Advancing Equity at the U.S. Department of Agriculture

“By advancing equity across the Federal Government, we can create opportunities for the improvement of communities that have been historically underserved, which benefits everyone.”

The Challenge: Addressing Historic Inequities

On his first day in office, President Biden signed Executive Order (EO) 13985, which commits the federal government to addressing entrenched disparities in laws and institutions by advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities.

To lead USDA’s implementation of the EO, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appointed high-level representatives from across the Department. The team’s priority was to coordinate among USDA’s 29 agencies and offices to better understand the barriers to equity in their core programs and services.

To kickstart the process, USDA’s Office of Customer Experience (OCX) identified several internal High Impact Service Provider (HISP) mission areas. Analyses of equitable program distribution in these mission areas would have broad reach across the customer base, setting the tone for all of USDA. The OCX would then pilot a standard framework that every USDA organization could use to diagnose and address their own equity status.

The Approach: Accelerating Collaboration and Insight

As a proven partner to the OCX, the Booz Allen team began working closely with the Office of the Secretary and the Office of the Chief Data Officer to assess equity in four of the HISP mission areas: farm production and conservation; rural development; natural resources and environment; and food, nutrition, and consumer services.

Our approach blended human-centered design, CX methodologies, and voice-of-the-customer tools to guide USDA’s exploration of community access to services and other resources. Goals for the CX assessment included:

  • Evaluating the current state of equity in program distribution
  • Identifying factors currently inhibiting the advancement of equity among programs
  • Mapping opportunities to advance equity across the Department

A key component of our approach was a series of nine intensive, collaborative workshops in the selected mission areas. These workshops featured activities that combined behavioral psychology principles with traditional human-centered design tools, such as stakeholder mapping, “five whys” analyses, and two-by-two matrices. Diverse USDA groups—including field and back-office staff members and headquarters leadership—engaged in these open discussions.

The workshop-based approach offered USDA several advantages, including:

  • It met an immediate need to gather qualitative data.
  • It provided opportunities for the Office of the Chief Data Officer to share data on inequities for in-depth exploration.
  • It equipped USDA staff members with detailed insights to use in refining their data strategies and metrics.
  • It enabled participants to explore new modes of thinking, which will be critical for the agency’s future equity work.

The Solution: Strengthening Equitable Access

By harnessing a qualitative and quantitative approach, USDA was able to bring CX tools together with data analysis to meaningfully evaluate the extent to which its programs and policies perpetuate systemic inequalities. For example, the workshops helped USDA identify regulations and complex eligibility requirements that place an undue burden on underserved communities. Staff members also tracked declining participation rates for specific programs in these communities. Overall, the agency significantly improved its understanding of the root causes of inequitable outcomes.

The workshops set a precedent of honest critique of USDA programs and services by the subject matter experts that manage them. Through this collaboration:

  • The Booz Allen team synthesized qualitative workshop data to provide themes, insights, and recommendations to the USDA agencies that participated.
  • USDA leaders used the insights and recommendations to craft their own action plans to address inequities in their programs and services, with the results establishing next steps and lending weight to priorities.
  • Our team’s analysis of workshop results—including best practices, lessons learned, and other insights—informed USDA’s 200-day report responding to EO 13985.

Taking a human-centered, data-driven approach equipped USDA with a foundational framework that will ensure these efforts live on past the first EO response. With the clearer understanding it provides of opportunities for improving equity across the Department, this initial assessment will become the basis of transformational change for USDA and the public it serves—helping the agency ensure that all communities have a shared ability to fully access and benefit from its services and programs.

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