Author:Carrizales, Tony


The practice of cultural competency in the public sector is critical for both organizations and the relationships between the public and public agencies. The importance of a culturally competent public sector does not easily translate into policy and organizational change that facilities its practice. This area of research within the field of public administration continues to grow. Its importance leads to initiatives which continue to underscore both opportunities and challenges for a culturally competent public sector. Cultural Competency is a distinct area of research and practice that supports good government and promotes effective delivery of services (Norman-Major and Gooden 2012). Driven to provide optimal service delivery the public sector can utilize cultural competence as a means to achieve greater service effectiveness while also valuing diversity. The beneficial outcomes and impact of cultural competency have led to an increased number of initiatives within the public sector.

Borrego and Johnson III (2012) identify beneficial examples of cultural competence in the public sector. They note that it is transformative; promotes understanding and interactive communication resulting in better solutions to organizational problems; it provides cultural tools for managers; it leads to more flexible and adaptable organizations; and more innovative and adaptive organizations (Borrego and Johnson III 2012, 28). Methods and forms of culturally competence accountability build off current research in the field of public administration, as well as decades of research in the health and social services. The following research outlines four systems of accountability through which to view cultural competency.


The terms culture, race, and ethnicity can often be used inconsistently in the social sciences (Weaver 2005). However, the term "culture," when used to reflect the value and beliefs of different groups of people, provides the necessary foundation for public service organizations to recognize how they interact with their citizenry. Competence builds upon the ongoing process of learning and engaging with culturally different populations. This practice of "learning" can be characterized as a progression from cultural awareness towards cultural competence.

The concept of cultural competence dates as far back as the 1800s. However, it wasn't until the 1980s that a "concerted effort emerged in the social science field to promote cultural competence as a best practice in the delivery of health and social services" (Satterwhite and Teng 2007, 2). Health and social services have a well-established body of literature, research and practical experience associated with cultural competency. Public administration organizations, however, have room for improving their advocacy for cultural competency when compared to the fields of nursing, social work and medicine all provide suitable examples (Carrizales et al., 2016).

The continuous change in demographics across the United States has underscored the need to be responsive to varying cultures and languages, specifically by the public sector and public administrators (Johnson and Borrego 2009, Rice and Mathews 2012). White and Rice (2005) suggest that the country will require public sector organizations "to develop more inclusive work cultures that have a better understanding of the many ways people are different from one another and/or different from the organizations" (3). In the field of public affairs and administration, research and discourse on managing diversity, affirmative action, and a representative bureaucracy, have each advanced the notion of fostering a more effective public service that values the differences of the individuals who work in and are served by public institutions.

Cultural competency is grounded in practices and case studies that underscore social equity and managing diversity. Social equity in public administration advances the values if social justice and highlights a history of public service practices and policies that are more favorable to some over others. As Frederickson (1990) argues, social equity needs to reflect a core value of public administration. To this end, public administrators have a responsibility for achieving social equity (Wooldridge and Gooden 2009). In addition to the reassessment of policy and program outcomes that social equity requires, changing demographics also need a new approach to management. Diversity management research and practices highlight how to manage an increasingly diverse workforce more effectively (Riccucci 2002). Cultural competency shares similar expected outcomes of social equity practices and managing diversity.

However, cultural competency faces challenges in the public administration discourse. As Brown (2012) points out, the cultural competency framework lacks the attention to the racial hierarchy that impacts modern issues of wealth and power distribution. Cultural competency should not serve as a proxy for practices and discussion on race. Alexander and Stivers (2010) find that research and literature tend to convert race with culture, thereby diffusing the discussion of race, and overlooking an agency's or administrator's role in the racialization of policy. Further, Blessett et al. (2016) underscore varying "counternarratives" that require further discussion in the theory and practice of public administration. These narratives challenge "overarching status quo assumptions" and ideologies and are providing counterhegemonic scripts, such as democratic cultural pluralism, social construction, inclusive feminism, intersectionality and critical urban planning (Blessett et al. 2016, 281). Cultural competency, therefore, is part of larger discussions of race, social equity, diversity management, and counter-narratives, but remains a distinct approach in public administration - an approach that requires an assessment of organization and services delivery at various levels

Cultural Competency and Service Delivery

Public administration encompasses different forms of public service. Traditional forms of public service such as law enforcement, fire protection, and public works should work towards cultural competency. Also, municipalities should work towards developing all forms of public service, such as libraries, museums, and civic centers. As Benavides and Hernandez (2007) point out, through cultural competency, public service organizations can convert "the knowledge gained about groups and individuals into policies and procedures that result in practices that increase the quality of the services to produce better outcomes" (p. 15). Rice and Mathews (2012) outline essential elements of a cultural competency cycle required in developing culturally competent professionals and public agencies. These elements include: learning about other cultures; acknowledge culture's profound effect on program agency and delivery outcomes; awareness of cultural differences among people; knowledge and understanding of other cultures; integrating cultural awareness/knowledge/sensitivity into agency service delivery; revision/refinement of service delivery skills/practices; and culminating in culturally competent public agency service delivery professionals and providers (Rice and Mathews 2012, 24-5).

Borrego and Johnson III (2012) define cultural competence as the ability to manage cultural diversity allowing for the diversity to contribute to the effectiveness of an organization. Similarly, Carrizales et al. (2016) underscore organizational actions and policies enabling the organization to serve its culturally diverse populations more effectively. When applying a framework of accountability the working definition of cultural competency is expanded. In this research cultural competence is defined as:

The bureaucratic, legal, professional and political practices that embrace cultural diversity to more effectively serve the constituency. ACCOUNTABILITY

Accountability is an evolving concept for effective scrutiny of public agencies (Mulgan 2000). Accountable governance - from a traditional substantial perspective - demands answers to the questions of "for what?" and "to whom?" (Dubnick 2011). On the other hand, a relationalist perspective makes accountability a "critical ingredient in the building and maintenance" with which institutions operate (Dubnick 2011, 708). In the case of the latter, any effort to enhance accountability involves the disruption of existing accountability relationships.

Hupe and Hill (2007) point out that the complexity of governance results in multiple accountabilities, and for the street-level bureaucrats, this means varying forms and degree of holding public servants accountable. They identify three types of accountability implementation, enforcement, performance, and co-production. The mode of enforcement is characterized by compliance with rules, the mode of performance by compliance to targets and co-production - compliance to professional standards built on trust (Hupe and Hill 2007). Similarly, existing accountability...

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