What we can learn from the effort to implement Biden’s executive orders on advancing equity

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Editor's note:

Read the accompanying research brief, published in partnership with the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School.

Next week, the nation will celebrate Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the U.S. And with this commemoration comes an essential question: Are we making real and durable progress on racial justice as part of the larger project of becoming a more fair and inclusive nation? Or are we engaged in mostly symbolic, small-bore gestures that block and reverse that larger project, as it has been over and over again in our history?

Last fall, Brookings’s Valuing Black Assets Initiative, in collaboration with the New School’s Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy, released a report and accompanying op-ed arguing that if we as a nation are serious about our promises to practice justice for all, we should start “keeping score”—in part by strengthening and spreading the practice of racial equity impact assessment by government.

In the report, we observed that local governments are currently leading in this practice, blazing the trail for a new generation of equity analysis in government decisionmaking. We also found that the federal government—at least in the executive branch—has made notable progress, thanks mainly to the Biden administration’s innovative and wide-ranging actions.

In January 2021, President Joe Biden not only issued the first-ever executive order on “advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities through the federal government” (EO 13985), but made it his first executive order, on day one of his presidency. That not only sent a powerful signal to the country about presidential priorities, but also represented a practical boon for the implementation effort, in terms of keeping thousands of public officials in dozens of federal agencies focused on the work of implementing the executive order while tackling many other demands.

And in February of this year, the president issued his second executive order on advancing equity. The new order reported on progress over the past two years, updated the charge to executive agencies and White House offices (for example, on routine annual planning, budgeting, procurement, and other functions to advance equity), underlined the importance of adequately resourcing equity teams at every agency, emphasized strong and modern approaches to protecting civil rights amid technological change and other evolving threats, and defined some specific new whole-of-government goals, such as promoting “equitable development” as once-in-a-generation investments in physical infrastructure and climate action begin to land in communities.

But let’s be clear: National progress in equitable development also depends greatly on the cooperation and commitment of state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to advance equity. This is because law and custom assign them—rather than the federal government—many of the most consequential decisions (for example those regarding capital projects, labor and environmental standards, and land use) that drive the outcomes. But it is significant that the president has called out and explained equitable development as a national priority for which federal policies and practices matter greatly.

Based on the second phase of our research on equity impact assessment, we have just released Measuring What Matters for Racial Progress, which focuses on exemplary, lesson-rich cases of local and state leadership and innovation. We will take a closer look at the federal picture and its lessons in a future report. In general, we agree with the view expressed by PolicyLink and other critical observers that the president’s second executive order builds effectively on the first and reflects a clear and strong appreciation of the fact that equity must be more than a commitment to serve all—it requires the specific governing practices that give life to that commitment.

In this piece, we share several defining features and lessons of the Biden administration’s implementation approach so far, both because the federal government directly touches our lives and communities every day and because it does so indirectly as well in profoundly important ways, as the case studies in our new report underscore.

For example, Congress and the Treasury Department provided the American Rescue Plan Act’s recovery funding and policy guidance that helped shape Los Angeles County’s use of the funds to support an equity-driven agenda tailored to that large and diverse jurisdiction. Likewise, congressional legislation and Treasury’s implementing rules require that jurisdictions eligible to receive and invest federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits prepare allocation plans—a requirement flexible enough that the city of Chicago completely reimagined what its plan could address, using racial equity impact assessment to structure its housing agency’s goal-setting and strategies, in the process creating a new and replicable model for the field. There are countless other examples of the local impacts of federal leadership on equity, including new and more coordinated approaches to rural regions, consulting with tribal governments, and more.

What follows are several lessons that local, state, territorial, and tribal government leaders—as well as community advocates, the media, and researchers—can learn from the ongoing effort at the federal level to implement the historic executive orders.

The implementation effort, like the executive orders, has approached equity in a broad and inclusive way—though political adversaries have denied this and consistently attacked the work.

The president’s executive orders define “underserved communities” as both groups of people (people of color, the disabled, women, LGBTQ people, low-income people, etc.) as well as types of places (rural, low-income, historically polluted, etc.). These are not exclusively racial equity EOs—though they call out the persistence of systemic racism, they have not been implemented only to improve the way the federal government protects and supports people of color.

Based on our interviews and review of an array of federal policy and implementation documents, this inclusive scope and approach has created broader opportunities for innovation than a race-only approach would have. It has facilitated a whole-of-government approach by making a wider range of agency actions relevant to what the EO expects, and probably helped protect the effort politically as well.

Nonetheless, some of this administration’s work to promote equity, like that of other presidential administrations before it, has been attacked and also mischaracterized in the media (where some link it to “woke ideology”), by opposing interest groups and members of Congress (typically alleging discrimination rebranded as “equity”), and in the courts.

Some of the most tangible expressions of ‘promoting equity and support for underserved communities’ are reflections of good government that routinely innovates to improve its performance, including through innovations aimed at the historically excluded and underserved.

The Biden administration’s creative and robust work to improve the “customer experience” is a case in point (and the subject of its own executive order, issued in December 2021), as is its Open Government National Action Plan (released in December 2022).

The work to promote equity can be seen as an expression and enhancement of these basic commitments to more responsive, transparent, and accountable government. The Biden administration’s customer experience, open government, and other whole-of-government initiatives reflect important lessons learned (many of them the hard way) across decades of earlier work by both Republicans and Democrats to shift the performance of government agencies, the practices they use to engage those they aim to serve (for example, applications for federal assistance), and the trust that agencies have gained or failed to gain in the process.

The customer experience initiative is one of many Biden administration efforts to express a more fundamental philosophy that promoting equity should be a lens and not a lane, so to speak. This contends that equity-promoting efforts are not a special interest agenda or limited to an isolated program—they should be a core feature of operating a modern, accountable government that serves everyone more effectively and fairly. Part of that is routinely analyzing delivery systems and where they fall short, and how innovative approaches might better serve the least well served, whether they are people of color, single parents, low-income people, rural residents, or all of the above.

What it will take to sustain that agenda and act on that philosophy of government is unclear in the face of serious legal and other challenges, some of which aim to curb the underlying authority of executive agencies or rewrite the legal understanding of fairness and government’s obligation to promote a more fair and just society.

Implementation of the executive orders has also enabled federal officials to employ the wisdom of universal design.

Universal design is an approach, born in the design of products and the physical environment, that emphasizes accessibility to all. It reflects both an ethos and a lens, and it is not uncommon for designers using that approach to find that solutions built to remove barriers for those with special needs actually work better for everyone else too.

Angela Glover Blackwell, one of our nation’s best-known advocates for racial equity as a critical pathway to social progress, conveyed the importance of this approach in an influential essay highlighting what she called “the curb-cut effect.” Curb cuts in the sidewalk—originally designed for the mobility-impaired and those with strollers or wheelchairs—turn out to be better for all of us, for safety and other reasons. Similarly, policies and program delivery approaches that are designed to better meet the needs of specific underserved or marginalized groups can end up benefiting a much broader swath of the population across racial, gender, age, and other lines.

In the case of executive agency policymaking and implementation under President Biden, this principle is evident in work as varied as removing barriers to improve access to federal benefits (e.g., allowing tenants applying for emergency rental assistance to “self-attest” their financial or housing instability, given the challenges of accessing formal documentation); designing new regulations or revamping existing ones; developing new grant competitions that articulate specific expectations for state, local, and other governments or nonprofits and businesses eligible for federal incentives (e.g., requiring computer chip manufacturers competing for government subsidies to ensure child care availability for workers, encouraging the use of skills-based hiring to expand job access for those without college degrees, and weighing demonstrated commitments to provide good jobs); and other actions.

The federal effort to promote racial equity and support underserved communities has been challenged by ‘rate limiters’ such as a shortage of adequate data and staff capacity.

In our 2022 report, we highlighted the challenges of a lack of adequate data and staff capacity, primarily in the context of local government efforts. To combat these challenges, the federal effort has made creative use of loaned talent, peer learning networks, and best-available data; for example, see the findings and recommendations of the Biden administration’s 2022 Equitable Data Working Group Report. But there is much more to do, and much more that future congressional appropriations, consistent agency leadership, and private and nonprofit partners can help to solve.

When it comes to data, there’s encouraging progress in several policy and program domains, which could serve as models for others. For example, in response to the president’s equity and climate executive orders, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) built the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, which gives executive agencies a consistent definition of “disadvantaged community” for the purposes of directing climate investments. Modeled in part after California’s CalEnviroScreen, which our new report examines, the CEQ tool will help federal agencies and their many delivery partners implement the Biden administration’s goal of directing at least 40% of climate investments to disadvantaged communities, many of them both highly polluted and under-resourced. Like CalEnviroScreen, the tool does not define disadvantaged places by their racial makeup, but does provide such demographic data once users select particular census tracts (small areas within counties, with populations of a few thousand people, on average).

A second example of the Biden administration’s work to address important data gaps is through the first-of-its kind Interagency Task Force on Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity (PAVE), which is tackling the well-documented, long-unacknowledged problem of racial bias in home appraisals. As part of this multipronged effort to raise awareness and shift industry practices, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (the independent regulator that oversees the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) published the first publicly available uniform appraisal dataset and user-friendly dashboards for data visualization last fall. Notably, the interagency effort to make the multi-trillion-dollar home property market more fair and equitable is also enabling the industry, consumers, and regulators to tackle newer risks, such as algorithmic bias and potential discrimination by generative artificial intelligence, both of which center on the content and responsible use of data.

The administration’s approach to implementing the equity executive orders employs a change management strategy to assess and strengthen agency effort. 

Management gurus have long referred to change management strategies as “getting better at getting better,” separating them from a standard “audit and critique” strategy that only calls out deficiencies. In the Biden administration’s effort to advance equity, we see this in the tailoring of expectations to particular agencies, the peer learning and other supports mentioned above, dedicated attention to constructive feedback by White House offices on agency submissions (an ethos of “practice makes better,” if not necessarily perfect), and in other ways.

To be clear, implementation of the EOs has also included critique and debate within the government, along with external efforts, especially by advocates, to audit agency plans and actions and encourage the public to hold government agencies accountable for better results. Auditing is an important complement to supportive change management approaches, such as work to embed equity analysis in a broader innovation and performance improvement culture at the agency or program team level.

Reflected in the federal agencies’ equity action plans released in April 2022—and careful analysis of those plans by PolicyLink and Race Forward, as well as the Urban Institute—this approach represents a step change of improvement from earlier federal efforts to promote equity, such as by expanding the funds available under small business assistance or rental assistance programs. Those paid too little attention to the details of implementing policy, and generally left policy design and analysis uncoupled from the management improvement efforts essential for effectively delivering policy results.

Although the government has a long way to go on this and other fronts, the convergence of those two—policy analysis and design on one hand and implementation on the other—is long overdue, as leading researchers and advocates for more effective government have argued. And like all of the lessons we have highlighted, the evidence suggests this one can be applied to government at all levels. It is one key to making government more effective and accountable for all.