By Kristen Norman-Major
I recently attended a seminar for business school employees, where the presenters and most of the participants were from large public universities. As someone from a small private university, I often felt lost in the process.
I was not familiar with the dominant culture at this seminar. They used different language, had different traditions, and a different way of operating. Even though I was not the lone “minority” in the room, the presenters did nothing to adapt their presentation to fit the needs of those outside the “majority.”
This approach may be acceptable at a private event where the customers make a choice to participate. In the delivery of public services, however, such assumptions often lead to policies that don’t serve those they intend to benefit.
The challenge in the public sector is that taking a “one-sizefits- all” approach to policy development means that some parts of the public are excluded from the public good. The most effective policies consider differences across cultures so parts of the community aren’t left unserved or under-served.
Cultural competence—the ability to recognize differences across constituencies, and move beyond assumptions of a dominant culture—is an important component of public administration. When discussing diversity and cultural competence, we often focus on the predominant categories of difference such as language and ethnicity. Other categories include age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability, education, location, and class, to name a few. It may not be realistic to consider all of these categories, but completely ignoring them can lead to services that exclude part of your community. So what does cultural competency look like at the local level?
Here are a few examples of questions or policy considerations that reflect awareness of cross-cultural issues:
Language: Do you have a non-English speaking community? Produce materials in multiple languages or hire multilingual staff to make sure you are serving those residents well.
Public safety: Do you have new immigrants in your city who may have different ideas about the relationship between police and the community? Are there vulnerable groups we need to reach? Community policing efforts can help educate both sides and create better relationships if officers recognize cultural differences in how people view authority. The goal is to build connections between the police and various community groups.
Parks and recreation: What are the age demographics of your community? Younger communities might have more programming for youth, and help provide a safe space outside of school. As communities age, you might have more programs for adults as well as activities to keep retired residents active and engaged.
Transportation: How do your residents get around? Your community may benefit from bike trails, pedestrian crossings, and buses that serve low-income residents. Mobility options for disabled or elderly might be more important as your residents age.
Public health: Language, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and income are all factors that play into public health services. Public health officials might consider factors such as cultural differences in how immigrants view the role of health care professionals, spiritual beliefs related to medical care, and whether relationship questions assume a heterosexual partner.
Housing and development: What is the typical household structure of your community—single family, multiple generations, retired couples, or individuals? What is the average income? Your housing codes may need to ensure affordability and accommodate changing family structures such as older individuals living with family members.
Technology: Increasingly, cities are providing online access to information, applications, and forms. While this can increase efficiencies, you need to make sure you also offer other options for those who don’t have computer or Internet access. It’s also important that your website be accessible to those who have impaired vision.
As you create public policies, ask questions such as: Who do we need to serve? How do we make sure the message reaches them, and that they can relate to it? Will people feel comfortable or frustrated when accessing services? Answering these types of questions helps to bring cultural competence to the practice of public administration.
Kristen Norman-Major is director of public administration programs with the Hamline University School of Business and co-editor of the book Cultural Competency for Public Administrators. Hamline’s School of Business is a member of the League’s Business Leadership Council.
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