Harnessing the Right Data for Evidence-Based Equity

data privacy, people, personal data, binary

The Biden administration is determined to improve trust in government, and as part of that goal has made equity a top priority. Agencies are at work responding to recent mandates with assessments about their programs and policies to uncover barriers to serving all demographics and communities.

This collective movement will help rethink longstanding agency operations for program development, implementation, and transparency. But this commitment to evidence-based and continuous improvement requires a thorough examination of the data that will drive our decision making: What information matters most to equity? How can we assess it from the customer’s – rather than the agency’s – point of view? How do we start to understand and address the root causes of service gaps?

Federal leaders know that improving equity of services for the American people will take sustainable, actionable, and long-term plans to understand what’s impacting their customers across their government journey. And they’ll need to be equipped with the tools to meaningfully measure their impact along the way.

Here are some core areas of focus for the journey ahead.

Enabling Cross-Agency Insights

It’s critically important for each government organization to assess individual service and equity metrics. But the lived experiences of real people include a myriad of interactions that often span different organizations all at once. To reflect this journey, transparency and insights need to be considered from the customer’s point of view.

This means being able to look at complex issues, like housing or disaster recovery, and examine the intersections and equity gaps within and across missions. Of course, that clear-eyed picture requires data collected centrally – across divisions – for a transparent and holistic assessment.

Fortunately, we have a blueprint and a foundation for collective reporting. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) of 2014 requires agencies to publish spending information on USASpending.gov. With a single data schema and strategy, this unified approach to data collection from different organizations creates a transparent, simplified means of reporting and accessing information. While the DATA Act allows the public to see where funds flowed, we can apply this same unified mindset to answer the question: How do we know if our spending made an impact for more people, and more communities?

The real power of the equity assessments will be in the insights they uncover across the board. If every program assesses its small slice, we can then look horizontally across programs and use the collective data to identify underserved populations, think differently about who’s being left out or left behind, share information across programs, and work collaboratively on solutions.

But centralized data collection isn’t meaningful if we don’t have the right metrics on hand. That gets us to our next issue.

Focusing on Root Causes

When examining data and the flow of funding, it’s common to look at the symptoms of inequities. For example, say there’s data showing that certain minority small business owners are falling behind on getting contracts. Is it enough to increase the flow of contracts? That’s a reasonable decision, but it’s just tackling the symptoms and not the underlying causes of the gap. In other words, we need to uncover the “why” behind the data.

As we start to dig deeper, equity requires a focus on “humanizing” data with indicators that are not always quantitative in nature; it can include metrics about respect, inclusion, freedom of identity, empowerment, being heard, equality of opportunity, and accessibility. This information grounds the numbers in the context of lived experiences so we can start to uncover systemic barriers that may be impeding equitable access or outcomes.

Increasingly, we are seeing agencies embrace new methodologies to better understand their diverse customers and populations – which can yield unexpected results and previously unidentified metrics. For example, organizations like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are examining areas of improvement through rich ethnographic research and journey maps that explore the intersections and points where collaboration can be improved across programs. Those types of efforts can serve as a roadmap for cross-agency research in the future as we uncover gaps in areas like veteran employment and disaster recovery, where a person needs to engage with multiple agencies at once.

Knowing the Limitations of Data

It’s common for agencies to collect customer experience data through surveys, and they’re able to use that feedback for short-term service recovery and ongoing improvements to policies, programs, and offerings. But while standard data collection reveals whether services are trusted, impactful, and easy to use – it’s just the tip of the iceberg when trying to understand barriers to service delivery.

However, it’s very difficult to quantify the part of the iceberg that’s under the water to get the whole story. For example, there are the people who:

  • Don’t know that the services are available or that they qualify for a benefit
  • Don’t have the proximity, resources, or faculties to access the services
  • Don’t trust the providers who offer the services

The absence of data about these types of people is in some cases more meaningful than the data on hand. It’s important to acknowledge the limitations of data that we have and to navigate ways to address those limitations. Given the restrictions of the digital divide, exploring alternative research methodologies is essential to capture a full picture.

Agencies can partner with state and local governments or community-based institutions to understand, quantify, and fill in gaps around awareness and accessibility. We can also collect this “under the water” data from social listening to help understand customer sentiments and respond to concerns outside of standard survey methodologies.

Following Existing Models for Success

The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) is a notable example of using data to address root causes of an issue and incorporate new measurements of equity into programming and decision making.

The HMDA requires that financial institutions maintain and publicly disclose information about mortgage loans to determine if they are serving communities’ housing needs and to identify possible discriminatory lending patterns. While the lending institutions are outside the immediate control of the Federal government, the accountability to report lending data enables the government to track loan approvals across racial demographics, examine root causes of discriminatory patterns, and track equity indicators across a broad ecosystem.

This example about the HMDA – using data outside across the sphere of influence to set meaningful and impactful metrics – highlights the power of collaboration and what’s in the realm of possible for the Federal government to effect. So, on a broader scale, how can we modernize for the future of evidence-based equity?

Our colleagues have previously discussed the importance of establishing accountability and shared services to transform the service delivery paradigm for equity. Centralized responsibility would allow for standard procedures, sharing of best practices, and unified infrastructure to collect data from across agencies. It would alleviate the cost and burden of setting up mechanisms in each individual organization and would establish the strong muscle memory required to comply with data privacy regulations, streamline data collection, analyze data sets, and protect the data in storage. And ultimately, it would create sustainability for long-term equity initiatives.

If we can bring that kind of centralized approach to customer experience data – and learn from lighthouse agencies such as the Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Experience Office or the USDA’s Office of Customer Experience – we’ll be able to minimize inefficiencies and gain a more comprehensive understanding of how customers are utilizing the totality of the government’s services, address gaps, and better serve all Americans.

Continue the equity conversation by learning more about changing the paradigm to achieve equity in government services, another topic in the Booz Allen series on advancing equity across Federal government programs.

In this series, “Equity as a National Priority: An Interagency Perspective,” Booz Allen discusses the topic of advancing equity across Federal government programs – offering perspectives for a framework that prioritizes fair and inclusive service delivery to the public.

About Santiago Milian and Susannah Numa
Santiago Milian is a principal at Booz Allen, leading customer experience engagements for clients; Susannah Numa focuses on Booz Allen’s criminal justice work, specifically on the intersection between Federal and local organizations.