The Questions Public Servants Should Ask to Promote Racial Equity

Posted on September 1, 2020

Budgeting paperwork

This article is written by Eric Walcott, Government and Public Policy Specialist, Michigan State University Extension. Eric wrote this article as part of the Equity Ambassadors Cohort. You can find all the articles for this cohort here

I once heard someone say about local government, “Don’t tell me your priorities, show me your budget and I’ll tell you your priorities.”

The harmful consequences of not considering equity in local government decision-making are all too clear.  Maybe it’s time we focused more on making decisions that reflect equity in our budgets.

It feels important to start this by acknowledging that while this article will offer simple tools to apply racial equity to budget decisions, the pursuit of racial equity at any level is a journey that requires a commitment to learning, to personal and professional development, and to partnership and accountability.

Many local governments in the US and elsewhere face severe budget challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Most are facing significant revenue decreases and difficult decisions about how to balance the budget and plan for the near future. There can be significant temptation to make broad, across-the-board cuts without sufficient consideration for who is impacted or how. Rather than adopt this type of reactive, short-term decision-making, local governments should adopt a proactive approach in responding to this pandemic, incorporating a long-term focus and using the best information at their disposal to make equity the foundation of budget-related decisions.

An equity lens for public budgets

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed, yet again, the inequities that exist across the United States.

Budget decisions impact everything a local government does. Applying an equity lens to budget decisions in this crisis is just one way that local governments can mitigate some of the harm caused by these inequities by ensuring that resources flow to programs and services that move towards equity, and that programs that create inequities are reformed with an equity lens. By applying a racial equity lens such as the tools discussed in this article, local governments ensure that racial equity is a core consideration in any decision-making process, including budgets.

There are many Racial Equity Tools that could be useful in this context, created by organizations and governments around the world. Many of them are based on principles also found in the Government Alliance on Race and Equity’s (GARE) Racial Equity Tool. This tool is a set of six questions and designed to explicitly bring equity into operations and decision-making.

A racial equity tool can be used to align decisions with organizational racial equity goals, and in the case of a budget process, equity can be incorporated throughout all phases of the budget process, from development and planning all the way through implementation, measurement, and evaluation. But even for local governments that don’t yet have broad organizational equity goals, or have not previously incorporated an equity tool in their budget process, a racial equity tool can still offer a process that can help guide local government financial decisions in this current pandemic.

While it is always ideal to use the full set of questions throughout the budget process, the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing local governments to make rapid decisions in the midst of significant uncertainty. GARE suggests three questions that can be asked to apply a racial equity lens to decisions that have to be fast-tracked. I’ve included those questions and examples of how they might specifically be applied in the current situation:

GARE Racial Equity Tool Questions Examples of budget application
What are the racial equity impacts of this particular decision?
  • How does this change in spending impact our ability to achieve our racial equity goals?
Who will benefit from or be burdened by the particular decision?
  • Are there specific groups that depend on services that will be eliminated by a budget cut?
  • Does a shift in spending disproportionately benefit or hurt specific groups in our community?
Are there strategies to mitigate unintended consequences?
  • What steps have we taken to ensure that the proposed budget decision does not cause disproportionate harm to any groups in our community, or perpetuate existing racial inequities?


It is also important to keep a few things in mind when answering these questions:

  • Do the staff or officials involved in the decision-making process provide diverse racial perspectives?
  • How have those most likely to be impacted been engaged in the process?

A diverse decision-making team, informed by feedback from the community, is necessary to disrupt patterns of exclusion that have built and maintained systems of racial inequity across the country. These examples from the City of Seattle, WA and Madison, WI are helpful templates for how this process might be applied.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, as many local governments look for ways to reduce spending, equity might be built into that decision-making process by asking these questions:

  • Who will bear the burden of a proposed spending reduction or program cut?
  • Might the proposed spending cut have negative long-term impacts on communities who have been hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic?
  • How can the budget be balanced in a way that protects efforts to work towards racial equity?

Just because something is daunting doesn’t mean it’s impossible

This seems like a daunting task, especially for local governments who may not have explicitly built equity into their budget process in the past.

That’s true, it is a daunting task. But in this moment, I’m encouraged by the amount of significant, rapid adaptation we are witnessing from local governments across the country as a result of this pandemic. If this pandemic can disrupt systems that have been resistant to change, and force adaption in ways previously unexplored, then this can also be an opportunity to prioritize changes that can stop governments from perpetuating racial inequities, even unintentionally, and bring the focus to intentionally pursuing racial justice.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the path to racial equity and justice is a journey. It will not be achieved with one decision. While there is much work to be done, applying the questions identified here or in similar equity tools to budget decision-making is an important step in that process for local government. Maybe it’s the first step for your local unit, maybe it’s the next in a long journey. Either way, it is an important step, and a necessary one for communities who say that they value equity. If that’s true, let’s see your budget.

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