Building Metrics for the US National Gender Strategy: From Aspiration to Action

Megan O'Donnell Mayra Buvinic Shaida Badiee November 18, 2021

Cross-posted with the Center for Global Development.

With the Biden-Harris administration’s release of the first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, the United States has taken an unprecedented step in seeking to close gender gaps at home and abroad. In light of persistent gender inequalities, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers across the globe need to ensure an inclusive recovery: one that makes gender equality central to building back better and to long-term development efforts. The strategy is an important step toward achieving this goal. The White House Gender Policy Council, working collaboratively across federal agencies, must now ensure that the aspirational vision presented in the strategy is translated into concrete action. This will require specific, well-defined metrics of success. Here we offer some suggestions for how appropriate metrics can be developed at the agency level and applied across agencies to track the US government’s progress in implementing the new gender strategy.

The strategy directs federal agencies to “establish and prioritize at least three goals that will serve to advance the [strategy’s] objectives…and detail the plans and resources needed to achieve them in an implementation plan.” Over the next nine months, the White House Gender Policy Council (or “the Council”) will provide technical assistance to agencies as they work to draft these implementation plans. In doing so, we suggest that the Council consider the following guidelines to establish a robust metrics framework:

1. Establish SMART and transparent goals

Goals set at agency level and those applicable across agencies should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. The Council should provide guidance to agencies identifying examples of goals that are feasible to attain within the timeframe of the strategy, as well as substantive areas where the Council wants to maintain particular focus (for example, COVID-19 recovery) in the initial stage of the strategy’s implementation.

2. For each goal, develop a theory of change and select accompanying indicators

Indicators should be clearly defined, simple, and practical. Indicators, metadata, and their source data should be made accessible online in machine readable formats accompanied by an open or public domain license, and any indicators without identified data sources should include implementation plans to fill relevant data gaps. Agencies should establish targets and benchmarks and a baseline against which to measure progress on a common timeframe.

3. Prioritize among goals and focus actions and metrics on a few “doable” top priorities

Prioritization should be done at the agency level and across agencies and it should be reflected in the theory of change and accompanying indicators at the agency level. Across agencies, the Council should decide and capture the top priorities in an overall conceptual framework or theory of change and corresponding indicators, which should enable measuring implementation progress for the strategy as a whole (see below).

4. Ensure coordination and alignment within the US government

Agencies with complementary mandates should be encouraged to coordinate in identifying goals and underlying theories of change, definitions, and indicators. USAID, MCC, the State Department, and other federal agencies, for example, could each contribute in different ways to closing gender gaps in entrepreneurship in lower-income countries, and the Small Business Administration, Department of Commerce, and other agencies could do the same domestically.

5. Work towards a common lexicon and harmonized metrics

Agencies should use the same operational definitions of key shared concepts for inputs, outputs, and outcomes, which will require forging agreement on concepts with a variety of definitions (e.g., woman-owned and woman-managed business) and on outcomes that are core to the strategy but complex to define and measure (e.g., women’s empowerment outcomes). To this end, the Council, in coordination with the Equitable Data Working Group (established under President Biden’s Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government), should provide a glossary of key terms to share across agencies. Especially important will be using the same operational definitions for intersectionality (by sex, age, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity) and other key cross-cutting concepts used in the strategy. The Council can build metric commonalities across agencies through a collaborative process, including roundtable discussions that generate buy-in from different agencies. Where possible, indicators should also align with existing international goals and indicators, including the Sustainable Development Goals.

What comes next

Taking off, in the first year, the Council can institute simple, process-oriented metrics to track the compliance of federal agencies with the strategy and publish corresponding data in its first annual report. Across agencies, the council should track whether:

  • Agencies submit implementation plans in accordance with the nine-month deadline,
  • Agencies’ implementation plans contain three (or more) SMART, outcome-oriented goals related to gender equity and equality,
  • Each goal is accompanied by a theory of change, clear definitions, input, output, and outcome measures,
  • At least one goal identified by each agency is achievable “within current authorities and resources,” as required by the National Strategy,
  • Agencies currently collect the necessary (disaggregated) data to track the implementation of the goals,
  • And agencies consult and coordinate with the newly established Equitable Data Working Group.

Over time, the Council should also track whether agencies are reporting their progress in meeting identified goals in a timely and transparent manner. Agencies’ indicators and source data should be regularly updated and published.

Beyond these process-oriented metrics, the Council should encourage and work to support agencies to design and finance scientific impact evaluations for selected activities or programs that are core to the implementation of the strategy, either because they address a cross-cutting theme in the strategy (such as intersectionality) or a core concept (social infrastructure for care, for instance).

The National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality is an ambitious, aspirational document; the full extent of its vision will be implemented through an iterative process. Because all areas of the strategy will not be addressed in the first year(s) following its release, the Council should map the areas of the strategy that are being addressed in agencies’ first-round implementation plans, as well as which strategic priorities, or subcomponents of them remain unaddressed and need to be prioritized down the line. Through the publication of this holistic mapping, the Council can provide US citizens and other stakeholders with a central resource reflecting the strategy’s overall implementation status.

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