Governments turning to data to find solutions to equity issues

GettyImages.com/Shannon Fagan

It’s easy for leaders to pronounce that they’re going to make a fairer state or locality. Here's how several states, counties and cities are utilizing information to achieve their goals.

We’ve written several columns over the course of the last months about the quest for an equitable distribution of services in states and localities as well as diversity and inclusion in their workforces. As is always the case, the specifics of the challenge varies from place to place. But one common theme has emerged: In order to truly understand the problems that need to be solved, leaders must have the necessary data in hand. 

The study of city, county and state data informs leaders not just how taxpayer money is spent, but also how it is raised and how it is invested in neighborhoods. It also is needed to determine whether government employees, high-level officials, board members and vendors reflect the demographic composition of the entity and are equitably compensated. 

“Data allow us to better understand how the city and the community at large can contribute to a sense of belonging for residents and employees,” says Farris Muhammad, who became the first director of equity and inclusion in Lawrence, Kansas in October 2020. 

Charting results 

The first step, of course, is determining where inequities exist. In Akron, Ohio, for example, a procurement report was released in June 2020, which found that only 5% of the money spent on city contracts in 2019 had gone to minority-owned businesses, although 30% of its population is Black. 

But findings like that have limited power unless they are the triggers for action. Akron’s discovery led to the creation of a new position to work on contract compliance and supplier diversity, with Sheena Fain, an entrepreneur with substantial private sector experience, taking the position in March 2021. 

To locate new potential vendors, she created lists of minority businesses. With the help of several private companies, she then organized classes to provide information about competing on city contracts and how to go about being certified as potential minority contractors. A new vendor management system was installed creating a more open and transparent bidding process. 

By the end of 2021, 50 minority vendors—over 90% newly certified—had won contracts with the city, through purchasing, subcontractors or prime contractors, according to Fain. 

Many cities and counties have similar stories to tell with data pushing governments to integrate new equity goals into strategic plans and introduce new tactics to remove past barriers. In Dubuque, Iowa, for example, an analysis of demographic data on student enrollment in AP courses in high school found disproportionately few Black students taking AP courses.

In reaction, the school district added wording to its strategic plan that directs schools to emphasize “their intentional efforts” to enroll Black and other people of color in AP courses. According to Anderson Sainci, director of the Office of Shared Prosperity and Neighborhood Support in Dubuque, high schools are seeing an increase in participation, though follow-up data is not yet available.

Making progress

Gathering useful outcome-related data isn’t a fast or easy task. “It takes time to see if new decisions that are being made will lead to the equitable impact that cities are seeking and that’s a reality for every jurisdiction everywhere,” says Anjali Chainani, a senior advisor at Results for America who led What Works Cities’14-month City Budgeting for Equity and Recovery program, which ended in December.

Progress is being made, however. Lawrence, Kansas for example, has established a scorecard to track a number of performance indicators, including those that have an equity component. 

Putting the results in perspective is critical. With that in mind, “we look at data related to the [International City/County Management Association] and comparable cities,” says Muhammad.

King County, in Washington, has been working on equity issues at least since the 1990s. There are a number of ways in which the county has worked to provide its equity focus with staying power, including equity legislation in 2010, the establishment of a formal executive Office of Equity and Social Justice in 2015, and an Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan to cover 2016 through 2022.

In addition, a 2015 report created a preliminary list of indicators designed to help chart the county’s progress and a website offers an array of tools that are part of the county’s equity work and can be used to identify policy and funding needs. 

Even when there’s consensus about the need for better data, frustrations and challenges abound, as is true generally when data is used to improve policy and management throughout government. Problems include the lag time in data availability, unaddressed technology needs and countless data quality issues. The need to cleanse and update data is constant. 

“This is a very nascent field,” says Chainani. “There are always data reliability challenges, and the data may not be able to answer the question that you want to answer.”

When looking specifically at racial inequities, one knotty issue in assessing equity in both a community and in a workforce involves even determining what race someone is. “I could be listed as Asian, Black, white and Native American,” says Saundra Johnson, the statewide equity director in Delaware. She points out that it’s not unusual for individuals to be misidentified or differently identified on forms. “We have a lot of hiccups on this nationally,” she says.

Creating data partnerships

For governments that need help developing better data resources, universities, regional centers and organizations devoted to equity topics provide invaluable assistance.

In Virginia, Albemarle County, which surrounds Charlottesville, developed an Equity Profile, in collaboration with the Equity Center at the University of Virginia. 

The profile was one product of a larger partnership with the Equity Center and many other community partners that also included the development of a Regional Equity Atlas, which is designed to “combine, visualize, and make accessible data about local disparities.” Both projects provide support to the region's ongoing efforts to take a data informed, equity-minded approach to decision making. 

In Iowa, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque put together an annual “data walk”  to provide a central spot where residents, community groups, government employees, nonprofits and other interested parties could examine and discuss key data points on different topics. Among the topics in 2021 and 2020 were employment and equity and racial equity

“This allowed people to come to a central spot to talk about data and what we can do,” Sainci says. It also heightens awareness of equity issues and community challenges.

One other promising tool was recently introduced through a partnership between the Government Alliance on Race and Equity and Esri, a software firm that specializes in geographic information system software, location intelligence and mapping. The new social equity analysis tool provides a geospatial mapping approach that can be used to visualize areas of focus, evaluate community-level impact and guide government decision making. It will enable governments to use an intersectional lens to identify patterns of need and opportunities to enhance equity through an examination of geography, race, ethnicity, disability, gender and other areas of interest. 

Sustaining work

People who are leading in efforts to create a more equitable society—including the consistent use of data to achieve their goals—worry about the sustainability of their work. At some point, the dollars that have flowed both from the infrastructure bill and from pandemic relief programs will be gone. The end of these federal dollars, the inevitability of cyclical downturns, coupled with potential dramatic political change, worries government practitioners who want to see their equity work sustained, with budgeting and programmatic decisions continuing to operate through an equity lens.

With the Delaware Gov. John Carney one year into his second term, Johnson is already conscious of the ticking clock. “We have three years to create this design for an equity lens that is part of the fabric of all that we do,” she says. The question that’s foremost on her mind: “How do we craft an equity playbook in such a way that the historically marginalized have the full opportunity that’s available to those who have been privileged all their lives?”

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: Dashburgh: Pittsburgh's open data portal

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