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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s Growing Role in Digital Government

Experts argue that agencies having staff dedicated to equity and inclusion play an important role for government work, from strategic planning, to operations, to the rise of digital government services.

Image shows hands with business suit sleeves touching a tablet that reads "equity" in a glowing cyan font with cyan graphics of charts surrounding the tablet.
Staff focused on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work play a major role for government agencies in better serving constituents through technology — from the general IT work to more nuanced digital equity efforts.

Government agencies are increasingly taking into consideration the value of EDI, as this work can help combat systemic inequities. And a commitment to these issues helps government more equitably serve constituents in areas ranging from accessing digital services to the procurement process.

EDI efforts in the tech space are especially important in the digital age, when so many aspects of daily life rely on technology and Internet access, as explained by Timniyha Owens-Staples, EDI specialist within the Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology (OIT).

Owens-Staples was recently recognized by the Colorado LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce as one of the organization's 2023 40 Under 40 Business Leaders, an accomplishment they attribute to the work they have done in this space with different organizations and in participation with the state equity task force. As Owens-Staples explained, it is important that digital services are accessible to those from different backgrounds and with different abilities, and especially the most historically marginalized communities.

It is also critical not to have a single staff member — or even one team — dedicated to this work, but rather a shared understanding of the importance of EDI work across different roles and levels of an organization or agency, Owens-Staples said.

“And it's also important that the teams that are making those technology decisions are included and led by people who share those different lived experiences and identities, too,” Owens-Staples said.

They stated that at OIT, leadership is very supportive of EDI plans, which they argued is important in avoiding the fate some private-sector companies are facing: the elimination of EDI teams altogether.

To build this organizational support for the work, Owens-Staples underlined the importance of communicating to leadership that EDI work benefits everyone — with positive work outcomes related to employee retention, collaboration, bottom line and more.

“When you lift up one group, everybody really benefits,” Owens-Staples said.

The EDI work in the state is a collaborative effort, working with the EDI Action Alliance, a volunteer group made up of people with different social identities and physical abilities representing different agencies. Another example of collaboration is the state equity task force, a preliminary step to the work of the newly formed State Equity Office.

Initiatives in progress for OIT include the creation of the agency’s first employee resource groups, which will help support an inclusive workforce. The first three groups focus on supporting employees within the LGBTQIA+ community, employees who are veterans, Black, Indigenous and/or people of color.

These groups work to support initiatives that align with the agency’s primary goals, one of which features EDI as a core component, which Owens-Staples underlined as a vital and guiding part of tech work.

This statement is well illustrated in a specific area of government technology work: the digital equity space.

As the term is defined by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, digital equity is “a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy.”

While some sectors have seen a decrease in staff dedicated to equity and inclusion, broadband work is one area in which the opposite is happening — federal, state and local agencies are staffing up for digital equity work.

And as states plan for deploying federal broadband funding made possible through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, leaders are exploring how best to do so with equity in mind.

As explained by Christine Burkette, digital equity director for the city of Detroit, the policies are written in a way that targets investment in rural areas. And while there is certainly a need for investment in these areas, Burkette argues that the digital divide in urban areas like Detroit is sometimes overlooked.

Burkette explained that the Federal Communications Commission has identified the city of Detroit as having no issues with connectivity, but she said that a digital divide does exist in the city, underlining gaps in bandwidth speed and affordability.

The question, then, is how the city gets representation at the planning table to help utilize some of the available funding that has been allocated to the state to help bridge this divide in Detroit. To make the case for underserved communities living in the city of Detroit, Burkette underlined the power of data.

“Everything we do is data-driven,” Burkette said, pointing to the city’s data dashboard as an example.

There are seven districts within the city, and data helps understand where communities exist within those districts that live below the poverty level. With a data-informed understanding of need, investments can be targeted to communities in need to address disparities.

It starts with a playbook, which for Detroit, Burkette expects to be released this month. This can help paint a picture of progress and need.

For cities, digital equity requires a collaborative approach. In the city of Detroit, Burkette said that a partnership with the Detroit Health Department has helped expand access to telehealth services, and forthcoming PSA trainings through YouTube offer further digital literacy support. Making related resources available in multiple languages is a priority for the city.

For example, the city is partnering with local small businesses to provide them with hot spots so that they can be “tech cafés” for their communities, offering further connectivity options to adults throughout the city. Burkette said the city is working with small to large businesses as well as community nonprofits to make more resources available to the community in this effort.

In addition, through the Connect Detroit initiative, the city is working to standardize tech hubs across the city to ensure access to services, devices and more.

And to combat affordability gaps, the city is working with a variety of organizations across sectors to increase enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program. Currently, Detroit is one of the highest ranking cities in terms of the percentage of eligible households enrolled.

Burkette says that for a city, having a staff member dedicated to digital equity is “vitally important,” also underlining the importance of staff members dedicated to data, to community outreach and engagement, and to networking within this space.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.