The Vital Intersection Between Equity and Digital Transformation

Congressional and White House mandates have put digital transformation at the top of to-do lists across the Federal government for many years now – from Cloud Smart strategies to the recent Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity. These mandates, as well as agency-driven modernization, articulate critical goals such as improving cybersecurity and creating more efficiency.

But as we reflect on the momentum of the Biden administration’s Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government (EO), we have the opportunity to flip the script on digital transformation:

If a modern and secure system is successfully deployed but doesn’t reach critical stakeholders and historically underserved communities – it’s like having no system at all.

By elevating equity as a reason for modernization and a key measurement of success, we can drive change at a higher level across government. Let’s explore how the intersection of equity and digital transformation can lead to a more fair, just, and impactful future for the American public.

Equity as a Mission Imperative

Our nation is navigating complex and dynamic challenges, within our borders and across the globe. And there’s one clear thing we’ve learned from the pandemic: We can’t do things the way they have been done in the past. The nature of what we face as a country requires a new paradigm for modernization that is focused on bringing people along – and not leaving some behind.

That, of course, requires understanding the needs and barriers of end users, which our colleagues have discussed in a previous piece. But in large part, an inclusive future depends on asking the right questions from the start.

Here’s what we mean: In the process of digital transformation efforts, Federal agencies need to acknowledge the limits of a technology-first approach. It sounds counterintuitive within the context of IT, so let’s discuss why this is important. Consider an organization developing a new and modern platform for grants distribution. From the beginning, it’s essential to examine issues that include:

  • How to access communities that lack broadband connectivity
  • What infrastructure can be built to support target populations that need the platform
  • What technical assistance should be deployed for sustained and long-term impact

These types of questions can halt the self-fulfilling breaks in our system. Across the Federal government, organizations are already unpacking these issues and innovating on solutions that challenge historical inequities.

One of those organizations is the U.S. Forest Service, along with an interagency coalition that built – an e-commerce platform that modernizes how the public explores the nation’s lands, waters, and cultural destinations. Using data from facilities and feedback collected from visitors, they’re at work identifying accessibility gaps and investing in human-centered improvements. Those include ensuring that people of all physical abilities can safely and comfortably access a campground – and continuing to optimize the platform so it serves people and communities who may not have access to high-speed internet.

Building the Future Workforce

More than ever, and as reflected in the recent executive order, our nation needs to prioritize trust in government. A big part of that is demonstrating to the public that Federal leadership and its workforce represents them – speaking their language, sharing their backgrounds, and offering channels that allow every person to participate.

In the Federal workforce of the future, sameness is not an asset. While the public eye is often on civilian agencies, it’s clear that the issue of inclusivity and diversity is experiencing momentum in areas that impact defense and national security.

“Ensuring that we have an IC [Intelligence community] workforce made up of people who think differently, see problems differently, and overcome challenges differently is a prerequisite to our success,” said Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, in congressional testimony late last year. “Their creativity makes us smarter, more innovative, and more successful. And that makes our nation safer and more secure against the array of adversaries and the foreign threats we face.”

Her office has established an intelligence community accessibility executive, to oversee initiatives that ensure people with different abilities have fair and equal access to opportunities within the organization. It has also created a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) office that is dedicated to driving representation across the organization and empowering all people to have a seat at the table.

Ultimately, this future workforce is fundamental to inclusive modernization. And as we move forward, there are legacy barriers to break between technology and mission offices. High-impact decisions – whether that’s upgrading a public-facing system or deploying new mission capabilities – should be evaluated by multidisciplinary leaders who represent the layered and complex world we live in.

Perpetuating a Cycle of Equitable Practice

We know it’s critical to diversify the organizations responsible for improving American health, safety, and welfare – bringing all thoughts and minds to solve some of the toughest challenges we face. And now, bolstered by the Biden administration’s actions, we have a prime opportunity to deeply embed equity into the lifecycle of transformation.

Often, that starts with the supply chain – making sure agency procurements are bringing in strong and diverse industry partners to solve mission challenges. From small and minority-owned businesses to academia, there is momentum across government to level the playing field, transform legacy procurement strategies, and increase transparency around future contracting opportunities.

With more voices at the table – from suppliers to the federal workforce – we can better envision solutions that prioritize fair and just outcomes. However, those solutions need to be sustained and improved over time, so the cycle of equity continues. To that end, we need to embed new questions into the modernization process, such as: What personnel should be on the ground to provide technical assistance to communities? What do certain populations need in terms of capacity building to fully access new programs and services? What upskilling and retooling do staff need to keep up with technology updates and continue to be impactful leaders?

As we look beyond the mandates and beyond what tactically needs to be done in response to the executive orders, equity is ultimately a whole-of-government challenge. Agencies are actively working to bring more voices to the table and to change the paradigm around digital transformation. They’re also coming together in new ways so they can accelerate change as a collective. For instance, several agencies, including the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, have been actively engaged with non-partisan and non-profit organizations such as the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) to exchange ideas around topics like equity and digital transformation, and they’re doing it in a way that’s bridging the gap between private and public organizations.

Whether for matters of national security or for serving individuals and families in moments of need – advancing equity is imperative to the mission. Experimentation and impact will most easily begin within agencies and their programs, but we can envision a future where data, collaboration, and best practices are shared across offices and organizations. With that, we’ll have the ability to identify gaps between organizations and extend our reach into historically underserved communities.

With the continued funding of technology modernization across government, including $1 billion as part of the American Rescue Plan, organizations are already strengthening IT systems and adapting to emerging digital infrastructures. Embedding issues of inclusive and fair access from the start will ensure platforms and systems are holistically designed to achieve mission outcomes.

Continue the equity conversation by learning more about applying a new mindset to scale innovation using equity as a platform, another topic in the Booz Allen series on advancing equity across Federal government programs.

In this series, “Equity as a National Priority: An Interagency Perspective,” Booz Allen discusses the topic of advancing equity across Federal government programs – offering perspectives for a framework that prioritizes fair and inclusive service delivery to the public.

About Julie McPherson and Maisha Glover
Julie McPherson is an executive vice president and leads Booz Allen’s digital business, overseeing large-scale modernization efforts; Maisha Glover is a senior vice president and leads a book of business driving digital transformation in support of national security clients. She is also an industry thought leader on the future of work.