By Alondra Nelson and Clarence Wardell III,
Equitable Data Working Group

The Equitable Data Working Group was established on the first day of the Biden-Harris Administration under Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, as part of the President’s commitment to a whole-of-government approach to advancing equity. As the order notes, “a first step to promoting equity in Government action is to gather the data necessary to inform that effort.”

Because Federal data are often not available by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, income, region, veteran status, or other crucial demographic variables, the Equitable Data Working Group is tasked with identifying inadequacies in our existing Federal data collection infrastructure and laying out a strategy for improving equitable data practices in the Federal government. Acquiring the necessary data, either through the collection of new data or by blending information from multiple data sources, is a critical step in ensuring equity is a central component of decision-making processes across the Federal government. Agencies have also begun to identify where data gaps are making it more difficult to conduct equity assessments of their policies, programs, and services.

The Equitable Data Working Group is a multi-disciplinary group, composed of government leaders in program policy, statistics, social science, data science, and information technology that is initially taking a case-study approach to the work, which will pave the way to lasting change. The end goal is regular systematic measurement of equity and inequities throughout the Federal government.

Our case study approach focuses our initial efforts on a set of well-defined questions that have historically been difficult to answer for lack of sufficient data. For instance, questions under consideration currently include:

  • If we had data about the race, ethnicity, and gender of those using or not using unemployment benefits, could we better understand the impact of labor market cycles on underserved subpopulations?
  • Can we better understand the distribution of programs and services in underserved communities, particularly in response to climate-related crises?
  • What disaggregated data is needed to measure whether the CARES Act benefits and American Rescue Plan benefits were equitably distributed?

In each instance, the group aims to focus on high-impact data collection and prioritize cases that could create immediate value for local communities, policymakers, and academic researchers, alongside broad impact across the Federal government. Our intent is for these initial case studies to highlight the specific challenges that need to be addressed to establish and sustain equitable data practices across the Federal government, and ultimately form the basis of broader recommendations for how these practices can illuminate equity considerations in program and policy design, implementation, and outcomes.

By exploring key policy questions dependent upon underutilized, inaccessible, or missing data, the Equitable Data Working Group will explore ways to leverage government data in order to measure and promote equity. For example, in some cases the data needed to respond to an issue may exist, but there are so many barriers that it is underutilized. Part of our charge is to look for ways to responsibly promote agency data sharing and matching, to the extent permitted by law, to create datasets needed to answer relevant questions. Accordingly, we may make recommendations requiring regulatory or legislative changes.

As the Equitable Data Working Group proceeds in our work, we recognize that it is necessary to consider challenges for unintentional disclosure of personal information and privacy protection. We must be able to collect and share data about underserved communities—including Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+); and rural communities—in ways that do not exacerbate their vulnerability, particularly when using or providing public-use data with high levels of detail.

We will also highlight areas of particular importance to advancing equity outcomes where the Federal government needs to collect additional information, because the data needed to illuminate or respond to an issue are low-quality or do not exist. For instance, very few Federal surveys and datasets provide the ability to characterize the experiences and life outcomes of those who identify as LGBTQ+ Americans, making it challenging for Federal policymakers, researchers, and the American people to ensure equitable life outcomes for LGBTQ+ people. As a modest step toward ensuring Federal data practices reflect and include LGBTQ+ individuals and families, we worked with the Office of the Chief Statistician and the U.S. Census Bureau to begin the process of including questions about sexual orientation and gender identity for the first time in their Household Pulse Survey beginning this month. The Household Pulse Survey measures how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting households across the country from a social and economic perspective. By including questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, Federal agencies and researchers will gain critical new insights into the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis has had on LGBTQ+ Americans. Going forward, we intend to continue work with key Federal agencies to identify opportunities for appropriate and dignified data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Equitable Data Working Group will provide an initial report to Ambassador Susan Rice, Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, by Fall 2021. The report will communicate specific barriers and gaps to equitable data identified through our case studies and direct consultation with agencies and external stakeholders. The report will also include recommendations as to how to address those barriers. In this vein, the Equitable Data Working Group is seeking to foster new partnerships between Federal agencies, academic and research partners, state, local, and tribal governments, community and advocacy groups, and other stakeholders, in order to leverage Federal data for new insights on the effects of structurally biased policies, and to advance capacity for multilayered, intersectional analysis of Federal datasets. We’re already seeing this happen across some agencies, including the Department of Labor’s Summer Data Challenge on Equity and Underserved Communities, and we hope to help replicate these promising approaches.

We plan to keep the public updated on our work and regularly share examples of how the Equitable Data Working Group is working across Federal agencies, in consultation with the Chief Data Officers Council, Evaluation Officer Council and Interagency Committee on Standards Policy, and in partnership with communities and other stakeholders outside the Federal government. We recognize that many have worked for years to advance this work, and we are both excited about the promise that this moment holds and clear-eyed about the challenges that have stalled progress in the past. Our approach is intended to assess systemic barriers and stimulate long-term change that seeks to go beyond a one-time project. Further, we hope agencies will be able to use what we learn as they develop and commit to ongoing efforts to advance equity in their Action Plans due in January 2022. We are eager to learn from how others have approached this issue in their own organizations and sectors, and welcome input into our approach. We have been pleased to hear feedback from the public via the recent Request for Information on Methods and Leading Practices for Advancing Equity and Support for Underserved Communities through Government and we look forward to future engagement.

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