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A Digital Approach to Tackling Equity in Tacoma, Wash.

Tacoma's Equity Index is a data-driven tool that allows leadership to not only measure progress in ensuring equitable services, but also to see interconnected outcomes on issues like safety community-wide.

Downtown Tacoma, Wash.
Adobe Stock/Christopher Boswell
Tacoma, Wash., Mayor Victoria Woodards completed her term as president of the National League of Cities at the end of 2023. When asked about her priorities during that term, she highlighted equity and partnership-building, and pointed to her city’s Equity Index as the platform that combines these two priorities to power equitable investments and collaborations.

The mayor explained that the city uses the index “to identify, track and close disparities, and prioritize investments based on where and who has access to opportunity; for example, opportunity to safely walk to school, opportunity to access healthy food, and opportunity to have safe and healthy environmental interactions.” Using the index as part of policy and project decision-making, and guiding community engagement, enables an ongoing evaluation of where spending can influence “the biggest improvement in factors that impact life outcomes.”

Prior to my conversation with Mayor Woodards, I had the opportunity to hear Tacoma’s Chief Technology Officer Grace Brosnon talk about the centrality of data, mapping and benchmarking to a broad range of city and county decisions. I asked the mayor to elaborate on this use of data in the city’s everyday decision-making.

Woodards pointed to a process the City Council uses in considering new initiatives that require an Action Memo showing how the “legislation will reduce racial and other inequities, disparities or discrimination to under-represented communities.” The Action Memo requires that new legislation furthers the city’s 2025 goals and maps the suggested initiative to the Equity Index Score, showing exactly how the investment affects underserved communities.

Equity means different things to different people — even within an administration. To have consistent policymaking, a city needs to set out criteria and assemble the supporting data. The Tacoma Equity Index does this by moving the process on investing equitably from individual “eye of the beholder” impressions to data visualizations based on common measurements that highlight inequitable investments and disparities in neighborhood conditions and outcomes for people who live in those neighborhoods. The index focuses resources on addressing disparities that reduce opportunity.

A secondary effect of the index is that it allows staff to see the interconnected issues. Tacoma used to replace streetlights based on nighttime accident history, school safety and areas of high crime potentially affected by streetlighting, but was also heavily influenced by complaints, which caused the city’s priorities to be set by who has the time and knows where to call. This priority-setting procedure had clear discrepancies that did not meet the city’s overall equity goals for service. Now, the city uses the Equity Index to combine existing data with statistical analysis to deploy resources for lighting. This was done by prioritizing and scoring each segment based on the original parameters — nighttime accident history, school safety and areas of high crime potentially affected by streetlighting — but staff then also scored how far each community was from the mean and included that score in the Equity Index. Areas of higher opportunity would result in a reduction in the overall score and areas of lower opportunity would result in an increase in the overall score. This scoring method would reprioritize the order in which lights were repaired or replaced across Tacoma.

“It’s also about the other impacts that lack of street lighting cause,” Woodards said. “We overlay the Equity Index with all of these other issues, and we replace streetlights where they need to be replaced, not just where someone thinks they should be replaced.”

Tacoma’s Equity Index is one tool in the toolbox that, when combined with additional research, community engagement, and quantitative and qualitative data, leads to better decisions and better outcomes for residents.

The Tacoma approach to equity highlights several critical elements: 1) There must be a common, agreed-upon definition of equity; 2) Each criterion must be supported by data and that data must be organized around place; 3) The results need to be easily available to residents, partners and city staff; 4) Policy, operating and capital decisions — as well as new legislation — all need to be informed by and measured against these standards, with a particular eye to the interaction of various overlapping factors; and 5) Progress should be measured and visualized. City residents deserve no less.

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to read the full digital edition online.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.