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Austin’s Equity Assessment Tool: Leveling the Playing Field

From the Austin City Government: 


The City of Austin Equity Office was established through a City Council resolution in 2015, and officially opened with the hiring of the first Chief Equity Officer, Brion Oaks, in 2016. Unlike the many Equity Offices throughout the nation where city staff have driven the creation of these offices, the impetus for establishing the Austin Equity Office was years of grassroots organizing by local community members and coalitions who were calling for the development and implementation of an equity assessment tool.  



Austin has a long history of codified racial segregation, and while some reports outline the deep-set divisions and disparities experienced by community members, others tout Austin as the best place to live in America, which serves to mask the work that still needs to be done.



When it came time to begin developing the Equity Assessment Tool, the Equity Office brought the communities who had organized for the establishment of the office together to form what is now called the Equity Action Team (EAT). This body, which now numbers more than 100 people, includes community members, representatives from local organizations and coalitions, city staff who are organizing around equity internally, and institutional partners.



While EAT is one of the ways the Equity Office works with community, the relationship with them goes far beyond what is traditionally thought of as “community engagement.” Throughout the first six months of 2017, EAT collectively dedicated over 850 hours to a co-creative process to build out and refine what is now the City’s first Equity Assessment Tool, and one of the City’s first Open Government Partnership projects. As the Equity Office, still very much in its infancy, worked in tandem with community to develop the Equity Assessment Tool, it became clear that in addition to being our co-creators, EAT also functions as a body of consultants that guides the work and holds staff accountable.



Although the Equity Assessment Tool is not considered a “tech” project or a “tech” solution, it is naturally aligned with the City’s goals of becoming open and smart because it has never been closed. Anyone can join EAT and when the co-creative process is underway the documents are open publically on cloud-based platforms for edits, comments, and suggestions. Austin’s history has demonstrated that exclusivity can easily lead to disparities in outcomes, and it is more difficult to open up something that was once closed than to design an open process with people most directly impacted from the beginning.


Additionally, there is an efficiency to be realized when time and energy are invested in community on the front-end of a project. There is a natural push to be “solutions focused” in the work we do. However, working with community in a meaningful way is not always fast and identifying solutions quickly is not always at the top of the priority list. Often there is history that needs to be unpacked, ideas that need to be let out and explored, and conversations about what success will look like, and for whom, before solutions enter the conversation. When these crucial pieces are skipped, the solutions that are identified are likely to be rejected by the very people they were created for.



The Equity Assessment Tool was piloted by eight city departments in 2017 and is currently being piloted by and additional 13 city departments. The Equity Office is working to determine the capacity necessary to implement the tool in all 47 city departments in 2019. One of the most interesting findings of this process has been the lack of disaggregated data we collect as a City and our tendency to develop data silos. As we move forward, the Office is working with other community members and other city staff to identify how to keep the data generated by the Equity Assessment Tool open, and advocating for better data collection practices and storage that are also accessible and meaningful for community members.



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