To Improve Equity, Improve Government Capacity

Agencies fail their moral and civic duty when they don't collect and disclose vital information that could direct resources where needed.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd and many other Black men and women have underscored massive inequities in American life. Black Americans face disproportionate risks to their safety and assaults on their well-being. Yet, as the public demands that policymakers address systemic racism, leaders are hampered by imprecise data and the uneven capacity of government agencies to act.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans have 2.6 times the COVID-19 infection rate of white people, 4.7 times the hospitalization rate, and 2.1 times the death rate. Similar troubling trends hold for Latinx people and American Indians.

Also troubling is the difficulty getting these data. During the early months of the outbreak, the CDC did not report any data on race. Even now, states are disaggregating data differently, and the CDC isn’t publicly releasing all data.

Similar data collection and reporting problems hamper progress in other areas, such as policing. From 2013 to 2019, one-third of the people who died by police harm were Black; 17% of Black victims were unarmed, a larger share than any other racial or ethnic group. This information doesn’t come from government sources. It is cobbled together using crowdsourced data by Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative.

As former federal agency officials, we know that getting precise data can be challenging. But our government fails its moral and civic duty when it doesn’t collect and publicly disclose vital information that can direct resources to where they are needed most. Data transparency holds government accountable to the people it serves. As current Houston police chief Art Acevedo said when he led the Austin police department, “This isn’t our data. It’s the people’s data.”

We agree that data belong to the people. Yet it also takes government leaders committed to improving equity and combating racial disparities to collect and share key information. What should those leaders do? As people who’ve sat in those seats, we offer the following four suggestions:

1. Collect precise data. Start by conducting an inventory of datasets and making them machine readable for ease of use. Be transparent with the public about what information you have—and do not have—so they can help identify blind spots and problem areas. Identify key demographic variables, including race and ethnicity, that should be part of data collection, and examine whether those variables are currently collected. Also review whether data on race can be cross-tabulated with other items (e.g., gender, income, or geographic area) to further refine analysis. The 2018 Evidence Act requires most federal agencies to take many of these steps, along with naming a Chief Data Officer and an Evaluation Officer to help oversee this work.

2. Engage stakeholders. Government leaders can ensure their efforts respond to community needs with a simple tactic: Ask the community. That includes deciding which issues to focus on and determining how well those efforts are working. Federal agencies are already required to engage stakeholders when developing learning agendas. This is a ripe time to prioritize social equity, ensure communities of color are consulted, and identify gaps in the evidence base of what works to redress inequity and injustice.

3. Assess capacity. Even with precise data and stakeholder support, many government agencies have uneven capacity to use that data and evidence to take action. That is why the Evidence Act requires federal departments to assess their capacity in these areas to spur improvement. Federal agencies should start by creating inventories of data and evaluation studies, making findings searchable by demographic variables, and examining the usefulness of research to improve equity and reduce racial disparities.

4. Improve equity and outcomes simultaneously. A rising tide does not always lift all boats. In our experience, intentional efforts close equity gaps. That means government agencies must take a hard look at whether they are providing services equitably, including who they serve, where they reach, and what results they get. Every federal agency should analyze equity as part of step 3, every evaluation study should report results by major demographic variables, and every program should prioritize increasing equity.

As Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told lawmakers recently, “It is vital that police departments have accurate data, as you cannot measure what you do not know.” We couldn’t agree more. Timely information can improve equity by identifying knowledge gaps, understanding community needs, assessing the capacity to evaluate, and improving programs while ensuring fair delivery of services. If governments can use evidence and data, then they can dismantle unjust policies and practices and help build thriving communities of opportunity for all.

Demetra Nightingale is an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute and the former Chief Evaluation Officer at the Labor Department. Jed Herrmann is Vice President at Results for America and the former Senior Advisor to the CEO at the Corporation for National and Community Service.