Operationalizing and prioritizing equity – including an explicit focus on racial equity and social justice – are core strategies to ensuring transformative change in government practice and policy
One jurisdiction that’s done this is King County in Washington state. King County embarked on its racial equity journey in 2008 with the launch of an Equity and Social Justice effort. The initiative became more institutionalized in recent years, with the creation of a new Office of Equity and Social Justice (ESJ) in January 2015 and the formal beginning of an ESJ Strategic Plan process shortly after.
This blog explores the components of King County’s equity plan and the process that went into its creation, concluding some lessons learned for other jurisdictions embarking on a similar path
The Strategic Plan
King County’s ESJ Strategic Plan for 2016-2022 is the jurisdiction’s first long-term strategic plan centered on promoting equity internally and the community. The overall strategies are to invest upstream and where needs are greatest and in employees and communities, and to do this with transparent and accountable leadership.
The plan itself has three elements. First is the County’s Pro-Equity Policy Agenda covering 8 different areas such as housing, transportation, health and human services, the justice system and the environment. Second, the plan calls for a Regional Equity Collaborative acknowledging the need for increased coordination and cross-sector collaboration at the regional level, picking up on the idea that individual actors are stronger together. Third, the plan identifies six internally focused goal areas such as leadership and operations or policies and budgets with specific equity-related goals and objectives for each.
The first year of the plan is focused on setting baselines as well as operationalizing the effort across the county’s many agencies. All agencies have ESJ teams and are constructing two year workplans, with the ESJ Office providing guidance. One of the strategies in this plan includes being transparent and accountable and having a system that is publicly visible that can track how the County is doing on its progress.
The Planning Process
Core to King County’s approach in developing this plan was a deep engagement process both with employees and in the community. The ESJ Strategic Plan was developed with data and ideas following engagement with over 700 employees and 100 community organizations. This process also modeled how to do racial equity work, through extensive listening.
Employee engagement phase. The County started the process a couple of years back with very deep engagement of current employees at all levels. They convened every single department and agency to have feedback workshops, which included both agency leadership and other staff champions. After envisioning what a fair and equitable King County would look like, they did SWOC analyses (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, Challenges) for the county as an employer, as a service-provider, and as a regional partner. See the full employee engagement report here.
Community engagement phase. The County conducted a similar process with community organizations covering a wide range of issues. Dozens of small and focused meetings were held, in addition to larger convenings and engagement sessions, reaching over 100 organizations. They also collected information via an online Community Partner Survey. The County asked community organizations and representatives about what they saw as the current state of equity in the region, current efforts underway that supported that goal, and opportunities for King County to partner with others to advance equity. See the full community engagement report here.
Lessons for other jurisdictions
Matias Valenzuela, Director of the Office of Equity and Social Justice in King County, had the following lessons to share from about the county’s strategic planning process.
1) The deeper you engage, the more meaningful information you can collect. King County spent a lot of time in the engagement process to get a deeper grasp of what they needed to do. If you only engage in a shallow way, you will only get that far and you won’t be able to address the root causes. As an example: the county held focus groups with employees on the front lines of county services, such as clinic workers or maintenance and custodial staff. This level of employee engagement allowed the county to identify new areas of potential opportunity for advancing equity goals, such as making sure all employees can have professional development plans and can be involved in decision-making. As a result, the county was able to document these preferences and incorporate them into the Strategic Plan.
2) The planning process itself is exhausting and often not exciting, but still extremely important. If it’s really generating ideas and buy in from people at all levels, the planning process itself can be a powerful tool for building momentum for equity. It’s also an opportunity to refresh and do things in new ways – build new systems while dismantling what doesn’t work. With the ESJ Strategic Plan finalized, the County has a very clear charge, with words in the plan that are all backed by a lot of voices. A strategic plan that is done right can make government more responsible and accountable because it is all based on the desires and feedback of community partners, residents and employees.
3) Political support from elected leaders is also crucial. As Matias shared, King County is fortunate to be in a position with a supportive County Executive in Dow Constantine who is willing to provide bold leadership in this hard work. For example, Executive Constantine and leadership have made clear how and why King County is leading with racial justice, and are taking this conversation to all levels of the organization. For an example, see this recent video the County produced where Executive Constantine and other county employees share why they’re leading with racial justice.
Similarly, other county elected leaders in council and other agencies are critical to success, and support from the highest elected positions in King County makes the ESJ Plan harder for people to ignore or deprioritize.