“Data for Equity” Report Makes Recommendations to Federal Agencies on Improving Civil Rights Data Collection

Today, The Leadership Conference Education Fund is releasing “Data for Equity: A Review of Federal Agency Equity Action Plans” — the fourth in its series of reports about civil rights data collection. “Data for Equity” builds on those earlier reports by making eight recommendations about how federal agencies can improve the collection, analysis, and sharing of data.

On President Biden’s first day in office, he released Executive Order 13985, “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” That executive order acknowledged that systemic racism and other entrenched disparities in the laws, policies, and institutions of the United States have denied equal opportunity to many, and he announced a “whole-of-government equity agenda” to counter this inheritance and to advance equity for all.

In response to that first-day order, more than 90 federal agencies released Agency Equity Action Plans that identify each agency’s priority actions to advance equity going forward.

“Data for Equity” is grounded in a review of 45 of these Action Plans. Common themes that emerged from that review include the need to expand the scope of civil rights data collection so that federal agencies can accurately evaluate whether equity is improving; to increase disaggregation of data; to improve response rates; and to address agencies’ lack of capacity and “trees-instead-of-forest” approach to conducting equity assessments.

Another consistent thread is the need for coordination and leadership. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the National Science and Technology Counsel’s Subcommittee on Equitable Data, and, once it is up and running, the newly announced White House Steering Committee on Equity have important roles to play in sharing technical assistance, knowledge, and best practices across agencies, and in pushing agencies to address problems that they have not yet identified or made plans to solve.

This report’s recommendations often align with the recommendations in the Equitable Data Working Group’s final report from April 2022, and also with steps announced in President Biden’s February 16, 2023 “Executive Order On Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through The Federal Government.”

The recommendations are:

  • Improve data collection on key topics across agencies

There is an urgent need for enhanced data in three vital areas: hate crimes, environmental justice, and federal procurement and contracting.

Collection of data on hate crimes is, as The Education Fund’s “Information Nation” report highlighted last year, utterly inadequate. The Department of Justice’s Action Plan identifies combating hate crimes as among its top priorities — however, in order to accomplish that goal, it needs a comprehensive plan to improve data on hate crimes.

Climate change is an existential threat for every nation, but its harms fall disproportionately on communities of color and other disadvantaged communities. The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) is an important part of the Biden administration’s climate justice policies — however, CEJST currently doesn’t include data on demographic characteristics of communities, including race/ethnicity, segregation level, disability, religion, immigration, or sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). It should be updated to include that crucial information.

Multiple Action Plans revealed the need for more complete data on federal procurement and contracting.

  • Assist agencies in expanding the collection of data necessary to assess equity

Numerous Action Plans discuss specific additional areas in which agencies lack the data necessary to assess equity in society and in the agency’s own programs. These agencies must correct these deficiencies, and OMB should assist them in doing so.

  • Collect more disaggregated data, including on MENA, AANHPI, and SOGI

Increasing the disaggregation of data has been a high priority for The Leadership Conference Education Fund and other civil rights advocates and researchers for decades. One long-overdue reform is to update OMB’s Statistical Policy Directive Number 15: Standards for Maintaining, Collecting, and Presenting Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity. The racial and ethnic categories now used in the standards fail to reflect the identities of many people, including those of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) heritage, subgroups of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI), and people of Hispanic or Latino heritage.

Agencies can and should also collect more disaggregated data on race, ethnicity, SOGI, and other identities, even without changes to the OMB standards.

  • Consider language and disability access in all data collections and study ways to improve response rates

Data collections can only be accurate if people are able to understand and respond in a language and manner they understand — and if response rates are high enough to make results statistically valid. All agencies should have language and disability access plans to ensure that data collection instruments are available in respondents’ preferred languages and accessible to people with a range of disabilities.

  • Give agencies resources to conduct equity assessments

Many agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), identified a need for more capacity, knowledge, or resources to perform equity assessments. Additionally, several agencies’ discussions of equity assessments reveal a short-sighted focus on measuring equity just within their own operations, rather than in those aspects of society that their programs are aimed at improving. OMB and the federal statistical agencies should provide agencies with help and resources to conduct equity assessments, including encouraging agencies to examine the big picture.

  • Cost-benefit analysis must be reformed to account for concerns about equity and justice

Across the government, cost-benefit analyses should be reformed so that they do not ignore or exacerbate inequities. OMB could play an important role in providing education and best practices in this area.

  • Ensure big data and algorithms do not entrench inequity

Two agencies, the Department of Defense and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, discussed in their Action Plans the need to ensure that artificial intelligence, algorithms, and machine learning are not used in ways that exacerbate inequity.

Because technology and its effects are relevant across the government and society, OMB should coordinate efforts to ensure that big data and algorithms do not entrench inequity. This is similar to themes highlighted in the White House’s Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights.

  • Agencies should increase data accessibility by building more user-friendly tools

The report’s final recommendation is that agencies make data more accessible to the public and to researchers by building more user-friendly tools. This recommendation also proposes that OMB could help in this area by coordinating and disseminating best practices.

The Biden administration’s recognition of the need for federal agencies to consistently focus on advancing racial equity is commendable and important. It also highlights the significant data needs that exist across the government. The “Data for Equity” report’s recommendations summarize some of the most pressing of those needs, with the goal of helping agencies to make progress towards a more equitable future.

Read the full report here.