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OMB report highlights barriers to equity in federal programs

A federal study assessing equity in government practices has identified major barriers preventing historically underserved communities from accessing benefits and services in federal programs.

Shalanda Young, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, submitted a report to President Joe Biden last week after studying methods for assessing how the federal government can advance equity with respect to race, gender identity and income, among other factors, as outlined in an executive order signed earlier this year.

The report detailed five key findings, starting with the observation that equity assessment is a new concept in the federal government and, therefore, remains a developing practice across agencies. It also found that more needs to be done to expand "meaningful stakeholder engagement" on designing programs and services for underserved communities and customers, including small disadvantaged businesses (SDBs).

Noting how the federal government "has never before undertaken a whole-of-government equity agenda," the report essentially recommended a cultural sea change across agencies, from developing dedicated sustainability strategies to advancing equity through financial management and procurement.

Administrative burdens like onerous paperwork, complex requirements and opaque guidelines have left some critical services underutilized, the report said, adding: "Policies targeted at the poor, for example, may be weighted by higher levels of administrative burden."

The report suggests that agencies could conduct "burden audits" with a focus on the most vulnerable program users. The U.S. Digital Service, the federal CIO and the Federal Customer Experience Team at the Office Performance and Personnel Management could have roles to play in such audits, the report stated.

While policy changes have directed agencies to consider existing flexibilities around compliance requirements, grant managers have continued to report spending more time fulfilling "burdensome compliance activities than on supporting program results," the report found. SDBs and other historically underserved businesses have also reported experiencing issues when attempting to build relationships with the federal government, despite the White House recently announcing a plan to steer $100 billion in contracting opportunities to marginalized firms.

In a letter to the president detailing her report, Young described the path toward equity in government practices as "both a sprint and a marathon," writing: "Advancing equity further requires long-term change management."

"It is a difficult realization that federal agencies have not fully delivered value to all of their constituents," she added. "And yet, it is only through this ethic of learning and a commitment to evidence that governments become truly able to serve their people."

The report recommended increasing transparency around federal spending, including providing new access to high-quality data on the recipients and beneficiaries of federal funds, as well as leveraging existing authorities to continue publishing relevant information.

The government uses a limited number of communication channels to conduct vendor outreach, the study found, noting a lack of visibility around available opportunities for companies hoping to break into the federal marketplace.

"These challenges have been exacerbated by the lack of meaningful data analytics focused on the depth and diversity of the federal small business supplier base, which has allowed a decline in the base over the last decade, including a decrease in new entrants, to go largely unaddressed," the report said.

Under the terms of the executive order, each agency is required to submit an equity assessment to the assistant to the president for domestic policy – a role currently filled by former U.S. Ambassador and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice – in August. Those assessments will factor into equity action plans due in January.

2021 Digital Almanac

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