Ethel Williams

“Diversity and Public Service: Challenges, Frustrations and Future Directions”

Ethel Williams (MPA ’72)
Director of the School of Public Administration
University of Nebraska – Omaha
March 23, 2017

“The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Diversity in America is not a new topic. Three years ago, I was at Pitt for the Social Equity Conference noting the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. I focused on the need for social equity in America then, and three years later the emphasis is the same.  I ended my comments by saying that America needs to live up to the true meaning of what we continually espouse and commit ourselves to – that is the true meaning expressed in the last six words of the pledge of allegiance – “with liberty and justice for all.” Public service in the United States should be open to all, and public services should be delivered equitably for all. Historically it has not been that way and currently it is questionable.                                                                                                                         
When we talk about diversity and public service over the history of America, what we find is – the more things change, the more they remain the same. Though America continues to become more diverse, the more we are challenged to embrace all of our citizens equally.

Diversity and Public Service
Public service, simply defined, is the provision of services such as health care, education, sanitation and criminal justice. It is a key task for government. Public services provide the most common interface between people and the state, and its functioning shapes people’s sense of trust in, and expectations of, government. Those who have the task of ensuring service delivery are charged with delivering them with integrity. Public service delivery should be centered around citizens, and being responsive to their needs; particularly the needs of the most vulnerable. Public service is promoting greater transparency and enabling ordinary citizens to assess the quality, adequacy and effectiveness of basic services, and to voice their needs and preferences (Ringold et al, 2013). George Frederickson (1990) asserts that this citizen access and voice is the notion of social equity which emphasizes
equality in government services, 
responsibility for decisions and program implementation, 
responsiveness to the needs of citizens (may I add all citizens)…. (p. 229).

America has a long history of exclusion from public service and government access. More specifically, America has yet to achieve equality in the services provided by the government; nor does it have a fully diverse voice that assumes the responsibility for programs to be implemented. It also fails to be responsive to the needs of all citizens. Access, and the opportunity to voice citizen needs and preferences, has been restricted based on a very narrow definition of the word all in America. All, has purposely left out those without property ownership, those who are not female and those who are not white. Most recently, it appears we have added those who have a faith or religion other than Christianity.

Access, and the opportunity to voice citizen needs and preferences has not only been limited historically but continues to be limited even today.  Just a few quick facts to provide some historical context  on access:
1776, at our counrty’s founding, only people who owned land could vote
1789, states were given the power to regulate their own voting laws. 
1846, convention in Seneca Falls, NY discussed universal voting rights including women and slaves
1856, the vote was expanded to include all white men. 
1868, citizenship was granted to ex-slaves, voting still limited to men.
1870, passage of the 15th Amendment 
1876, Native Americans deemed not to be not citizens;  1887, Dawes Act granted citizenship to Indians renouncing their tribal affiliations.
1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred those of Chinese ancestry from becoming citizens
Now moving into the 20th century
1920 – the right to vote was extended to white women
1922 – The Supreme Court ruled that individuals of Japanese ancestry were not eligible to become citizens. 
1926 –the STATE used violence when African Americans tried to vote to prevent them from voting  
1963– African Americans confront barriers preventing their right to vote; response is the use of literacy tests and violence. 
1965 – the Voting Rights Act  passed forbidding discriminatory restrictions. 
2000 – Residents in U.S. colonies are considered citizens but cannot vote. 
What these historical facts tell us is that this country has a history of denying the voices of all citizens to be heard and this history of denial goes deeper than just the ability to exercise one’s right to vote. The denial to vote means the denial of the opportunity to elect public servants to represent your needs. Thus, there is a pervasive underrepresentation of the most vulnerable and discriminated against in public service positions. 

Where are we now? Let’s look at some statistics. America in 2016 was 62.6% white, non-Hispanic, 17.6% Hispanic/Latino, 13.3% Black/African American, and the Asian 5.6% and Native American/Alaska natives 1.2% (US Census Quick Facts). In 2015, according to, there were 2,058,021 individuals employed in the executive branch of government. Almost 1.2 million were men and just under 900,000 were women. Minorities comprised 35.4 percent of this population and Whites comprised 64.6 percent. This breakdown is somewhat reflective of each group’s percentage within the American population. We pride ourselves on numbers, rejoicing on looking at how far we’ve come – from no diverse representation to a nearly representative bureaucracy. However, numbers are not always the issue – did we not have a black president for eight years? What is at issue is INCLUSIVITY. There remains a disconnect between government and hearing the voice of all of its citizens. Herein lies the problem. America’s public service has not embraced its diverse populations in a manner that is fair and just. Therefore, the impact of public decisions remain skewed.

According to my friend Susan Gooden in her book, Race and Social Equity, A Nervous Area of Government, she contends that social equity--specifically racial equity--is a nervous area of government. Over the course of history, this nervousness has stifled many individuals and organizations, thus leading to an inability to seriously advance the reduction of racial (and I add other) inequities in government. America has some catching up to do but faces several challenges to efforts to do so.  

1. Embracing all of America’s citizens. We continue to exclude individuals based on a person’s skin color, their country of origin, or their religion.
2. Civic engagement. Despite the growing numerical strength of communities of color, they have not experienced proportionate growth in political strength and face an underdeveloped sense of civic engagement, both of which lead to lower levels of political participation. 

3. Voter suppression. State governments are enacting laws across the country that will make it harder for people to vote. These restrictions are expected to disproportionately hurt communities of color. 

4. Incarceration. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system are at an all-time high, with more than 60 percent of the prison population coming from communities of color. These disparities undermine American values of justice and fairness and are often the result of disparate treatment in other areas, such as access to jobs, education, and affordable housing (

I spent four days last week at our nation’s capital looking at its impressive monuments and reading this nation’s strong stance on democracy and inclusion.  If I didn’t know better I would think we have arrived. Even with our artifacts and testaments to liberty and justice our challenges are clear and pervasive. 

The challenges to public service diversity are not new ones. They are the same ones we faced in the 18th century at this country’s founding. They are the ones we faced in the 19th century as this country continued to grow and develop. They are the ones Americans protested, marched and fought against in the 20th century, and nearly two decades into the 21st century they still exist.  To hear the same conversations without change is a great frustration.

New Directions
It is important to keep in mind that every challenge presents an opportunity and provides some direction as to how to move forward. How can we successfully address the obstacles in public service?
1. Embracing all of America’s citizens. We must move beyond the stereotypes we hold based on a person’s skin color, their country of origin, or their religion.

2. Civic engagement. Renewing a commitment to civic engagement could ensure our nation’s path forward includes all communities. Just that simple. Let everyone know their voice is important and is being heard.

3. Voter suppression. Instead of making it more difficult for citizens to participate in their democracy, we need to remove such hurdles at the voting booth. 

4. Incarceration. Fix the justice system – whatever it takes. 

Finally, we must build multiracial coalition work to reduce interethnic tensions. Public service is not a zero-sum game.  Any honest discussion about the struggles communities of color face must address racial and ethnic tensions between these communities as well. Nonetheless, there are strong examples of multiracial coalition work that unite different groups behind common interests by creating a stronger, collective political voice.  

Again quoting Dr. Gooden, until this nervousness is effectively managed, public administration social equity efforts designed to reduce racial inequities cannot realize their full potential. It seems that we continue to have the same conversations regarding diversity. Perhaps, it is now necessary to dig deeper, to move beyond what we have always done and try something new. 

This country’s journey to diversity can be likened to a long car ride with children who become more agitated as the journey proceeds. Because the children keep asking “Are we there yet?” doesn’t make the trip more pleasant, it doesn’t make the ride any shorter and doesn’t guarantee safe arrival. We are not there yet! We have not come to the end of the journey to embrace the fullness of diversity in public service. Those who believe themselves to be left out, are, like the children in the car, becoming increasingly more impatient and increasing more agitated. 

The parallels between the current state or lack thereof of diversity in public service in America and the diversity in public service at the time the country was founded is great. We have made strides but we have a distance yet to travel. 

Where do we go from here? Most, if not all of us are familiar with these words spoken by President Kennedy at his 1961 inaugural address “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” While this quote resonates on its own the rest of the speech is what is powerful. President Kennedy ran his election with the slogan “A time for moral leadership” and after one of the closest elections in U.S. history he uttered these words as President:

Now the trumpet summons us again
Not as a call to bear arms- though embattled we are
But a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle
A struggle against the common enemies of man
Tyranny – Poverty – Disease – And war itself …

The energy – The faith – The devotion
Which we bring to this endeavor
Will light our country
And all who serve it
And the glow from that fire
Can truly light the world …

With a good conscience our only sure reward
With history the final judge of our deeds
Let us go forth to lead the land we love- Asking his blessing
And his help – But knowing that here on earth
God’s work must truly be our own

As citizens, it is important to use history as our teacher, to use our visions as our direction, our voices to name our goals and our votes as the means to achieving them. President Kennedy’s inaugural speech is as relevant today as it was in 1961. It reminds us that we all have our roles to play in fighting “the common enemies of man.” Our current environment is a scary one. At the Holocaust Museum last week, there was a repeated message – that the Holocaust was the result of complicity and collaboration. As public servants, it is our job to speak up and to speak out at the policy tables against injustice. It is our job to bear the burden in the struggle against exclusivity, against tyranny, poverty, disease and war. As public servants, and as citizens when we fail to embrace this task we become complicit in the government’s failure to treat its citizens fairly and equitably. Responding to the voices of all is no task to be taken lightly and is no task that can be overcome overnight. 

Graduate School of Public and International Affairs
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