OMB looks to update federal race and ethnicity data standards

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The government's chief statistician put out a call for input via newly announced listening sessions as part of OMB's work to update federal race and ethnicity standards.

The federal government wants input on the standards that baseline government data on race and ethnicity as it works on the first refresh to the policy directive since 1997.

Chief Statistician Karin Orvis announced a formal review to revise the policy directive in June. 

The review, which will include input from a technical working group, will result in a recommendation to the Office of Management and Budget, with the goal of finishing a revision to the standards by summer 2024, wrote Orvis.

Now, people will be able to give input in virtual, bi-monthly listening sessions starting Sept. 15 and through a forthcoming federal register notice for comments, according to an Aug. 30 blog post from Orvis.

These standards were first developed in the 1970s as the government looked to enforce civil rights laws by monitoring equal access in areas like housing or employment. 

The policy directive is important because it governs the minimum, aggregated categories on race and ethnicity collected by agencies in the census and via surveys and forms. In this way, the data and how it's collected influences policies and resource allocation.

"Many respondents have long been dissatisfied with the identity options compared to their lived experiences," a July memo on the current standards acknowledges. "This has been accelerated in the nearly 25 years since the standards were revised, as there have been large societal, political, economic, and demographic shifts in the United States."

House Democrats have also zeroed in on the issue, with 18 penning a letter to the Census and OMB directors in June asking them to add a "Middle Eastern or North African" option to the OMB standards and the census. Under current standards, people who identify as Middle Eatern or North African are reported in the aggregate "white" category.

Updated standards would "ensure this vibrant American community can receive crucial federal resources and support," the letter says. "OMB standards determine how our political institutions distribute material resources, political representation, and research funding."

This isn't the first recent attempt to update the policy directive. A different OMB working group was created in 2014 to review these standards, and it released an interim report in 2017. The Census Bureau has also done research on the topic.

But there wasn't an update during the Trump administration, and the 2020 census used the 1997 standards.

Now, the renewed effort to update the standard is happening alongside other Biden administration priorities concerning data. Biden released an executive order on his first day in office that started a working group on equitable data, and also has a line of effort focused specifically on data on sexual orientation and gender identity.