By: Kelsey Cook, Office of the Vice President for Research
In response to the increased fight for racial justice happening across the United States, many government agencies have been looking to reevaluate policies and determine how to address institutional sources of inequity.
With support from IU’s Racial Justice Research Fund, the O’Neill School’s Breanca Merritt is leading a team that is developing an assessment tool for local government agencies to help them take the first step to better understanding systemic racism in their initiatives. This tool will ultimately help them understand how to better facilitate equitable outcomes through policy design and implementation.
“We want to give agencies the necessary tools to be able to take the first steps in affecting change,” said Merritt, a clinical assistant professor at O’Neill and the founding director of the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy at the IU Public Policy Institute. “A lot of people understand that racism is a problem, but they aren’t clear on what they are doing to contribute to those issues and what they can do to prevent those negative outcomes from happening.”
Merritt says the assessment tool her team is developing will help government agencies of all sizes determine their baseline for racial equity and what they can do to improve that. Agencies will use a rating scale to assess their performance in six areas: agency or program mission, goal clarity, policy design, leadership/managerial skills, capacity building, and accountability.
The research team expanded on existing relationships with government partners in Indianapolis to create a sampling of agencies that will provide insight on how characteristics in the assessment tool can influence their work, how it may be used and with what frequency, and methods of administration.
“Understanding how public agencies and their employees navigate and implement policy is key to addressing institutional sources of inequity,” Merritt said. “There are many layers to why government decisions, even with their best efforts, don’t support equitable outcomes for communities of color. Our goal is to unpack that.”
Merritt’s team has partnered with Indianapolis’ Office of Public Health and Safety to utilize the assessment tool in evaluating the city’s COVID-19 rental assistance program. Doing so will allow them to understand what the program did successfully and what did not work in terms of racial equity. They will talk to residents, leaders, and program administrators to understand what could have been done to lead to more racially equitable outcomes in the program.
After the team finishes analyzing the COVID-19 rental assistance program, they will test the tool at a few other Indianapolis-area organizations before launching the final version in summer 2021.
Merritt’s work with government will expand in January as she transitions to an adjunct faculty position with O’Neill and takes on the new role as Chief Health Equity Officer for the State of Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration. In this new position, she will work broadly across a variety of divisions to develop socially equitable and anti-racist policies that affect Hoosiers’ outcomes.