Editor's Note: This research brief is part of a joint research project by the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School and Brookings Metro.

Dallas’s Budgeting for Equity Tool Helps 42 Departments Use an Equity Lens to Align with the City’s Racial Equity Plan

The “New South” city of Dallas is one of our country’s most diverse and fast-growing, with significant in-migration of Black and white residents alike. But, it is also one of our most racially and economically segregated cities. Southern Methodist University researchers recently found that Dallas had the worst infrastructure inequities of four large cities examined in their study. Black and Latinx residents were four and three times as likely as white residents to live in the city’s “infrastructure deserts” – lacking community staples like functioning streets, sidewalks, and crosswalks. Nearly all of these deserts, the study found, are in long-disinvested south Dallas.

Recognizing that local policies helped create these inequities and therefore must help eliminate them, Dallas city officials have been on a journey to infuse equity throughout their operations over the past five years. Using a budget equity tool is one cornerstone of their approach. Before submitting their annual budget requests to the Budget Director, each agency is required to assess how its activities will impact historically disadvantaged communities and equity priority areas. As of 2023, offices must also include how their outlined activities advance the city’s Racial Equity Plan’s specific departmental performance measures, which are linked to five “Big Audacious Goals” identified by the city’s equity indicators. Dallas is among a handful of cities that annually assess each departments’ activities for their equity impacts linked to a citywide racial equity plan and racial equity indicators.

“The budgeting for equity tool is a critical process for operationalizing equity throughout city departments’ budget decision-making,” explains Dr. Lindsey Wilson, the city’s Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion who oversees the implementation of the tool across 42 departments. The city has applied the tool to five budget cycles, and with each cycle, city staff have become more adept at assessing their operations through the lens of equity.

Report Contents

Case Studies

Committing to equity assessment and piloting the budgeting for equity tool

Dallas began using an equity budget tool in May 2019, when Dallas City Council passed an “Equity Resolution” calling for the city to center equity in budgeting decisions and direct more resources to the highest-need communities. The resolution committed the city to training all employees on institutional racism and budget equity, establishing a budget equity team as well as a core equity team. The resolution followed from the city’s engagement with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity national network in 2018 and its publishing of the Dallas Equity Indicators report in 2019. 

The original Budgeting for Equity tool included four sets of questions:

  • Benefits and burdens: How will your department’s budget positively and/or negatively impact low-income communities and communities of color?
  • Data insights: What disparities exist in your area of service? What quantitative and qualitative data informs how your department allocates resources? What data is missing?
  • Community engagement: How will your budget support community engagement and relationship-building? How will you engage community members? How will you increase accessibility to your department’s staff and programming?
  • Accountability: How will you evaluate your equity efforts and how do you involve low-income communities and communities of color in evaluation?

The city first piloted the tool during the 2018-2019 budget process. The Office of Budget selected eight departments to use the tool, specifically asking them to apply the tool to their requests for budget enhancements (increases from the previous year). To request additional funding, departments needed to explain how funds would reduce disparities revealed in their analysis of disaggregated data. The 311 department, for example, found that Spanish speakers had waited more than four times as long on calls as English speakers to speak to an operator. To address this disparity, they asked for additional resources to hire Spanish-speaking operators.

Implementing equity assessment across all city departments

In the 2020-2021 budget development cycle, the city took the tool to scale. All 42 departments were required to apply the tool to their entire budget request (not just enhancements), and to submit the tool responses along with their budget request. The Office of Equity and Inclusion scored each department’s equity tool responses on a scale from 1 to 5, providing those scores to the City Manager’s office. The equity office also reviewed and provided feedback on each department’s equity analysis, allowing them to resubmit after incorporating their feedback (before the responses were scored).

It was a significant effort to normalize equity analysis across vastly differing departments, and the learning curve was steep. Many internal-facing departments, in particular, didn’t immediately see how the tool related to their work, or understand how they would engage community residents in decision-making related to their budget. The Office of Equity and Inclusion provided technical assistance and support to help these departments see how their work was relevant to the city’s ability to connect to and serve marginalized and excluded communities. The city’s data analytics department, for example, recognized the value in designing data dashboards that provided the data residents’ cared about, in more user-friendly formats.

Other departments valued the tool for the deliberative process it catalyzed. For the Dallas Public Library, which had already been analyzing data to align its services with community needs such as internet access and adult education, the tool helped the department refine its strategies and engage community residents in that process. Heather Lowe, assistant director at the Dallas Public Library, explains that the tool “gave us the opportunity to reflect and articulate our approach to better serving the community.” The budgeting for equity process also validated the library’s equity focus, increasing City Council members’ and other government officials’ understanding and appreciation for its contributions to reducing racial inequities. This has even translated into additional support; for example, when the library asked to increase staffing at 9 locations, their equity analysis helped convince the budget office to increase staffing at 15 locations (half of all libraries across the city).

By the third budget cycle (2022-2023), city departments were more familiar with the equity tool. The pandemic and the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd had again exposed systemic inequities in Dallas and across the country, underscoring the importance of equity analysis for many city staff. Seeking to continually improve its process, the city contracted with the University of Texas Dell Medical to conduct an evaluation of its efforts. The evaluation found that Dallas was one of just a handful of jurisdictions dedicated to assessing equity directly through the budget process and linking departmental operations to citywide, population-level equity indicators. To increase the quality of assessment across departments, the evaluation team recommended that the city shorten the tool. The evaluators also recommended that Dallas collaborate with other large cities in a learning community to hone best practices for institutionalizing equity analysis. 

Linking the budgeting for equity assessment with the city’s Racial Equity Plan’s Five Big Audacious Goals 

City departments’ focus on equity also deepened as the city developed the first comprehensive Racial Equity Plan. Adopted by the Dallas City Council in August 2022, the plan is a framework to help guide city leaders in reducing disparities through measurable goals. Co-developed with the community, the plan focuses on five “Big Audacious Goals,” including infrastructure, public safety and wellness, housing, economic, workforce and community development, and environmental justice. The plan lays out more than 200 specific equity goals across all city departments that are then tracked on a public dashboard. Analyzing the alignment between the budget and the Racial Equity Plan goals, the city found that a total of $22.5 million of the 2022-2023 budget went toward the plan’s progress measures and targets. Additionally, the City Manager, T.C. Broadnax, proposed another $20 million to implement several of the plan’s action strategies.

The city revised the 2023-2024 budgeting for equity tool to incorporate the recommendations from Dell Medical and to align with the Racial Equity Plan goals, thereby reducing the number of questions from ten to five:

  1. In what ways will the department utilize existing resources to advance equity for the planned FY 2023-2024 budget?
  2. Describe your FY 2022 equity initiative(s) and any allocated funding (including a status update, progress on departmental performance measures, community engagement, and learnings).
  3. What specific funding will be allocated to advance identified Racial Equity Plan Departmental Performance Measures)?
  4. Speak to the implementation of #3 by outlining the department’s timeline and accountability structure.
  5. Big Audacious Goals (BAGs), are longer term goals with a wider impact. Identify two or three investments that will allow your department to further advance equity with a BAG.

Assessment is helping to build the city’s equity muscle

As Wilson describes, the process of implementing the budget equity tool has built the “equity muscle” of the city across its varied departments. Using the tool to analyze and address equity issues increased government staff’s ability to recognize ways in which government action – or stasis – perpetuates inequality. While the scores are only provided to department heads and executive leaders, scoring has created healthy competition across some departments, and has supported departments to understand their strengths and areas of opportunities to advance equity.

Integration with the budget office and supportive leadership are two keys to Dallas’s successful deployment of the budgeting for equity tool. The tool is a formal part of the Office of Budget and Management Services’ budget process – required and expected of all departments. Dallas’s City Manager, T.C. Broadnax, has deep expertise infusing equity into city operations, having led the city of Tacoma’s equity efforts before coming to Dallas in 2017, and has worked with staff to create an organizational infrastructure which supports the work across departments. The current City Council members also bring a strong focus on equity and consistently inquire about the equity impacts of proposed policies and investments, according to Wilson.

The budgeting for equity tool is now becoming the norm when considering the allocation of resources beyond the normal budget process. The tool informed the city’s framework to inform the city’s fiscal recovery and American Rescue Plan Act investment decisions. The city is also using components of the tool as it decides how to prioritize its municipal bond investments.

City leaders see the assessment process as a crucial step in achieving its equity goals. “We are focused on investments that address racial and ethnic disparities so that all Dallasites thrive,” explains Assistant City Manager, Liz Cedillo-Pereira. “Budgeting for equity is one tool that is helping us reach our goal of becoming the most equitable city in the United States.”