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.

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.

Before making investments in school-based supports for child health and well-being, city and county leaders should ensure this strategy addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

One indicator in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in this strategy. To measure this indicator and determine if investments in these interventions could help, examine the following:

  • Descriptive representation: 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.

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

One indicators in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in this strategy. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Civic engagement: Percentage of individuals reporting a high level of civic engagement on surveys such as the Index of Civic and Political Engagement.
  • Expenditures per student: Total instruction and student service expenditures per pupil, including an equity factor, or a measure that indicates variance in per-pupil funding within a state (see this brief by New America for more information).
  • 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.