Agencies have new instructions from the Biden administration to take even further steps in advancing racial equity and supporting underserved communities.
Through a new executive order, President Joe Biden broadened out his goals for strengthening agencies’ ability to address barriers that some individuals face when trying to access federal services.
“Despite the meaningful progress that the Biden-Harris administration has made, the reality is that underserved communities — many of whom have endured generations of discrimination and disinvestment — still confront unacceptable barriers to equal opportunity,” Biden said in a fact sheet.
The Feb. 16 executive order builds on a separate EO that Biden signed on his first day in office. The new order cements some annual requirements for agencies and tasks agency heads with further developing earlier plans to address systemic barriers to federal services.
The Biden administration has defined equity as the fair treatment of individuals from all backgrounds, including, but not limited to, Black, Latino, Indigenous and Native American, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander individuals, women and girls and LGBTQI+ individuals, as well as individuals who have disabilities and those who live in rural areas.
Addressing challenges that many of these individuals face when accessing federal services is a top priority of the order. It includes the equitable treatment of individuals in underserved communities, or geographic areas that are “systematically denied the opportunity to participate fully in aspects of economic, social and civic life,” Biden said in the EO.
Some of the initiatives already underway include more than 300 equity actions implemented across 90 agencies, and for example, looking at ways to provide better access to LGBTQI+ individuals for federal services. But Biden’s new EO has new requirements for agencies to make further progress.
Bolstering agency equity teams
One new requirement from the executive order calls on agencies to add resources to their agency equity teams, which are tasked with coordinating internal equity initiatives and ensuring equitable outcomes for federal services and programs. The 2020 executive order charged agencies with creating the teams, and now, agency heads will have 30 days to ensure the teams are set up.
For example, agency equity teams will be responsible for administering equity training and equity leadership development across an entire agency’s workforce.
If they haven’t already, agency heads will also have to appoint a senior official to lead the equity team, in partnership with each agency’s chief diversity officer. The equity teams will also work with each agency’s environmental justice officer, as well as the White House Gender Policy Council.
Ensuring adequate staffing and data collection for the equity teams is another priority under the new executive order. Biden tasked the Office of Management and Budget and internal agency officials with coordinating with the new equity team leaders on the changes from the EO.
“This executive order fosters greater collaboration and accountability, and streamlines agencies’ reporting of progress and planning in order to advance equity in support of all those who face overlapping discrimination and bias,” Biden said.
Creating and updating equity action plans will now be a yearly task for agencies, beyond the initial equity action plans that Biden called for in the 2020 executive order on advancing racial equity.
Agencies have until this September to submit an equity action plan to the newly created White House Steering Committee on Equity. Ambassador Susan Rice, the White House’s Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, will serve as chairwoman of the steering committee.
The annual equity action plans, according to Biden, should include a progress update on the previous year’s action plan, potential barriers that underserved communities may face in accessing the agency’s programs, and strategies for agencies to try to address those barriers.
Agencies should coordinate with the new equity steering committee to push forward on the goals outlined in their equity action plans. The steering committee will additionally coordinate governmentwide efforts for advancing equity.
Improving community outreach and engagement
Along with new requirements for both equity teams and equity plans, the order requires agencies to improve engagement with different communities, specifically through improving the “quality, frequency and accessibility” of those efforts, Biden said.
Agencies are tasked with consulting with particularly impacted communities as they develop their equity action plans, funding opportunities, budget proposals and regulations, according to the EO.
Biden said, for example, agencies should increase access to technical assistance and reduce administrative burdens in federal programs, as part of many of their more overarching plans, including agency strategic plans and individual performance plans.
Additionally, agencies should proactively engage with underserved communities, for example by holding listening sessions and outreach events. These engagements will help agencies inform their equity action plans, annual budget submissions and grants and funding opportunities, Biden said.
“Underserved communities often face significant barriers and legacy exclusions in engaging with agencies and providing input on federal policies and programs that affect them,” Biden said.
To conduct listening sessions and other events with underserved communities, agencies should consider barriers for older adults, and offer ways to help them more easily give input on agencies’ plans. That can include, for instance, providing virtual platforms for giving feedback, which can help address potential barriers to older individuals who have trouble accessing physical locations.
The efforts to advance equity also extend to the physical federal footprint for agencies. When planning for new federal facilities or leases, agencies must consider locations near existing employment centers. Additionally, agencies should make sure new facilities are accessible to a broad range of the region’s workforce and population by public transit, whenever possible.
“Advancing equity is not a one-year project. It’s a generational commitment,” Biden said.