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.
D.C.’s City Council Adopts Racial Equity Impact Assessments for More Accountable Lawmaking
The nation’s capital has long been a highly segregated and unequal city, as well as a Black cultural capital and a magnet for immigrants from around the world. In November 2020, following the mass protests for racial justice triggered by the murder of George Floyd, the District of Columbia joined a small wave of state and local governments requiring racial equity impact assessments (REIAs) as part of its lawmaking process. Practitioners in this emergent field consider the District’s process pioneering, and perhaps the most robust effort tied directly to the law making process, including substantive debate on the likely effects of proposed bills.
“Only by building systems that are intentional in their design, to account for implicit bias and systemic inequities, will every District resident truly have the same opportunities to prosper in our society,” said Councilman Kenyan McDuffie, who introduced the Racial Equity Achieves Results (REACH) Act. The bill, which passed the city council unanimously, created a new unit, the Council Office for Racial Equity (CORE), to produce REIAs for the city council.
Now in its second two-year “council period,” several lessons are apparent in D.C.’s effort so far. First, flexibility matters in the enactment of required equity scoring. It has enabled law makers and equity analysts to learn from, and over time improve, the specific practices that implement the new law. Second, the implementation of equity scoring in lawmaking can have unintended positive side effects on governance, such as making it easier for the public to understand, in plain language, exactly what proposed legislation would do, in addition to understanding likely impacts racial equity specifically. And third, implementation offers the District’s government multiple opportunities to practice the values that motivate and undergird equity-driven decision making, such as the hiring and training of analysts to produce REIAs for example. Here, we discuss each lesson, and provide some examples.
Flexibility matters: The REACH act was not very prescriptive about when CORE should produce REIAs to support the lawmaking process or what form the assessments should take. This allowed D.C.’s council and the analysis team at CORE to learn from early implementation and make changes using the council’s session-by-session rules of procedure rather than having to rewrite and enact new law.
During the 2021-2022 council period, for example, which acted as a test run, lawmakers and community stakeholders did not have the impact assessment for each bill in hand until the committee voting stage and missed the opportunity for the REIA to be available at a more formative stage in the policymaking process. For the subsequent legislative period, council rules shifted to make the REIA for each bill available following the initial public hearing–convened by the relevant legislative committee–which took place at an earlier point in time. By issuing the REIA at this stage, the analysis becomes available as lawmakers and legislative staff actually edit the bill, but before it is voted on by the committee and advances to the full council for public hearing and vote.
Together with CORE’s published guide, How to Design Racially Equitable Legislation for Residents of the District of Columbia, the shift in timing and the publishing of an online public database of the over 160 REIAs produced so far show signs of having an effect on both what is included in new bills (“upstream” design) and what is talked about in the legislative debate. Each bill sponsor, along with supportive advocates, has a sense of the kinds of questions and tradeoffs a REIA will bring to light publicly, both in its analysis of likely impacts and its discussion of policy choices that could improve the bill’s impact from a racial equity perspective.
Likewise, CORE has operationalized the REACH Act’s broad mandate in a way that encompasses both systemic or structural “root cause” inequities (e.g., D.C. 's historic patterns of disinvestment and neighborhood segregation by race and income) and symptoms that reflect those deeper roots (e.g., disparities between neighborhoods in school performance or exposure to crime).
This latitude has enabled the team to tailor the best analytic approach to each bill. City councils, after all, tackle everything from the rules that govern street vendors to big and contentious criminal justice reforms. As a practical matter, some bills implicate root causes more than others, observes CORE’s Director, Namita Mody. (CORE discusses this and explains other important issues in a lively and informal blog, “Getting to the Core,” available to the public.)
To produce the equity assessments, issue by issue, in each REIA, CORE looks to government reports and other official documents, research literature, news coverage, local community input, and other sources. The team then prepares its analysis, crafts a report, and shares it with council members just as the document is published to CORE’s online public database.
Broader benefits for governance: Requiring REIAs has had some broader good-government side effects, especially for the transparency and legibility of law making in D.C. For example, since CORE needs to assess what each part of a bill could mean in terms of likely impacts on racial equity, its review process begins with a careful, plain-language translation of what the bill would do. This is then published in the introduction of each REIA, and makes it easier for the public at-large, news media, and interest groups to understand what is at stake, as described by an authoritative, nonpartisan office working to serve the legislature as a whole. This is much like the roles played by the Congressional Budget Office and Congressional Research Service for federal law making. Advocacy groups have conveyed to staff that this is indeed very helpful as they work to help constituents understand proposed bills.
Likewise, the CORE unit is effectively the only policy decision support unit for D.C. 's city council, which otherwise simply receives a budget impact analysis and legal sufficiency analysis for each bill. Across the country, most city council members get little, if any, nonpartisan policy and analytic support beyond their own small staff. This is true of state lawmakers as well.
The exhibit illustrates why such decisional support on substantive policy choices and their likely effects can be so invaluable. This REIA for a 2021 bill to create “baby bonds” for low-income D.C. families outlines several ways that the bill’s initial structure limited its potential to affect the racial wealth gap.
Exhibit: Page one of a REIA, Bill to create “baby bonds,” 2021-2022 District of Columbia Council Period (Legislative Session)
Expressing equity as a value in the implementation of the REACH Act: Producing REIAs through a new operating unit, CORE, meant the District’s council staff had to build the proverbial plane while flying it, sometimes with the expectation of a high volume of work and fast turnaround.. The CORE team did so by drawing on lessons from other jurisdictions and sometimes from agencies in the executive branch of the D.C. government, which is supported by its own Mayor’s Office of Racial Equity (launched after CORE). But CORE has charted a novel path forward for the very specific task of analyzing proposed D.C. legislation.
The fastest way to increase staff capacity would probably have been to turn to the usual talent pools, and only consider professionals with graduate degrees in public policy analysis or social science for example. But CORE took a different approach, consistent with the skills-based hiring championed by equity advocates across the country. The team emphasizes broad-based and inclusive outreach for open positions, grades submissions anonymously to define the interview pool (in order to reduce the risk of racial and other sources of bias), and then asks job candidates, regardless of formal credentials, to analyze a bill, i.e., to show how they would approach the day-to-day work of the unit. New hires then learn by doing, receiving feedback from more experienced analysts and tailoring their skill set to head up a portfolio, e.g., leading REIA production for all bills proposed by Transportation and the Environment, Health or another legislative committee of the council.
In terms of their impact, the degree to which REIAs are utilized and considered by council members varies so far. Some REIAs become clear and immediate reference points in policy debate on a bill: Council members quote the REIA directly, use it to propose specific amendments, or cite it as an important basis for their final vote. For example, a bill to regulate flavored tobacco products got amended thanks to REIA analysis of police enforcement and its risks, including disproportionate harms to people of color. So did a bill to expand solar energy. Legislative staff have also signaled REIA impacts (on the content of bills) in informal discussions with CORE’s staff. Other REIAs may not produce such evident effects. At least one has been cited in a court case.
A big test for legislative REIAs is whether, how much, and how effectively they are used by neighborhood advocates, interest groups or other stakeholders with vested interests in the proposed laws. The evidence is encouraging so far. In one example, advocates are citing REIAs in their statements at council hearings and in their online testimonies to show support or opposition to specific bills and legislation..
For now, news coverage of D.C.’s legislative REIAs–not to be confused with coverage of the public issues the REIAs address–is very limited. But this was true for all of the local innovations we analyzed in this report. We suspect it’s a reflection of both reduced capacity in local newsrooms, which have cut staff dramatically over the past decade as ad revenues shifted to online search and social media, and of how news editors and reporters are, for now, judging what their readers are interested in knowing in greater detail. So much about how local government works is not considered interesting or important, i.e., newsworthy. And that editorial choice can be self-fulfilling, for given reasons: the less media coverage there is for something, the less important the public deems it.
It’s still too early to tell how much the REACH Act will change local law making as a force for racial equity in the city. But there are already some notable signs that equity impact assessment represents the kind of tangible policy maker action, as well as capacity for innovative practice, that “a different way to govern” requires.