Since 1900, the National Civic League has sought to project the highest standards in local governance by publishing the Model City Charter. A charter is the foundation of a local government and functions as the municipal equivalent of a state or federal constitution, setting forth guiding principles for governance. A charter specifies the most fundamental relationships between a government and its community. It establishes the framework for how a local government operates in terms of its structure, responsibilities, functions, and processes. The way public officials are elected, the form of government, and the role community members play in local government are just a few examples of the important choices articulated in a charter.
Many of the revisions to Ninth Edition of the Model City Charter focus on social equity and inclusive public engagement. The revisions offer guidance on how municipalities can (re)shape their organizations, processes, and programs to address inequities in their communities. In making these changes, it became clear the topic of equity is complex and that public managers, administrators, elected officials, and community members may need additional material to understand both the issue of equity and the rationale for these revisions. This addendum serves that purpose by:
Why Equity and Why Now?
Early editions of the Model City Charter were focused on guiding local governments in their efforts to become more efficient, ethical, professional, and accountable. To this end, the League’s charters served dual purposes. On the one hand, they reflected core values and principles regarding the best (and better) practices for organizing and operating a municipal government. On the other hand, they were living documents that reflected “current” and/or “timely” ideas that may not have been represented in past editions. Social equity is simultaneously a core value, which early editions overlooked, as well as an issue at the forefront of the current public agenda. These two characteristics of equity—a core value and a timely issue—serve as the primary basis for its emphasis in the ninth edition.
Equity as a Core Value of Public Administration
Historically, the three pillars of public administration have been efficiency, economy, and effectiveness. These three core values have served as guiding principles for the Model City Charter at least since the second edition was developed in 1915, when the council-manager form of local government was first introduced by the League. These three core values stood generally unexamined by scholars of public administration until 1969 when H. George Fredrickson penned his essay Toward a New Public Administration. In this essay, Fredrickson argued that social equity had become a fundamental objective for public programs. Public administrators, he stated, ought to move beyond the questions of how effectively and efficiently a public program worked. They also should consider for whom the program worked. Stated differently, public administration, particularly within local governments, had to acknowledge “that many public programs were implemented much more efficiently and effectively for some citizens than for others.”1 Over the half century since Fredrickson’s essay, social equity has become recognized as the fourth pillar of public administration alongside efficiency, economy, and effectiveness.
As the intellectual underpinnings of the Model City Charter evolved to include equity, many local governments also embraced equity as a core value. More precisely, the ideas and tools of social equity have become integrated across the departmental units and the decision-making processes of many American local governments. This reality is reflected in the increasing network of equity oriented local governments participating in organizations such as the Government Alliance for Racial Equity. The implementation of equity in local governments has resulted in the creation of new equity-oriented positions, revisions to guiding documents, and the development of new performance metrics. Indeed, many local governments are fundamentally reshaping several parts of their day-to-day operations in their embrace of social equity as a core value.
Equity and Local Governments: the current context
While typically viewed as a national issue, the problems of inequity, whether social, economic, or otherwise, often manifest most clearly at the local level. The challenge of social (in)equity at the local level is reflected in many unfortunate events’ outcomes that emerged before and during the revisions to this edition of the Model City Charter. For example, as this edition was being revised, America, and rest of the world, was beset by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic revealed stark vulnerabilities for disenfranchised communities: the inequities regarding morbidity and mortality from the virus, access to vaccinations, and access to treatment. In addition, several highly publicized killings of African American men and women led to an increased awareness of violence against communities of color. Subsequently, local leaders have called for and were called upon to more critically examine policies, programs, and processes that may ignore or reinforce existing inequities in their communities.
While all levels of government are culpable in having shaped (and continuing to shape) the distribution of (dis)advantage across the United States, most people’s interactions with government occur at the local level, which increases the importance of municipalities in addressing social equity challenges. For example, one need only look to the history of American land use regulations to understand how regulatory tools have been used to segregate communities in ways that limit access to and opportunities for employment, education, and other public services and amenities. Many local government leaders, however, have come to realize that while past decisions and processes helped create inequities, this also means that they have the tools at their disposal to ameliorate and rectify these inequities. The recent and well publicized work of Raj Chetty supports this idea.
In a series of scholarly papers, Raj Chetty and his colleagues demonstrate significant differences in intergenerational mobility between American counties.2 That is to say, the ability of an individual to “advance” beyond the socio-economic standing of their parents varies significantly based on the county in which they are born. Such mobility (and the lack thereof) is a critical factor in the creation of the long-standing inequity that characterizes the country, and Chetty’s work supports what many local governments already know: inequity is not just reflected in the local community, it is created and perpetuated by the institutional features that shape that community. Simply stated, Chetty’s work supports the timely efforts to address inequity through municipal government.
What is Equity
Providing some “clarity” around the concept of equity is a key objective of this addendum. Equity can be difficult to define, and consequently, difficult to adopt. One key challenge is that policymakers, administrators, and community members often have differing ideas about what equity means and what its implications are. Thus, having agreement on the definition of equity is an important starting point for local government leaders and public managers. This addendum to the Model City Charter offers some insights into the concept of equity by: (1) contrasting equity with equality, (2) describing some ways in which the term can be operationalized in practice, and (3) moving beyond the “what” of equity to the “where.”
Equity vs. Equality
A useful first step in defining equity is to distinguish it from equality. The terms equity and equality are often used interchangeably; however, they differ in important ways. Equality is typically defined as treating everyone the same and giving everyone access to the same opportunities. In contrast, equity is about fairness. It recognizes that some groups face barriers to opportunities that others may not face. Thus, to achieve equity, policies and procedures may result in an “unequal” distribution of resources. Individuals are given more, or less, or different resources depending on their needs so that each can have fair access and a fair opportunity to watch the game. Drawing on this idea of fairness, the National Academy of Public Administration defined “equity” as:
The fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract; the fair, just and equitable distribution of public services and implementation of public policy; and the commitment to promote fairness, justice, and equity in the formation of public policy.
While this general definition—with its focus on fairness—may be helpful in shaping initial messaging about equity and conversations about advancing the pursuit of equity, it can be difficult to operationalize, especially in a governmental context and may be limiting for administrators implementing equity at the programmatic level. Thus, a more precise and concrete operation definition—one that provides instructions or descriptions of sets of actions, processes, or activities that are designed to link concepts to magnitudes of the world—is needed.
As Brandi Blessett, Marc Fudge, and Tia Sheree Gaynor have noted, the fairness-oriented approach to defining equity can (and should) be refined to advance operational efforts. In particular, they define equity in public administration as:
…policy formulation and implementation, public management practices, the provision of public goods and services, and administrator/resident interactions that reduce (and ultimately eliminate) disparity, marginalization, and discrimination while increasing social and political inclusion.3
This definition intentionally avoids terms that are difficult to measure like “fairness” and does not support an ideology grounded within equality. It does, however, incorporate measurable concepts like disparity, discrimination, marginalization, and inclusion.
What vs. Where of Equity
To understand how these concepts are operationalized and transformed into activities and programs, it is useful to review the “what” and “where” of social equity by mapping equity to four programmatic objectives: access, quality, procedural fairness, and outcomes.
Access: Evaluate the extent to which public services and benefits are available to all. Example: Are public meetings held at a time when the public can attend? Is location easy to get to via car, bicycle, or public transit? Are childcare or child-friendly facilities provided? Are there multiple ways for residents to engage?
Quality: Assess the level of consistency in public service delivery to different groups and individuals. Example: Are first responder response times equivalent in all neighborhoods within the jurisdiction?
Procedural fairness: Examine problems in due process, equal protection, public engagement in decision-making, and eligibility criteria for services, public policies, and programs. Example: Is the city issuing warnings for code compliance before issuing citations, thus giving standard times for corrections and responses? Is this process written down for the public to see?
Outcomes: Assess the degree to which policies and programs have the same or disparate impacts on groups and individuals. Example: Do all areas of the community have food access (defined as living over a mile from a large grocery store if in an urban area or over ten miles from a large grocery store if in a rural area)?
As public managers, elected officials, and community members move from the broader definition of equity to its more operational form, the picture of inequity may become clearer. Equity-minded public officials should be able communicate what equity looks like within their communities. The definition—and subsequent operationalization—of equity described above is an important step in that regard.
In efforts to operationalize the values of equity in city operations, it helps to have common understanding of the words that are often used in relation to equity. The City of Mesa, Arizona developed the following glossary.
Accessible: A person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and integrated manner.
Bias: Prejudice toward one group and its members relative to another group.
Public Engagement: Active, intentional dialogue between community members and public decision makers.
Discrimination: Unfavorable or unfair treatment toward an individual or group based on the groups, classes, or other categories to which they are perceived to belong.
Diversity: Psychological, physical, and social differences that occur among all individuals. A diverse group, community or organization is one in which a variety of physical, social, and cultural characteristics exist.
Ethics: Moral principles that govern behavior or the conducting of an activity, practice, or policy.
Ethnicity: A social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, ancestry, nation, history, and/or traditions.
Equality: The right of different groups of people to receive the same treatment.
Equity: Fairness and justice, especially pertaining to rights and protection under the law. The guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement while striving to identify and eliminate barriers that prevent the full participation of some groups.
Equity Officer: An executive position that is responsible for providing strategic direction to ensure that equity, equality, and equal access and opportunity is established, maintained, and fostered throughout the organization.
Harassment: Unwelcome, intimidating, or hostile behavior.
Inclusion: The practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded.
Implicit Bias: Inclinations in judgment or behavior that operate below the conscious level and without intentional control.
Institutional Racism: Policies, practices, and procedures as part of the way an organization or society operates that result in and support a continued unfair advantage or harmful treatment to others based on race.
Justice: Fair, impartial, and moral treatment of people.
Marginalization: A person, group, or concept treated as insignificant or placed in a position of little or no importance, influence, or power.
Race: A grouping of human beings based on a shared geographic dispersion, common history, nationality, ethnicity, or genealogical lineage. Race is also defined as a grouping of human beings determined by distinct physical characteristics that are genetically transmitted.
Racism: Individual and/or institutional practices, behaviors, rules, policies, and so forth that result in a continued unfair advantage for some and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race.
Socioeconomic Class: Social group based on a combination of factors including income, education level, occupation, and social status in the community.
Tolerance: Recognition and respect of values, beliefs, and behaviors that differ from one’s own.
Underserved: People and places that historically and/or currently have not had equitable resources or access to services.
Using the Ninth Edition of the Model City Charter
The Ninth Edition of the Model City Charter was the result of a year-long review and revision process with sharpened focus on equity and inclusive public engagement. The Social Equity Working Group of the Charter Revision Project examined the entire document through an equity lens and developed new language to be interspersed throughout the ninth edition. For instance,
Of course, many cities have already made progress in implementing social equity practices in their agencies and community affairs, though they may not have reflected social equity as a value in their charter. We certainly support the creation of ordinances, policies, rules, guidelines and offices to advance equity, much of which may not be described in the charter. At the same time, for equity to become a long-term value reflected in all city processes, we encourage consideration of the measures outlined above as part of the city’s charter.
Finally, it is important to note that equity may be defined and implemented in a variety of ways, based on the particular characteristics and interests of a community. It is important, therefore, that work to create equity be driven by an inclusive community engagement process to gather insights and direction from the community itself. Many of the resources below start with this process in mind and remind us that the definition of equity should reflect the perceptions of those affected.
“The Basics of Equity in Budgeting,” Government Finance Officers Association.
“Racial Equity: Getting to Results,” Government Alliance on Racial Equity.
“Governing for Equity: Implementing an Equity Lens in Local Government,” International City/County Management Association.
“Advancing Racial Equity in Your City: Municipal Action Guide,” National League of Cities