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Here’s How the Federal Government Can Change its Strategies for Collecting and Using Data to Advance Equity

Working group offers recommendations in a new report stemming from a Day 1 Biden executive order.

It should be the “norm” for federal data to be broken down or disaggregated by ethnicity, race, gender, disability, income level, veteran status or other demographics, Biden administration officials said recently. 

That is one of the many recommendations from a report the White House released late Friday afternoon by the Equitable Data Working Group, which was established by a Day 1 executive order from President Biden. Many federal datasets aren’t disaggregated, which has had “cascading effects and impedes efforts to measure and advance equity,” said the order. The new report serves as a roadmap for the federal government to establish a federal strategy on equitable data. 

“To ensure that historically underserved populations are empowered by and benefit from federal data, surveys, and equity assessments, the federal data system should support disaggregation, directly or through statistical estimates,” said the report. “However, as the federal government expands its use of disaggregated demographic data, it must be intentional about when data are collected and shared, as well as how data are protected so as not to exacerbate the vulnerability of members of underserved communities, many of whom face the heightened risk of harm if their privacy is not protected.” 

One recommendation–– as a means to achieve this goal–– is for the Office of Management and Budget to revise its standards for collecting and sharing data on race and ethnicity in order to encompass those not currently represented, such as individuals of Middle Eastern and North African heritage as well as subgroups of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders. Oftentimes they are left “unseen in government statistics and masking important inequities,” said the report. 

The working group also recommended the development of best practices to increase collection sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and rural location.  “Community advocates and agencies raised concerns that the lack of governmentwide guidance for collecting demographic variables inhibits a consistent, inclusive data strategy and stymies the ability to examine equity across these identities,” the report stated. 

As for personnel, the working group recommended that agencies need to invest in hiring employees for statistics, data science and evidence-based policy making. “Such expertise is vital for programs to conduct equity assessments, but is currently limited within the federal government,” said the report. 

Following each recommendation, the report outlines early achievements from the Biden administration as well as what the administration hopes to do, by citing provisions from the president’s fiscal 2023 budget request.

The working group is chaired by Margo Schwab, senior science policy analyst at OMB, and Alondra Nelson, who is performing the duties of Office of Science and Technology Policy director, and members representing a range of agencies. The working group also consulted with the civil society and research groups in crafting the report as well as received over 200 comments following a related request for information issued in May 2021. 

Members of the Urban Institute, a think tank focused on social and economic policy, said in January 2021 that the establishment of the Equitable Data Working Group was “an important step” as researchers from the institute “have been arguing for the need and benefits of more disaggregated data and better data infrastructure.”