Realizing America’s promise of diversity, equity, and inclusion: Figure out what works
Wikipedia has an “I Can’t Breathe” page. The origin of the battle cry is attributed to the death of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after being put in a chokehold by New York City Police. But the site lists a sickening number of additional deaths that occurred under similar circumstances, culminating in the 2020 death of George Floyd.
Wikipedia has another page, this one devoted to the phrase, “Defund the Police,” which is described as a slogan used to support “divesting funds from police departments and reallocating them to non-policing forms of public safety and community support, such as social services, youth services, housing, education, health care and other community resources.” And while the slogan sounds more drastic than the concept behind it, there’s still scant evidence that taking money from police and investing it instead in social services will do anything to reverse the systemic problems that drive racial unrest in our country. So, what will?
The bottom line is, we don’t know. We don’t know what is most effective in eliminating systemic racism and inequity, or improving diversity, equity and inclusion in our communities. However, significant progress has been made over the past several decades to strengthen the use of evidence in government policymaking — to find out what works and build on that knowledge.
The bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking in 2017 made recommendations to Congress and the President on improved governance over data collection, evidence-building, and the use of data and evidence in policymaking. Congress acted swiftly to require federal agencies to develop learning agendas, the big questions they need answered in order to achieve their missions more effectively. Agencies are now required to produce annual evaluation plans that chart what studies they’ll conduct to assess the effectiveness of their programs. These efforts present an opportunity to focus evidence-based policymaking on strengthening diversity, equity and inclusion.
The federal government currently employs myriad programs to accomplish various diversity, equity and inclusion goals. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy promotes policies and coordinates with employers to increase workplace success for people with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration offers funding to encourage the participation of underrepresented minorities in the medical, dentistry and nursing professions. The Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion in the Military is developing recommendations to foster equal opportunity, diversity, and inclusion among all ranks of the military.
Of course, many government programs aren’t focused exclusively on addressing inequity. Many include such goals as part of their larger missions and measure and report their progress addressing diversity and inclusion in different ways. In any case, it’s difficult to ascertain which of the government’s many programs in this arena are doing the most good. This significant and systemic problem deserves a deliberate effort to inventory what programs work and improve those that don’t.
To ensure that our efforts in this arena are having the intended impact, Congress and the Biden administration should create a bipartisan, expert commission with responsibility for aligning and improving the government’s investment in diversity, equity and inclusion. A diverse, committed body of experts should be charged with:
- Identifying all federal programs with a diversity, equity or inclusion focus, even in part. These programs will span social services, youth services, housing, education, health care and many other areas.
- Inventorying evaluations of these federal programs to ascertain which are most effective and what can be learned from them. This would include determining the extent to which the programs have undergone independent, external evaluation based on sound, scientific principles.
- Using the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s Guide for Identifying Fragmentation, Overlap and Duplication, to determine the extent of overlap or duplication among those programs.
- Identifying target populations served by such programs and those underserved by government programs.
- Recommending ways to better coordinate and improve those programs, including a transparent way to hold those programs accountable for improvement. This would include establishing standards for measuring and evaluating these programs, including common measures for similar programs, as appropriate, and ensuring such programs are reflected in agency learning agendas and evaluation plans.
Without action, there is enormous risk that policymakers will forget the painful summer of unrest our nation experienced in 2020 and, more importantly, that racial and ethnic injustice will continue. Without significant progress, we will soon be outraged again by wrongs committed against the nation’s minorities and the streets will once again fill with rage and violence. Asking hard questions about the programs we invest in, including whether they are working, is the first step in finding lasting solutions. An independent commission is the best way to take that important first step.
Robert Shea, a former Associate Director at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, is the National Managing Principal for Public Policy at Grant Thornton as well as a Principal with Grant Thornton Public Sector. He was a member of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.
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