Kristen A. Norman-Major and Susan T. Gooden, editors, Cultural Competency for Public Administrators (M.E. Sharpe, 2012)

Reviewed by Warren Master

This book's editors and more than 30 contributors have done our community of public managers a great service by framing the issue of cultural competency and harnessing good governance tools and techniques more fully than has been achieved to date. As a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey during the mid-1960s, a trained cultural anthropologist, community organizer, and long-time career federal program manager and executive, I confess to a clear bias on the topic of this book.

Framing the Issue

In the opening chapter, the editors help focus the issue of cultural competency by noting that "... programs and policies that lack recognition of cultural difference often leave part of the public out of public service." Thus, without the awareness and related professional skills necessary, public managers will be ill-suited to implement "representative bureaucracy" when attempting to serve an increasingly diverse community, here in the United States and around the world.

Beyond high-granularity race and ethnicity demographics included in the decennial census, the editors highlight other diversity profiles that make the challenge of realizing culturally competent organizations even more daunting: gender, age, ability, religion, education level, income, class, and sexual orientation. Accordingly, to advance the practice of representative public service, Kristen A. Norman-Major and Susan T. Gooden instructed contributing authors to explore how authentic responses "… move along the cultural competency continuum." That is, the actions and policies that demonstrate best practice performance and examples of organizations that are paving the way at all levels of government, not-for-profits, and nongovernmental organizations.

The four parts of the book may have different value and relevance for different communities—practitioners, applied researchers, advocates, trainers, and policy makers.

Part I: Culturally Competent Agencies, Policies, and Public Servants

The first two chapters in part I offer a historical and theoretical overview of the challenges facing professional public servants. One focuses on the training and education needed to transform public service workforces (Mitchell F. Rice and Audrey L. Mathews); the other addresses the challenge to keep up with mandates legislated by different states (Shelly L. Peffer).

The third chapter, "Cultural Competence When Serving Abroad," by Chima Imoh, is an excellent primer for anyone interested in avoiding gaffes as you acclimate yourself to an overseas assignment. The Peace Corps was wise to provide such training for its recruits before sending them into the field. Imoh offers a wide array of models and diagnostic tools, including the steps to improve one's cultural competency, such as avoiding ethnocentrism or stereotyping, and related training strategies, such as assimilation techniques, sensitivity training, and workplace diversification.

Similarly, the chapter on "HRM Practices That Facilitate Cultural Competence," by Heather Wyatt-Nichol and Lorenda A. Naylor, identifies exemplary organizations around the country and at all levels of government that are implementing such practices. Healthcare and related service areas particularly stand out. Moreover, the chapter contains annotated descriptions and high-level assessment data on federal agency actions to facilitate cultural competence, although the authors conclude that "... accountability through performance appraisal is lacking." Lastly, Wyatt-Nichol and Naylor have provided a very useful appendix and reference list which includes more than a dozen spot-on websites for further exploration. Some of these include:

Part II: Cultural Competency in Action

Part II offers practitioners a highly-informed, up-to-date frame of reference on the cultural competency continuum as it pertains to issues of gender, age, ability, religion, education level, income, class, and sexual orientation. Each of these topics is covered in separate chapters, which provide a historical, political, and legal context as well as case illustrations and references for further exploration. I found all of these contributions illuminating, including

  • "Developing Gender-Competent Public Administrators," by DeLysa Burnier
  • "Cultural Competency in Hispanic Communities," by Abraham David Benavides
  • "Cultural Diplomacy: Collaboration Between Tribal and State Governments," by Diane-Michele Prindeville and Carrie D. La Tour
  • "Cultural Competency Around Sexual and Gender Orientation and Identity," by Wallace Swan, Mark French, and Norman-Major
  • "Partnership for People with Disabilities," by Parthenia Dinora
  • "Cultural Competency in Health Care: Standards, Practices, and Measures," by RaJade M. Berry-James
  • "Cultural Competency in Disasters," by Frances L. Edwards.

Part III: Educating for Cultural Competence

Of particular interest to government agency human resources leaders and trainers is the next set of chapters, which offers insight into how good governance tools and techniques can be presented to promote the reality of culturally competent organizations. Topics covered include

  • "Cultural Competency as a Standard for Accreditation," by Nadia Rubaii and Crystal Calarusse
  • "Cultural Competency in Public Administration Programs," by Pamela H. Lewis, Allen N. Lewis, and Felecia D. Williams
  • "Cultural Competency in ‘Everyday' Public Policy Research," by Gooden
  • "A Dialogic Model for Cultural Competency in the Graduate Classroom," by Mario Rivera, Richard Greggory Johnson III, and Glenda Kodaseet
  • "Educating for and Assessing Cultural Competence," by James Francisco Bonilla, Leah Ann Lindeman, and Naomi Rae Taylor
  • "Cultural Competency Across the Master's in Public Administration Curriculum," by Norman-Major.

Part IV: Guiding Lights

The two closing chapters remind us of the challenges to making cultural competence a reality in the public sector and refer us to some of the guiding lights on this matter at different levels of government. Both are well worth reading for additional perspective and reference:

  • "Challenges to Cultural Competency in Public Administration," by Samuel L. Brown
  • "An Assessment of the State of Cultural Competency in Public Administration," by Gooden and Norman-Major.