By Acting Director Shalanda Young

On the first day of the Biden-Harris Administration, President Biden signed Executive Order 13985 on “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” calling for a comprehensive approach for the Federal Government to transform itself—for fairness and equity to become not just ideals, but principles embedded in the daily practices by which Government serves its people.

Federal agencies collectively serve as the nation’s largest employer and largest buyer, and they carry out missions that allow individuals, State, local, Tribal, and territorial governments, educational systems, businesses, and industries here in the United States and abroad to thrive. However, too many people have been historically underserved and experienced marginalization, disenfranchisement, and lost opportunity.

To begin identifying what actions our government must take to address these inequities, the Office of Management of Budget (OMB) earlier this week submitted a report to the President on our study of methods for assessing how government practices create or exacerbate barriers to full and equal participation by all eligible individuals.

Key findings and recommendations from the Report—which was called for in the President’s Executive Order—include the following:

Equity assessment represents an expanding though still nascent body of work in public policy, data science, and organizational change management. A wide variety of assessment tools exist, with many sensitive to the specific context they are evaluating (e.g., inclusive economic development in cities or human resources processes for recruitment and retention). Some tools focus on measuring access to a benefit or service, while others focus on measuring whether the intended impact of a benefit is equitably distributed among beneficiaries, others rely on statistical methods tailored to assess patterns across large-scale datasets collected for multiple purposes. Given the wide array of agencies, policies, and community needs, the Report concludes that multiple, concurrent methods are best positioned to assess equity in Federal contexts and encourages the continued exploration of useful practices.

To further our study, OMB issued a Request for Information (RFI) (Fed. Reg. 24029 (May 5, 2021)). OMB’s work to build a thorough compendium reflecting what is learned from this RFI will continue through the Summer of 2021. Submitted materials are being reviewed and curated for our ongoing learning, and will be made available to agencies.

Administrative burden exacerbates inequity. The onerous experiences that individuals and entities can encounter when trying to access a public benefit are known as “administrative burdens.” This can include the time spent on paperwork as well as factors like traveling to in-person visits, learning costs of understanding complex programs, navigating multiple websites, and collecting documentation required to prove eligibility. Research indicates that where there are administrative burdens, they do not fall equally on all entities and individuals and can lead the underutilization of critical services, often by the people and communities who need them the most. Our Report suggests that when agencies work to mitigate administrative burden, their efforts can significantly enhance their ability to comprehensively advance equity, meet the needs of underserved communities, and improve operational efficiencies.

The Federal Government needs to expand opportunities for meaningful stakeholder engagement. Stakeholder engagement has evolved into a vital tool to identify urgent problems and innovative solutions, inform and shape decision- and policy-making, and create deeper collaborative relationships between policymakers and communities. Many Federal agencies already conduct stakeholder engagement , including notice-and-comment sessions and town halls. However, these efforts are too often perceived by stakeholders and agencies alike as being siloed, inaccessible, or without clear purpose. By adopting more accessible mechanisms and elevating new voices earlier on in the process, agencies are better positioned for co-designing meaningful and effective programs and services while reaching more underserved communities and customers.

Advancing equity requires long-term change management, attention to culture, and a dedicated strategy for sustainability. Large scale change becomes most feasible when a sense of urgency prevails. The Order itself serves a catalytic function and empowers the Federal workforce to be change agents for equity. An expanded architecture for learning and training to build the human capital of Government in these areas, is also needed to advance sustained implementation of equity initiatives. This Report recommends that agencies recognize that the work of advancing equity requires attention to deliberate planning for long-term change, including institutional and cultural elements within agencies.

The scope of initiatives by the Federal Government creates an opportunity to ensure that resources are made available equitably though financial management and procurement functions. Federal funding supports activities that touch every American, including medical research, infrastructure, student aid, public housing, and disaster assistance. This study notes that opportunities to embed equity in core financial management and procurement practices include: leveraging existing authorities to increase transparency of equity in Federal outlays; incorporating equity into agencies’ evaluation of financial performance and risks; and establishing new measures of business diversity to evaluate progress in expanding opportunities for underserved communities, such as awards to minority-owned firms and small business firms in rural areas. 

In order to accomplish the monumental task of ensuring the Government works for all people, we must face our work with sustained humility and ongoing learning from scientific data and analytical tools to ask more sophisticated questions about inclusion, outcomes, and possibility. OMB will continue to support all agencies across government to advance this fundamental belief in all that we do.

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