Prioritizing equity in local decision making

Strategy overview

  • Recalibrating public institutions to advance equity: Institutional and process reforms within local government can meaningfully improve racial equity. These efforts often include the creation and elevation of shared narratives around racial disparities; setting concrete goals and developing action plans to advance racial equity; and investing in equity-focused staff to ensure progress towards racial equity targets.
  • Shared narratives around disparities: Institutional reform efforts to advance racial equity often include the creation of a shared framework for understanding racial disparities, building awareness of the severity of current inequities, and cultivating an understanding of the historical and contemporary factors that exacerbate disparities. To accomplish these goals, many local governments have convened commissions or working groups to conduct research and publish their findings; developed racial equity frameworks or tools, which allow leaders to examine disparities through shared criteria and metrics; or declared racism or racial disparities a public health crisis, which can help galvanize action across departments and partners.
  • Setting institutional goals and adopting action plans: Successful local initiatives to advance equity often define explicit goals for addressing inequities and develop step-by-step action plans to help them reach their targets. Racial equity tools–institutionalized decision making aids that ensure racial equity is considered early in the design of any strategy–are frequently used effectively. Action plans can help structure a local government’s approach to improving equity, defining desired outcomes, identifying appropriate sources of data, articulating the specific actions that must be taken, assigning responsibilities to individual staff, and establishing capacity to monitor and evaluate results.
  • Staffing for success: Successful institutional and process reforms to advance equity require strong leadership and significant staff time. Many local governments have seen success in creating new offices or departments focused explicitly on equity. These offices, often led by a Chief Equity Officer, work across government departments or agencies to help advance reforms. These departments also often deliver equity training for government staff, conduct research to identify priorities and evaluate progress, and serve as the administrators and project managers of racial equity action plans.

Target Population

What evidence supports this strategy?

While this strategy has not been subject to rigorous, independent evaluations, it is widely recognized as a best practice among experts in the racial equity space.

Is this strategy right for my community?

Prioritizing equity in local decision making has been shown to increase descriptive representation, an outcome identified by the Urban Institute as predictive of upward mobility.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for each of these outcomes using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring descriptive representation in your community: Examine the ratio of the share of local elected officials of a racial or ethnic group to the share of residents of the same racial or ethnic group.

Best practices in implementation

  • Champions at the highest levels: As in any organization, proposing changes to how day-to-day processes are carried out or how decisions are made will often receive pushback. To build support and enthusiasm for reforms, leaders of efforts to advance racial equity need significant authority and standing. Institutional changes are most likely to take root when the mayor, city manager, or county executive is a vocal champion and prioritizes the issue with regularity.
  • Building buy-in, skills, and capacity among government employees: To build buy-in for internal reforms, government staff must be engaged early and often. In the early phases of reform, staff input and feedback is essential in creating a shared narrative around racial equity. As narratives are formed and priorities are identified, frequent share-out sessions are critical. And as equity action plans take shape, trainings can help staff understand how to employ racial equity-focused decision making tools and institutionalize their use.
  • Consider equity early in decision making processes: As local governments institutionalize the use of racial equity decision making tools, the earlier these tools are used in decisions, the stronger their impact will be. These tools frequently prompt leaders to consider fundamental issues and tradeoffs, which can powerfully shape policy or program design. Racial equity tools often force leaders to contemplate who will benefit or be burdened by particular proposals, how the most marginalized communities will be effectively engaged, and how accountability can be ensured, among others.
  • Change narratives around racial equity: As local governments begin incorporating equity considerations into various decision making processes, changing narratives among internal stakeholders and the broader public is an important driver of success. Without a shared understanding of the historical role that government has played in creating inequities, internal stakeholders are less likely to engage in new processes. And without a clear external narrative on the factors that have driven racial inequities and the steps needed to confront racist legacies, public support for equity-focused budgetary decisions will be less easily secured.
  • Collect and share data, then evaluate progress: Data and evidence can strengthen institutional reform efforts at every stage of their implementation. As leaders set out to create shared narratives around inequities, data on disparities should be collected and shared widely to create urgency for change. And as action plans are created and investments are made, establishing processes for evaluating progress are essential to maintaining accountability and driving a culture of continuous improvement.