Inequities in government services, programs, contracting, and the workforce are often rooted in systemic issues—the result of decades of regulations, programs, policies, and practices which failed to account for the unique barriers faced by systemically marginalized communities. It’s critical that US federal agencies address these inequities both within and outside their organizations to improve the lives of all Americans and make the country truly the land of opportunity it aspires to be.
To this end, the Biden administration has placed equity and racial justice among its highest priorities. It’s a truly ambitious goal and one that, if achieved, will have a lasting and permanent impact on the nation.
Through a series of executive orders, President Biden has directed that the federal government “pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”1
These orders include a number of broad actions, including an equity assessment in federal agencies; an examination of recent regulatory actions and discriminatory housing practices and policies; universal access to high-quality, affordable health care; reforms to the criminal justice system; strengthened relationships with tribal nations; and actions on environmental justice (see sidebar, “The Biden executive orders”).
According to Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions, racism in general takes a huge financial toll on the US economy—US$16 trillion in lost opportunity costs in the past 20 years.2
The truly ambitious goals put forth by the administration, if achieved, will have a lasting and permanent impact on the US government and the nation overall. It will be a difficult task; the wide-ranging, interconnected, and persistent nature of disparities in society will require years if not decades to unravel. It will require the administration to use every tool at its disposal to understand and combat the causes of inequity and to address its harms.
The federal government has a decided role to play in creating a just and equitable future. In fact, almost every activity agencies perform—from hiring to policymaking to service delivery—can challenge orthodoxies (unstated assumptions that go unquestioned) that perpetuate systemic disparities and biases.3 To respond to the executive orders and to build an equitable future, federal government leaders should use the full breadth of their control and influence across their organizations, in workforce, vendor ecosystems, and communities and society.
Many states and cities are engaged in their own efforts to advance equity and reduce disparities in access to public services. Several states, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, California, and Utah, have taken steps to ensure equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine, allocating extra supplies and prioritizing eligibility for disproportionately affected areas, many with large minority populations.4 Other states have taken a variety of measures to advance greater equity, from reducing racial disparities within the courts to improving health treatment for the underserved.5
Achieving equity requires systemic change. It begins with deliberate choices to challenge old patterns and drive better results. In the following sections, we explore how federal agencies can activate equity in workforce engagement, procurement, policy and regulation, and service delivery. For each, we describe what an equitable outcome could look like, potential pitfalls, actions to consider, government’s stewardship role, and examples of bright spots where progress is being made.
As soon as President Biden took office, he turned the spotlight on issues of race and equity. In fact, racial equity seems to be a significant part of his agenda and may drive the public conversation during the next four years. In his first days in office, President Biden signed several executive actions aimed at addressing issues around racial inequity.
Advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities: This order calls for the federal government to “pursue an all-inclusive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.” The order directs each agency to assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate barriers to opportunities and benefits for systemically marginalized communities and other underserved groups.
Redressing our nation’s and the federal government’s history of discriminatory housing practices and policies: The memorandum states that the “federal government shall work with communities to end housing discrimination, to provide redress to those who have experienced housing discrimination, to eliminate racial bias and other forms of discrimination in all stages of home-buying and renting, to lift barriers that restrict housing and neighborhood choice, to promote diverse and inclusive communities, to ensure sufficient physically accessible housing, and to secure equal access to housing opportunity for all.”
Phase out the use of private criminal detention facilities: The Biden administration has issued an executive order to “reduce profit-based incentives to incarcerate by phasing out the federal government's reliance on privately operated criminal detention facilities,” and “ensure that [the United States’] incarceration and correctional systems are prioritizing rehabilitation and redemption.” The order states that incarcerated individuals should be given a fair chance to fully reintegrate into their communities through programs tailored to help them earn a living, secure affordable housing, and participate in democracy as fellow citizens.
Ensuring an equitable pandemic response and recovery: This executive order signals a governmentwide effort to “address the disproportionate and severe impact of coronavirus disease on communities of color and other underserved populations.” It calls for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force that will provide specific recommendations for mitigating health inequities during the ongoing pandemic, and for preventing similar inequities in the future.
Advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in the federal workforce: This executive order reaffirms “that the United States is at its strongest when our nation’s public servants reflect the full diversity of the American people,” and establishes a governmentwide initiative to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in all parts of the federal workforce. The order also focuses on a number of issues including addressing workplace harassment, advancing equity in pay and professional development, advancing equity in the workplace for LGBTQ+ public servants and individuals with disabilities, and expanding federal employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals.
The Deloitte government equity activation model11 shows how government organizations can activate equity within and outside their own agencies. It is structured around three primary spheres of influence within the reach of government organizations:
(1) Workforce, focusing on public-sector workforce engagement
(2) Vendor ecosystems, focusing on government procurement
(3) Communities and society, including policy, regulation, and service delivery
Government also plays a role in ecosystem stewardship, by supporting public-private ecosystems within each of these spheres.
Activators: Each sphere, in turn, includes multiple activators—key areas of activity and everyday choices through which government can exert its influence to achieve equity. Within each activator, agencies can take specific actions in pursuit of equity (figure 1).
Organizational enablers: Across these spheres of influence, organizations need enablers that drive accountability and support their actions. These include leadership, governance, resource allocation, legal, risk and compliance, data and analytics, infrastructure, workplace, and technology. Without these elements, efforts to drive equity may fail.
Organizational culture is the context in which priorities are set and choices are made. It’s “the way we do things around here”—the sustained patterns of behavior supported by shared experiences, values, and beliefs.12 Culture both influences and is influenced by the workforce, the vendor ecosystem, and society at large. It provides the context in which actions are prioritized and enablers are expressed.
Organizational culture is enduring, but it’s also always evolving, the result of an ongoing feedback loop between beliefs (subconscious assumptions), values (stated strategies, goals, and philosophies), and behaviors (people’s decisions, actions, and processes). As a result, it can adapt to new needs and changing conditions. Over time, new behaviors and beliefs can change an organization’s culture, but these changes are difficult to achieve and require explicit attention and formal programs.13
An equity-focused mindset requires more than a checklist of actions; it requires sustained commitment from leaders and workers, even when it is uncomfortable or unpopular. Equity has to be built, day by day, in line with a series of principles:14
All government ecosystem partners—contractors, nonprofits, community groups, businesses, academia, and constituents—should work collaboratively to set and build on goals for equity. The work is far too important and far too urgent for any one organization to do alone.
The US government is the country’s largest employer, and its actions and priorities can have lasting consequences for millions of Americans. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) figures showed that 2018 federal diversity levels had improved little or, in some cases, actually declined in recent years.15 Data shows that “people of color make up about 40% of the US population and about 38% of the full-time federal workforce.” And while they represent 46% of full-time workers in entry-level positions, they hold only 32% of senior federal positions.16
Employment is the first sphere in which government agencies can make changes to achieve equitable outcomes. Such changes can include providing greater employment access and advancement opportunities to candidates who contribute to the racial, ethnic, gender, and other identity diversity of the workforce. This includes helping all individuals develop and apply a broad and varied set of skills, experiences, and capabilities, and creating a culture that promotes inclusion and belonging.
An equitable outcome requires the consideration of racial, ethnic, gender, and other identity diversity in all steps of the hiring process—in candidate consideration, interviews, and offers—at all levels of the organization and in all roles. In an equitable system, systemically marginalized individuals advance at an equitable pace and are proportionately represented at all levels of the organization, including in roles of power and influence.
They are fairly represented in succession plans and candidate slates being considered for key roles.
Reevaluate talent selection requirements. Take a deeper look at what it takes to be successful in specific roles and teams. Once these success factors are identified, explore the many ways in which they may be demonstrated or measured (e.g., consider life experience as well as GPA). Consider what can be taught or learned through training or on the job before making various skills a prerequisite for employment. Once job requirements are established, ensure they are employed ethically and in a way that limits bias in filtering mechanisms.
Develop skills in the market. Identify new sources of talent rather than selecting exclusively from traditional ones. Collaborate with communities to help identify and access alternate labor pools, such as neurodiverse individuals, veterans, etc. Develop and administer open courses available to anyone, to provide potential candidates with the skills the job requires. Look to nontraditional sources for entry-level candidates and turn to professional associations and “diversity” recruitment specialists to fill mid-career, professional roles.
Use succession planning as a worker development process. Identify candidates early for advancement opportunities and provide them access to the experiences and roles they need to develop and advance their skills. Look ahead to the positions for which individuals show potential and create opportunities for them to grow to meet the advancement criteria.
Establish infrastructure for “reverse mentorship.” Create a formal program to connect successful, networked senior leaders with junior colleagues from systemically marginalized communities. This offers junior members more exposure to senior leadership while allowing them to share their own unique perspectives, providing valuable insight for senior workers. A project-based approach—that is, offering this relationship through a shared initiative or task —can help both mentors and mentees develop new skills. Research from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations suggests that mentorship programs improve promotion and retention rates by 15% for women and 38% for “individuals from systemically marginalized communities.”19
Improve the quality of sponsorships. Sponsorship entails a commitment to create opportunities for advancement. Organizations should enable sponsors to use their influence and networks to support and advance their protégés; provide protégés with high-visibility opportunities; and extend and strengthen their own networks. The organization should help sponsors better grasp the unique challenges faced by systemically marginalized individuals and the subtle ways in which bias impedes their success. And the organization should hold sponsors accountable for the successful preparation and advancement of their protégés.
Invest in education. Continue to educate workers on antiracism practices and unconscious bias—subtle biases that can affect the way we see others and the decisions we make.
Train decision-makers. Equip leaders to incorporate diversity, inclusion, and equity practices into everyday decision-making. Activities could include updating selection criteria, reviewing interview guides, and launching unconscious bias training for leaders who are conducting interviews.
Ecosystem stewardship. Invest in a robust talent pipeline and support talent ecosystems. This should involve acknowledging the depth and breadth of available talent and investing in skills and career path development across a variety of sources that provide diverse talent (such as schools, associations, after-school programs, mentoring arrangements, and skills development programs). Connect with local community colleges to identify and invest in skills and professional education pathways to help students better understand different career paths, develop tangible skills, and access opportunities in government.
The second sphere of influence concerns procurement and the vendors and partners involved in the process. Government organizations should set specific goals for equity in procurement and regularly evaluate their performance against them. Examining the root causes of previous inequities can help agencies to create policies, regulations, and strategies to mitigate and remediate them, while spurring new and creative approaches to sourcing. Various state and federal Historically Underutilized Business (HUB) programs already promote full and equal procurement opportunities for small, minority- and women-owned businesses; they provide an example of how governments can increase equity while meeting procurement and contracting goals.
Government spending, which directly supports tens of thousands of businesses and entrepreneurs, can be used to integrate diverse enterprises more fully into the American business landscape as contractors, suppliers, and partners.
Embrace the premise that equity drives outcomes. To achieve procurement process equity, it’s important for agencies to first acknowledge that their processes may unwittingly contain inequities, and then commit to identifying and mitigating them. An outcome goal might include increasing purchases of goods and services from vendors that employ systemically marginalized individuals and support their communities and set goals for accountability. These goals should consider factors such as the share of full-time workers from systemically marginalized groups and worker access to health care and other benefits.
Identify Inequities. It’s important to review the procurement phases—requirements development, acquisition plan development, source selection plan development, and solicitation scoring—that are most susceptible to inequity.
Inequity can creep into each of these phases, disproportionately affecting underserved communities. It can occur in the form of overly bundled requirements; acquisition plans structured as single awards out of administrative convenience; criteria in the source selection plan that favor one segment of the supply market; or simply by not masking supplier names during the solicitation scoring process. None of these actions are prohibited by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), and pressure to execute procurements quickly while controlling costs and avoiding real or perceived risk can lead to decisions that may create inequities unwittingly.
Make targeted process changes. When such inequities are uncovered, they can be mitigated by making targeted changes to the activities that led to them. This could mean, for example, introducing a step in the requirements development process that identifies opportunities to disaggregate requirements, allowing opportunity for more suppliers. Another would be to increase transparency and user-friendliness to make it easier for prospective vendors to access information and RFPs.
Invest in the development of a diverse supplier base. This should involve a variety of actions, such as providing infrastructure, training and expertise for small contractors, shadowing programs, benchmarking processes, and networking opportunities.
Monitor the new process. Metrics can be developed and collected to help evaluate the success of new processes in monitored equity. In the requirements development phase, this could mean measuring the number of standalone requirements created out of a single original requirement; more standalone requirements create more opportunities for additional supplier participation, which can create more equitable outcomes.
Actively encourage trusted participation. The history of real or perceived inequity in the procurement process can make members of underserved communities reluctant to participate. Actively encouraging participation can require a rebranding campaign to publicize steps taken to improve equity.
Ecosystem stewardship. Invest in networks that bring together a diverse mix of people and allow them to make social connections. Play the role of convenor to foster the connections between agencies, companies, and talent that promote the creation of innovative ecosystems.
Government can promote equity through its role as a regulator and policymaker by assessing the impact of existing laws on marginalized communities, ensuring that future policies advance equity, and determining how to allocate funds or grants equitably.
Governmentwide policies and programs confront and eliminate systemic barriers on marginalized communities.
Establish mechanisms to help identify policies and regulations that place disproportionate burdens on disadvantaged, vulnerable, or marginalized communities.
Make driving toward equitable outcomes a core component of policy formulation to help address historic barriers and prevent their perpetuation.
Assess the impact of policies and regulations on different communities. Combine direct constituent engagement with input from subject-matter experts from academics to members of marginalized communities. Dialogues between constituents, policymakers, and experts could provide a more complete view of the impact of existing policies and rules.
Seek and evaluate new sources of information on the consequences of policy. Measure the success of specific program and policy changes made; establish goals and measure progress toward them.26
Build technological capabilities that can help improve regulations in an equitable and just manner. For example, artificial intelligence can help governments identify regulations that may be inconsistent with current equity policies. Data analysis and behavioral science also can help improve the equity and effectiveness of new policies and programs.
Update policies and laws to reflect changing circumstances and constituent needs, especially in cases in which existing ones pose barriers to access.
Promote community engagement. Identify and connect with stakeholders representing systemically marginalized communities to aid them in influencing government decision-making. Develop strategies to promote inclusive community engagement and pilot their use among selected departments by type (service, infrastructure, and planning).27
Set up internal organizational teams to support the government’s equity strategy and ensure the use of inclusive engagement practices.
Ecosystem stewardship: Use cocreation, in which stakeholders share responsibility for a problem and work with government to solve it. The principle is “no change without us”—don’t do it “to” us, do it with us, tapping the collective wisdom of diverse groups. A partnership between the city of Minneapolis and Nexus Community Partners, for example, works to improve racial equity in the membership of government boards and commissions, which in turn influences major policy decisions toward more equitable outcomes.28
At the federal level, in May 2020 the United States Office of the Comptroller of the Currency strengthened and modernized its regulations concerning the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). The update increases CRA-related lending, investments, and services in low- and moderate-income communities.33
Within this sphere of influence, government organizations can take actions to ensure those most affected by systemic exclusion get the assistance they need, ultimately benefiting all members of society.
All constituents have the same ease and level of access to public services that they may need and for which they are eligible, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, or any other identity characteristics. Project funding allocation decisions are fair and address the interests and needs of all constituents.
Understand the unique barriers faced by systemically marginalized communities. This includes analyzing data as well as conducting interviews, focus groups, and other direct contacts to shed light on human challenges and the root causes behind certain behaviors that can’t be gleaned from data alone.
Map the user experience. “Journey mapping” is a method for visualizing the experiences a person has while interacting with government programs and agencies.
When combined with financial and demographic information found in census and tax data, it can be a powerful tool for understanding how persons respond to government programs—and the barriers and burdens faced by the hardest-to-reach individuals and families, particularly those living at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities.
Streamline the benefits process. In addition to improving in-person services, update online application systems by building more dynamic, user-friendly web portals that reflect the principles of human-centered design. For example, single sign-on solutions allow people to access programs across agencies with a unique digital identity.
Share data. Such solutions can be furthered through data-sharing arrangements among agencies to reduce the time constituents must devote to forms and information sharing. A “tell us once” approach improves the user experience and reduces errors.
Configure benefit portals to update constituent records automatically to reflect current life events, reducing the need for multiple inputs by constituents.
Invest in culturally sensitive outreach and assistance efforts to increase awareness of available services among systemically marginalized and underserved populations. These can include tailoring communication to break down language barriers or acknowledging that some cultures including certain Hispanic American and Arab American households believe that family issues should be resolved within the family—and adapting outreach accordingly.35 This can help break down barriers caused by a history of mistrust, misinformation, and fear.
Consider making certain benefits available by default; alter systems so that persons must opt out of programs rather than opt in.
Ecosystem stewardship: Invest in infrastructure for programs that serve systemically marginalized communities, rather than restricting funding to social workers or other predefined services only.
Governments at all levels can make a meaningful difference in equity in both the short and long terms, across every sphere of influence. In addition to the steps we outlined throughout the study, we recommend agencies consider including the following elements in their enterprise-level approaches to equity:
The time is now—to commit to taking courageous action and collaborating to create the equitable future we wish to see.
Deloitte Government & Public Services is committed to improving public outcomes through a focus on people. At Deloitte, we think about the complex issues facing the public sector and develop relevant, timely, and sustainable solutions for our clients.