Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | As Americans increasingly demand equitable action from government officials, the ability to model, measure and map equity in real time paves the way for a new model of governing to address injustices.
Few republics in the history of human civilization have ever come so close and fallen so far from the ideal of “liberty and justice for all” as the United States. Our 400-year legacy of slavery remains unresolved and its adverse impact on the lives of people of color continues to hold back the entire country from becoming the “more perfect union” alluded to in the Constitution. In truth, the tension between freedom and equality has always been the central conflict of our journey as a nation.
In the past year, the American public’s demand that our federal, state and local governments act more equitably in all that we trust them to do has increased exponentially. Whether in service delivery, neighborhood capital investments, mobility, health, public safety or public education, “We the People” now expect more.
Government can meet those expectations by viewing its actions and decisions through the lens of equity.
Just as all states and cities have accepted the need for an “audit compliance,” so too should they embrace the idea of an “equity compliance,” which measures how government is acting to redress historic and current injustices based on income or race.
And to those who might say, “we can’t measure that here”—actually, we can. Not only can we measure equity, but we can map it, and most importantly, we can model the policy choices necessary to promote it. And, for the first time in the history of democratic republics, we can do all of this in real time in ways that all can see.
Thanks to the commonplace twin technologies of geographic information systems and the internet, we have the ability to see and understand where inequities are felt most acutely, as well as what can be done most effectively and efficiently to address them. This is not a matter of guesswork; it is a matter of applying math to a map.
For example, we now have the ability to model, measure and map exactly which neighborhoods have access to parks and green space within a short walk from their homes. The same is true of access to public transportation. Access to nutritional food. Access to broadband. Access to jobs or workforce training programs. Access to clean drinking water. Access to bridges that don’t collapse into rivers.
These modeling and mapping tools can be used to create heat maps of food deserts and can measure where grant dollars are going. We can also create color-coded maps—in the style of red light to green light—that show relative and unequal levels of things like public safety, broadband access, vaccine penetration or prevalence of lead poisoning. We can map contract awards to minority- and women-owned businesses. We can measure educational outcomes with maps of school districts where all children have learned to read by the third grade and school districts where they have not. These technological advances make possible a new way of governing and a better way of promoting the public good that government offers, for all to see.
In the past, creating such illustrations of current problems were the domain of academic researchers. And it took months, and often years. Today, with open data and geographic information systems, maps become as real time as your Uber route. Dashboards give you real time feedback on whether policies are working or not, and on whether the scale of interventions are sufficient to achieving the actual outcome.
Of course, there is much we still have to learn about the best ways to overcome the legacies of slavery and the current-day realities of social inequity and social injustice. But thanks to commonplace technologies, we can no longer claim we don’t know or can’t tell. Because we can. And with this shared and clearer understanding, a self-governing people should ensure that every level of government is advancing equity in every way it can.
Equity compliance is, simply put, seeing the public life we all share through the lens of equity. It is the ability to answer the questions at the heart of our American experiment—do we know where the injustice is, and are we doing something about it? These are the essential questions that every level of government must be able to answer.
Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, is a senior advisor for Smart Governance with Grant Thornton LLP and the author of “Smarter Government: How to Govern for Results in the Information Age.” He is a member of the Route Fifty Advisory Board.