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The Biden Administration Can Seize a Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity to Advance Equity. Here’s How.

The administration must reset its relationship with people who lack access to federal services.

On his first day in office, President Biden issued an executive order recognizing government’s responsibility to ensure that all people living in this country—and especially those facing the burdens of structural racism—live in a just society and experience equal opportunity.

The administration can fulfill this responsibility—but only if its rhetoric is matched by effective action.

As it enters its second year, the Biden administration has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance equity in America and reaffirm this goal as fundamental to public service. To do so, it must reset government’s relationship with those who lack access to federal services that create conditions for people to thrive. 

The administration’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, rebuild American infrastructure and strengthen the social safety net offer a chance to hit this reset button.

Each of these areas necessitate countless interactions between the federal government and the people it serves, offering agencies fresh opportunities to imbed the principles of racial equity into the rules and processes that govern national policy.  

Unfortunately, our government has too often reinforced if not exacerbated systemic racial inequality.

Recent reports have highlighted the history of discriminatory lending to Black farmers; unequal disaster relief for Native American communities; and delayed COVID-19 relief payments to businesses in Black and Latino neighborhoods. 

Studies also indicate that the majority of government officials do not believe their agencies have the resources to deliver services more equitably.

With its executive order and recent directive on improving federal service delivery, the Biden administration has outlined a vision to build a government that meets the needs of all Americans—not just those who typically receive services, but those who struggle hardest to access them. 

The administration must now take up the hard work of implementing this vision. Four main actions would jumpstart this process.  

First, the administration should ensure agencies know the full extent of the problem by helping them collect better information on how groups receive federal services and who is left out. Agencies often fail to reach vulnerable groups because they lack data showing service trends by race, gender and other demographic variables. 

The creation of the Equitable Data Working Group is a major milestone around these efforts and it should adopt certain strategies to broaden its impact, including ensuring data categories represent the full diversity of the U.S. population, standardizing those categories across agencies, linking this data to customer feedback on government services, and sharing best practices to communicate why such data is being collected and how it will be protected.  

Second, the administration should follow through on its stated commitment to reduce the administrative burdens—different bureaucratic processes and regulations—that make it harder for vulnerable populations to access federal benefits and information. 

Requiring agencies to design services with the public up front and use regular “burden audits” that prioritize the needs of hard-to-reach groups—and not the convenience of government—as a key metric for success will be critical.  

Third, the administration should prioritize bringing more diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility experts into government—personnel critical to reshaping federal services to reach overlooked populations.

new talent exchange program managed by the Partnership for Public Service recruits non-public sector professionals to work in government, with a priority on filling positions dedicated to advancing DEIA at an agency. The program recognizes government’s need to find expertise on tackling systemic racial injustice and is a promising model that could be expanded. 

Finally, the administration should build a federal workforce that reflects the diverse needs of the people it serves by helping agencies recruit and retain career leaders—the experts and administrators who shape and implement federal services—with a wide array of backgrounds, identities and experiences. 

Currently, Black, Latino and other underrepresented groups compose about 23% of the Senior Executive Service—the highest career positions in the civil service—but nearly 50% of all entry-level jobs. 

Working with recruiting partners that target professionals from underrepresented groups, enacting more transparent promotional policies and creating better leadership training for underrepresented employees would help diversify federal talent pools and senior leadership. 

As the public institution most fundamental to our national democracy, the federal government has the power and responsibility to advance equity. The administration’s domestic agenda offers a generational opportunity to do so, but only if it is implemented the right way. These efforts will lay the groundwork for critical systemic change and a more just democracy. 

Michael McAfee is the president and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity by Lifting Up What Works®.

Max Stier is the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that strives for a more effective government for the American people.