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Inclusive, equity-centred government

Embedding greater inclusion, diversity and equity into the public sector

As inclusion, diversity and equity issues come to the forefront, many governments are beginning to question how policies are made, implemented and assessed to address underlying systemic imbalances.

Governments should reflect societal values. As inclusion, diversity and equity issues come to the forefront, governments are beginning to recognise the importance of addressing the underlying causes of systemic imbalances and question the fundamentals of how policies are made, implemented and assessed.

Inclusion generally means ensuring that all people feel valued, respected and welcomed within a team, workplace, organisation, or society.1 Equity generally refers to taking steps to ensure fair access to resources and other policies that encourage the advancement of all people, especially those facing disadvantages.2

Inclusive, equity-centred government seeks to address historical imbalances in resources and structural barriers to opportunity and operates at the junction of disadvantages that may be based on race, gender, sexual orientation and identity, disability and socioeconomic status. Also, it acknowledges the role of policymaking and programme development in perpetuating these disadvantages further.

Finally, the aim is to address systemic racism and systemic inequity in multiple areas, including policing, criminal justice, education, health care, housing, business support and even government talent management. This demands a systemic change in government functioning.

In the following sections, we discuss some of the most prominent inclusion and equity-centric approaches being embraced by governments around the world.

Inclusive and equity-centred design

The concept of inclusive design, also known as universal design, is not new. Governments have been employing this approach for decades, primarily in the form of infrastructure improvements that accommodate physical disabilities—think audible walk signals and wheelchair ramps.

What is new is the expansion of this concept beyond physical infrastructure and accessibility needs. As governments seek to make their services accessible to every citizen, they are rethinking programme structures, communication platforms and digital algorithms. They are looking to accommodate those with physical limitations, learning and language differences and mental health disorders.

For instance, Kenya partnered with UNICEF to design an accessible education system for children with hearing and visual impairment and intellectual disabilities, distributing easy-to-use digital devices with multimedia overlays that combine features such as audio narration, sign language videos, interactivity and audio-description of images.3 In India, when the government launched its mobile app to provide information about COVID-19, it took into account that the majority of its citizens didn’t have access to smartphones and thus created an interactive voice response system with an easy-to-remember phone number.4

Governments are also focusing on institutionalising the design thinking process to solve complex problems. For instance, Norway’s StimuLab helps state and municipal entities apply design principles and processes to stimulate innovation in public sector operations and service delivery.5 StimuLab taps into the private sector expertise to solve complex societal problems using a broader toolkit beyond design thinking including, foresight, impact assessment, data analysis and behavioural psychology. Since its inception in 2016, StimuLab has been driving a wide variety of projects, including preventing people from falling into financial instability, tackling societal exclusion, developing a roadmap for national digital archival systems, and cross-sectorial and public-private innovation.6 Across its projects, StimuLab uses a design thinking methodology called the “triple diamond”: The first diamond is the diagnostic phase—focusing on understanding the root causes of a complex public issue, establishing a shared understanding between stakeholders and building commitment within the group. The second and the third phase focus on exploring ideas, testing concepts and, finally, prototyping solutions and scaling.7

In addition, governments are also making a deliberate effort to move from inclusive to equity-centred design. For example, the Lab @ DC, a unit within the Washington, DC, city government, is redesigning government forms to improve access to city services.8 In 2017, the lab launched Form-a-Palooza, using human-centered design principles and plain language to reduce design bias for 30 of the most commonly used forms.9 For instance, the previous application for reserved residential parking for mobility-impaired residents required them to get a doctor’s certificate, then go to the local department of engine vehicles to pick up a parking placard and get the application notarised and finally go to the Department of Transportation to submit the form physically. All four steps required residents to physically visit each office to complete the process. The redesign eliminated the last two steps by removing the notary requirement and allowing residents to email the application form.10

Moving a step further, equity-centred processes and policies can help reduce systemic barriers faced by historically marginalised, oppressed and excluded groups. For example, government policies regarding criminal conviction can remove access to myriad opportunities for previously incarcerated individuals. While some restrictions based on prior criminality may be appropriate, many policies needlessly handicap those convicted of minor offences from finding work. In 2018, for instance, the White House announced a programme to help Americans who are reentering society from prison find jobs. In 2015, the state of New York launched Project Reset, a diversion programme that provides an alternative to individuals who have committed low-level crimes from having these infractions appear in a criminal record report.11

The application of design thinking and human-centered design in the above examples is just the tip of the iceberg. Design principles can be applied to mitigate and even eliminate, systemic and historic discrimination in a plethora of areas such as housing discrimination, algorithmic bias in financial lending and unconscious bias in criminal legislation.

Equitable access to public goods

Citizen access to public goods can highly impact economic success. Children from a low-income neighbourhood with underfunded schools, high crime rates and limited access to internet—most prevalent in rural communities—face myriad additional challenges on the already difficult road to adulthood.

Governments are increasingly seeking to ensure more equitable distribution of public goods. That said, there are a number of critical success factors that aren’t related purely to public goods but are influenced by public policy. Low-income communities are often the last to receive new communication technologies, such as 5G,12 and often have limited access to facilities such as health care and recreation. Policy can also influence private sector lending, housing and employment practises to address inequalities and discriminatory practises.

Governments have a central role to play in providing equitable access to public goods and using policy tools to influence equitable access to quasi-public and private goods and services (figure 1).

New Zealand’s Digital Inclusion Blueprint focuses on four key elements: access, skills, trust and motivation. Beyond access to the internet, devices and content, the blueprint focuses on improving digital skills required to use them, the ability to trust what one sees and does online and making the digital experience more meaningful for each community. 13 The goal is to ensure everyone can “participate in, contribute to and benefit from the digital world.” 14 In the United States, President Joe Biden has called for a US$20 billion investment in rural broadband infrastructure to bolster employment opportunities for those living outside of urban areas. 15

In the health equity area, Public Health England has identified reducing health inequality as a key priority for both its 2020–2025 Infectious Diseases Strategy and its NHS Long Term Plan. The agency cited evidence that doing so can improve life expectancy and reduce disability across the whole population. 16

Another way of addressing health inequity is to focus on social determinants of health (SDOH): conditions in which people are born, grow, live and work, along with surrounding social structures and economic systems that shape these conditions. 17 Governments, acknowledging the strong linkages between SDOH and health outcomes, have sharpened their focus in this area. For instance, the state of Arizona now requires Medicaid managed care organisations to coordinate community resources such as housing and utility assistance along with health care. 18

Transportation, especially public transport, can directly impact economic justice by providing better access to workforce opportunities, healthy food and education. 19 The Housing + Transportation Index puts forth an analysis that relooks at the definition of “housing affordability.” The analysis asserts that nearly 55% of US neighbourhoods can be termed as affordable, but when transportation costs are factored in, that number falls to 26%. It stresses the importance of government agencies planning public transport and mobility options more holistically. 20 For instance, the Department of Transportation of Washington, DC, requires dockless vehicle rental services to offer non-smartphone-based access options and pricing plans for low-income neighbourhoods. 21

Many governments have used an equity lens in their COVID-19 responses, too. For example, the New York City Department of Health used data to identify neighbourhoods with low testing numbers and high positive cases—many of which were poor areas with overcrowded housing—and concentrated its testing resources there. The agency offered rapid testing and wrap-around services such as counselling or connection to health care providers to ensure equal access to services in these areas. 22

Data sovereignty and data equity

Governments’ increased reliance on new artificial intelligence systems and algorithms has given rise to new concerns of data equity and data sovereignty. Data equity seeks to ensure that the data collected and analysed for decision-making appropriately represents the underlying population and prevents bias against marginalised communities. Data sovereignty refers to the inherent rights individuals and communities have on the collection, ownership and use of their own data. 23

Data-driven decisions are only as reliable as the data they are based on. Therefore, if the underlying data undercounts or misses individuals belonging to different population subgroups such as race, age, ethnicity, gender and living and social conditions, it can lead to inequality and bias. For instance, a report by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology found that in most facial recognition algorithms, the accuracy of algorithms worsens for specific demographic groups. The report found that facial recognition systems had the highest error rates (false positives) for people of colour, women and the elderly. 24

In order to facilitate better decision-making, many governments are seeking ways to make data more representative of the population. The UK Office for National Statistics has adapted existing surveys and created new surveys to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on certain population subgroups. The agency has additionally turned to existing census data to help understand how different groups are being affected by the virus. 25 New York launched an Automated Decision Systems (ADS) Task Force in May 2019 to evaluate tools the city was using to help make decisions about service and resource allocation. The taskforce recommended ways to build equitable, effective and responsible approaches to the city’s ADS. 26

Data sovereignty focuses on the issue of data ownership—who should own individual and community data. Legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation tends to focus on an individual’s right over data and its privacy. However, there is very little focus on the right of a community, such as indigenous communities, over its data. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs launched the Indigenous Data Sovereignty (ID-SOV) initiative that focuses on the right of indigenous people to own, control, access and possess data that belongs to their members, knowledge systems, customs and territories. 27 The concept is derived from indigenous tribes’ inherent right to govern their peoples, lands and resources. 28

New Zealand’s Māori community is putting the concept of ID-SOV in action through the Tikanga in Technology project, which received US$6 million government funding for four years. One of the key objectives of the project is to explore tools, processes and mechanisms to support IT workers in enabling ethical use of data and generate more equitable outcomes for the Māori. 29

Cocreation and citizen engagement

Governments across the globe are providing more opportunities for individual citizens and communities to have a voice in creating policies and solutions that affect them. This “cocreation” model engages citizens and communities, promotes inclusive governance and can lead to more equitable outcomes. Additionally, governments are focussed on making citizen participation more meaningful and moving citizens up the “ladder of participation.” This means moving their involvement from simple activities such as information sharing and voting, to consultation and community involvement, to large-scale participation in decision-making. 30

For instance, in Taiwan, the government used vTaiwan, an open source collaboration platform, to bring together citizens, academicians and software developers to brainstorm ways to effectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The platform served as an online town hall, involving citizens in policymaking and increasing civic trust. 31 Because it was cocreated with the community, the diverse perspectives of community members were reflected in the policy ideas generated.

The Belgian city of Leuven regularly seeks citizen input on government decisions, from addressing climate change and COVID-19 to seeking ideas on how to make the city a better place. In September 2020, Leuven received an award from the European Commission for this innovative collaboration model. 32 In another example, Portugal launched its nationwide Participatory Budget initiative in 2017. The process allows citizens to pitch and vote on public investments, giving them an active role in deciding which projects are funded and implemented. Programme officials visit both major cities and small villages to ensure they are receiving input from a broad range of constituents. 33

Data signals

  • In order to bring greater diversity in leadership roles, the Australian government has set a target of increasing the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to 3% in the Senior Executive Services. 34
  • More than 30 US cities have created City Equity Offices since 2014. The offices evaluate government processes and service delivery with the goal of eliminating institutional inequities and discrimination. 35
  • In 2018, 258.4 million children, adolescents and young people were out of school, constituting nearly a sixth of the total population in that age group. 36

Moving forward

  • Elevate the human experience by taking a holistic, people-first approach to the design and delivery of government programmes. Adopt universal design principles for all government programmes.
  • Update outdated regulations and requirements to overcome systemic barriers to inclusion.
  • Encourage citizen participation and cocreation to tackle complex challenges where stakeholders share responsibility for a problem and together develop a process for solving it.
  • Collect and use data that represents all population groups and can be broken down to show realities within marginalised or disadvantaged subpopulation groups.
  • Democratise data, making it available to individuals and communities and enabling them to design programmes and services that suit their needs.
  • For automated decisions, leverage tools and techniques that can automatically detect potential algorithmic bias to avoid decisions that are unfair to certain populations.

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The authors would like to thank Sushumna Agarwal from the Deloitte Center for Government Insights for driving the research and development of this trend.

The authors would also like to thank Paul Macmillan, Joe Mariani, and John O’Leary for their insights and thoughtful feedback on the drafts.

Cover image by: Lucie Rice

  1. Meg Bolger, “What’s the difference between diversity, inclusion, and equity,” General Assembly Blog, 24 May 2020; Code for America, “Diversity, equity & inclusion,” accessed 12 January 2021.

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  2. Ibid.

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  3. Daniel Baheta and Florian Rabenstein, “Making digital learning accessible for all children in Kenya,” UNICEF, accessed 12 January 2021.

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  4. Wharton University of Pennsylvania, “Creating inclusive public policies: Guidelines for compassionate regulators,” 1 September 2020.

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  5. Author interview with Benedicte Wildhagen, 9 December 2020.

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  6. Design and architecture Norway, “StimuLab: Initiated projects,” accessed 12 January 2021.

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  7. Design and architecture Norway, “StimuLabs method: Triple diamond,” accessed 12 January 2021.

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  8. Karissa Minnich, “Addressing racial equity through human-centered design : How an act as simple as redesigning municipal forms can make government more truly equitable,” The Lab @ DC, 30 September 2020.

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  9. Betsy Gardner and Stephen Goldsmith, “Innovating for equity: Design in DC,” Data-Smart City Solutions, 12 November 2019.

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  10. The Lab @ DC, “Form-a-Palooza,” 28 May 2019.

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  11. Project Reset, “Project Reset,” accessed 12 January 2021.

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  12. Paul Flahive, “Who gets 5G—and who gets left behind—has some worried about digital inequality,” NPR, 25 February 2020.

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  13. James Clarke, “An inclusive digital community: Equity through design,” Deloitte, accessed 12 January 2021.

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  14. Natalie Leal, “New Zealand launches ‘digital inclusion’ blueprint,” Global Government Forum, 12 May 2019.

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  15. Joe, “The Biden-Harris plan to build back better in rural America,” accessed 12 January 2021.

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  16. Gov.UK, “Health Equity Assessment Tool (HEAT): executive summary,” 24 September 2020.

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  17. CDC, “NCHHSTP Social determinants of health,” 19 December 2019.

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  18. Samantha Artiga and Elizabeth Hinton, “Beyond health care: The role of social determinants in promoting health and health equity,” KFF, 10 May 2018.

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  19. Co:Census, “Six steps to make racial equity your transit agency’s priority,” Government Technology, 30 November 2020.

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  20. Center for Neighbourhood Technology, “Housing + Transportation Affordability Index,” 1 January 2009.

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  21. Tiffany Fishman et al., Transportation trends 2020 : What are the most transformational trends in mobility today?, Deloitte Insights, 13 April 2020.

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  22. American Medical Association, “COVID-19 health equity initiatives: New York City Department of Health,” accessed 12 January 2021.

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  23. Māori Data Sovereignty Network, “Principles of Māori data sovereignty,” October 2018.

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  24. Drew Harwell, “Federal study confirms racial bias of many facial-recognition systems, casts doubt on their expanding use,” Washington Post, 20 December 2019.

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  25. Kate Richards, “COVID-19 is hitting the poorest the hardest, but inclusive data can help protect them,” Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, 21 May 2020.

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  26. NYC, “New York City: Automated decision systems task force report,” November 2019.

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  27. International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Indigenous world 2020: Indigenous data sovereignty, 11 May 2020.

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  28. Native Nations Institute, “Indigenous data sovereignty and governance,” accessed 12 January 2021.

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  29. SunLive, “Tikanga in Technology receives $6m funding,” 2 October 2020.

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  30. Anne Molineux and Dr Michael Macaulay, “Civic engagement: Harnessing voices to expand choices,” Deloitte, accessed 12 January 2021.

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  31. Andreas Kluth, “If we must build a surveillance state, let’s do it properly,” Bloomberg, 22 April 2020.

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  32. Smart Cities World, “European Commission names Leuven as capital of innovation,” news release, 28 September 2020.

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  33. Deloitte Insights, Government Trends 2020, 24 June 2019.

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  34. Mia Hunt, “Australian Public Service sets new diversity targets,” Global Government Forum, 8 July 2020.

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  35. Tony Favro, “City Equity Offices in America,” City Mayors Society, September 2020.

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  36. UNESCO, “New methodology shows that 258 million children, adolescents and youth are out of school,” September 2019.

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