By Benoy Jacob

The United States has a long history of public efforts aimed at ameliorating social and economic inequality. Many of these programs—and the agencies associated with them—have been developed and implemented at the national level.

It has become evident, however, that inequality and the related lack of opportunities for advancement manifest themselves most clearly at the local level.1 As a result, many cities and counties have made the advancement of equity a central objective in their policies and programs. That said, given the idiosyncratic nature of local jurisdictions, and the nascent nature of these efforts, lessons about challenges and opportunities are still emerging.

About five years ago, I took notice of the growing movement among local governments to address inequity. With support from the American Society for Public Administration’s Center for Accountability and Performance, I (along with a doctoral student of mine) sought to document and understand this emerging field of practice, paying particular attention to the role of performance measures.2

More recently, I have continued my work as one of the inaugural members of the ICMA Local Government Research Fellowship program. In this capacity, I have been examining a series of local jurisdictions and related professional organizations. In particular, I am conducting interviews and focus group meetings with key stakeholders in several cities to develop in-depth case-study evidence to help synthesize issues, challenges, and best practices associated with the local pursuit of social equity.

While the “final” results of my work will be presented at the 2019 ICMA Annual Conference in October, I am starting to gain some clarity on how the issue of equity is being addressed by cities and counties and some of the challenges they face. Thus, while the findings are still preliminary, I put forward the following four lessons that represent some insights from my work to date:

1. Recognize that “we” were/are part of the problem.

2. Grasstops and grassroots are important.

3. Data is many things and serves many functions.

4. We have lots of tools; we need better skills.

“We” Were/Are Part of the Problem

The U.S. government, like others, has unfortunately played a key role in creating and maintaining social inequities. While all levels of government are culpable in having shaped the distribution of (dis)advantage across the country, this is particularly true of local governments. One need only look to the history of American land use regulations to understand how regulatory tools have been used to segregate communities in ways that limit opportunities for employment, education, and access to public amenities.3

Recognizing that the public sector has played a role in creating an uneven playing field, however, is not a judgment on those who work in local government. Rather, it is often the first critical challenge facing those who wish to advance social equity from within public sector organizations. The leaders and staff of a jurisdiction need to understand their institutional history with respect to social inequity. To this end, stakeholders need to develop a shared language with which they can have a meaningful conversation that facilitates the implementation of actionable programs.

This important first step is what the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) refers to as “normalizing.”4 Normalizing means employing “a racial equity framework that clearly articulates our vision for racial equity and the differences between individual, institutional, and structural racism as well as implicit and explicit bias. It is important that staff—across the breadth and depth of a jurisdiction—develop a shared understanding of these concepts.”5

Further, GARE suggests that an important part of normalizing the issue of racial equity is to recognize its urgency. “The most effective path to accountability comes from creating clear action plans with built-in institutional accountability mechanisms. Collectively, we must create greater urgency and public will in order to achieve racial equity.”6

The interviews I have conducted make clear that normalizingwas one of the most “eye-opening experiences” for those involved. It was vital to moving the organization forward from broad conversations about equity to actionable programs and plans. In addition, it helped overcome key “sticking points” for many individuals—notably, the recognition that structural change within the institution is not a “judgment” on the individual. Recognizing institutional racism and/or implicit bias does not make you a bad person, but rather points to areas where change can and must be made.

Grasstops and Grassroots Are Important

The second insight from my case studies is the importance of developing social equity initiatives through both the organization’s grasstops (leadership) and its grassroots (staff). First, while many social equity programs are formalized through some level of jurisdictional leadership—mayor, council, and/or manager—it appears that these efforts often took shape first, at the staff level.

Indeed, in some instances, the insights developed through “initial” data analyses were considered simply “validating” what staff already knew. Thus, it is important that leadership—perhaps through the normalizing process—engage with the grassroots of the organization to better appreciate how staff see and understand community inequities in the implementation of their day-to-day work. In practical terms, given the complexity of city and county governments, this often means supporting organizational and operational changes.

Like any comprehensive effort that addresses a complex issue, social equity initiatives require the development of new organizational infrastructure. In many communities, this means the development and empowerment of department-level “equity teams.” In the most “advanced” jurisdictions, these equity teams can be found in every departmental unit. They help develop departmental equity plans, programs, and measures; communicate these to leadership; and provide insights back to department staff on how and where further action might be taken.

Despite the importance of empowering and tapping into the organization’s grassroots efforts and expertise, it is worth noting that the goal need not be 100 percent buy-in. This is especially true for jurisdictions that are starting new equity initiatives. In many instances, equity efforts begin in a “single corner” of an organization (often public health departments). As the program grows and matures in that corner, it begins to expand to other departments.

Finally, it is important to recognize that the grasstops and the grassroots need to be tightly connected (hence the importance of the equity teams). Even though there are clear benefits to decentralizing programmatic efforts, organizational leadership still matters. Staff need to see that their efforts are part of a broader organizational approach and culture.

Data is Many Things and Serves Many Functions

The third insight is about the role of data. Not surprisingly, public managers, staff, and other stakeholders are very clear that data—in a variety of forms—is critical for the advancement of social equity initiatives. Yet data is an area where interviewees were the most ambiguous in their comments. While stakeholders had very precise measures for their own jurisdiction, it was much harder for them to generalize their measurement efforts to lessons for others.

Measurement, it appears, is such a granular issue that it reflects the idiosyncrasies of each jurisdiction. That said, making sense of these measures—in a generalizable way—is one of the key objectives of my work (past and present), and it seems the best way to gain insight into the measurement issue is to draw upon the academic literature.

Members of the Standing Panel on Social Equity in Governance of the National Academy of Public Administration developed a framework that defines the operational measures of equity. This framework is useful in identifying how equity can be defined in one’s organization and which types of measures are most appropriate for assessing equity in different programs and activities. The framework is divided into four overarching types of measures: access, quality, procedural fairness, and outcomes.

Access measuresevaluate the extent to which public services and benefits are available to all.

Quality measuresassess the level of consistency in public service delivery to different groups and individuals.

Procedural fairness measuresexamine problems in due process, equal protection, and eligibility criteria for public policies and programs.

Outcomes measuresassess the degree to which policies and programs have the same impact on various groups and individuals.

This framework describes equity as multidimensional, and “outcomes” is just one dimension. This is important because outcome measures at the community level are unlikely to change in the short term, which may make programs seem less effective than they are. To the degree that staff can gather data and analyze the different dimensions of equity, they are more likely to appreciate where and how they are making systemwide structural changes.

Interestingly, while public managers speak clearly about the importance of data when telling the story of (in)equity in the community, they are equally clear that data has its limits. While data, measurement, and evidence should be at the heart of any equity initiative, my case studies provide evidence that a mixed-methods approach to equity can provide a more holistic view of program impacts.

In a 2005 article for the National Civic Review, H. George Frederickson noted, “I respect those who are working on social equity indicators, social equity benchmarks, and other forms of statistics, but … statistics and data lack passion and smother indignation … stories, films, videos, essays and personal descriptions … have the power to move people, and also move policymakers.”7 In short, data and measurement are important, but they should be supplemented with descriptive anecdotal evidence.

We Have Lots of Tools; We Need Better Skills

This fourth lesson is one that resonates with me. As my family and friends will attest, I am not a handy person. I have plenty of tools in my garage, but the tools themselves don’t fix things. Rather, knowing when and how to use them is the key.

Similarly, managers and administrators can find plenty of “equity” tools. For example, GARE and other organizations offer an increasing number of tools that jurisdictions can employ to generate insights on equity. However, jurisdictions need to recognize that the tools themselves are meaningless if not used properly. As Donald Moynihan explains, performance measures cannot provide the knowledge needed to make decisions to improve performance. They do not indicate why performance occurred, the context, how implementation took place, outside influences, or how to prioritize measures.8

A related issue that emerged in many of my interviews is that speaking of an equity initiative or program, as I often do, is unduly (and perhaps inappropriately) narrow. A comprehensive equity effort, of course, includes these things, but ultimately, equity is best understood as a lens through which programs, policies, and initiatives are ultimately assessed.

This idea is tied to some of Frederickson’s early work on equity in which he described social equity as a pillar of the field of public administration alongside effectiveness and efficiency. In practice, my interviewees have pointed to the increased use of equity measures in the development of their jurisdiction’s budget as an example of how equity is being employed as a lens to consider the various activities of the organization.

Beyond Racial Inequity

As noted earlier, the four insights I put forward here are still preliminary. That said, I think they are fairly noncontroversial. To some degree, they are lessons that can be applied to substantive areas outside of social equity.

In conclusion, I want to highlight a perhaps more difficult issue that I am still trying to understand. In most of my cases studies, social equity has been operationalized as racial equity. This has been somewhat surprising to me, because the focus on racial equity, while obviously very important, omits other important areas of inequity, such as inequity related to gender and sexual orientation. Clearly, as the field of social equity practice matures, the focus on racial inequity will need to expand to include and advance opportunities for other disenfranchised groups.

  Benoy Jacob, PhD, is an associate professor, School of Public Policy and Leadership, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (    



Endnotes and Resources

1 See See also,

2 Larson, S.J, Jacob, B, & Butz, E. (2017). Linking social equity and performance measurement: A practitioner’s roadmap. Report prepared for the ASPA Center for Accountability and Performance (CAP) Social Equity Performance Measurement Fellowship.

3Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities,Cambridge University Press, 2018.

4 Bernabei, Erika. (2017) Racial Equity: Getting to Results.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Fredrickson, G. (2005). The State of Social Equity in American Public Administration. National Civic Review,Winter 2005, 31-38.

8 Moynihan, D. P. (2008). The Dynamics of Performance Management: Constructing Information and Reform.Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

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