on time, and to do follow-up visits. With COVID-19 exposing the cracks in healthcare delivery in the U.S., there is an urgent need to address access to healthcare, access to insurance, and also empowering states to offer services to those who are marginalized. One of the steps could be to empower the street-level bureaucrats to do more, to address the inequities that exist. This may mean offering more resources to teachers, doctors, and other frontline workers, who are often in the best position to address inequities. It also means educating and enlightening them to do what is right.

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