Dear Office of Science and Technology Policy:
The Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP) is submitting comments regarding Federal Register document 87 FR 52083 – Request for Information on the Federal Agenda of LGBTQI+ Equity by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. We appreciate the establishment of the Interagency Working Group on Equitable Data to improve the Federal government’s ability to create policies that advance LGBTQI+ equity. These comments focus on balancing the need for representation with protecting vulnerable people.
SEAP is a public policy and technical assistance organization focused on the 12-state Southern region. The South suffers some of the greatest economic disparities, disproportionately due to the high concentrations of vulnerable populations, rural areas lacking healthcare access, and the brittle nature of public infrastructures for health, social welfare, and economic security.
SEAP partners with dozens of organizations, from small nonprofits to state and federal government agencies, to tackle these challenges. Our partners frequently look to us for up-to-date data on these issues. Responding to this need, we utilize existing datasets, as well as create or curate new datasets. We develop data resources with three key principles – awareness, accessibility, and representation. Most importantly, SEAP understands the quality and usefulness of any data depends upon accurate representation. We offer the following recommendations based on SEAP’s experience in the South.
DISPARITIES AND DATA COLLECTION
The breadth of the LGBTQI+ community is largely unknown because questions about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) are limited at best – especially at the federal level. The most recent census, conducted in 2020, only offered gender identity to the female-male binary. That put in motion another decade of demographics and federal funding programs that are not accurately reflecting lived experiences. By collecting SOGI data, the disparities experienced by LGBTQI+ people can be identified, tracked, and reconciled.
In February 2022, SEAP hosted a training on our [then] new data tools. The biggest feedback we received was regarding the lack of LGBTQI+ identification. Even though we went beyond the female / male binary offered in federal surveys, our partners suggested we add more specific gender identity questions. In addition, they also suggested we add sexual orientation and household composition questions. We made the suggested updates (survey), and have respondents within nearly all demographics, giving us evidence of how much diversity there is in the South.
SEAP recommends using the American Community Survey (ACS) to begin collecting SOGI data, which allows for an overall picture of the United States. In addition, state-level summary data is available after just one year of collection. Because it takes five years to accumulate granular and community-level data this approach allows for incremental socialization of the new data.
SEAP also recommends keeping sexual orientation and gender identification questions separate. The LGBTQI+ community includes many SOGI intersections and keeping the questions separate allows for greater application of the data. Finally, SEAP recommends working with community groups and data intermediaries like ourselves to help socialize the new data and provide use cases for how the data is utilized.
The availability of LGBTQI+ data will ensure equitable and correct execution of policies like ARPA and Medicaid. It allows community leaders to match existing qualitative stories with quantitative analysis to better serve the LGBTQI+ community.
PRIVACY, SECURITY, AND CIVIL RIGHTS
Keeping data private and secure requires a combination of policy, operational norms, and technology. Adding SOGI questions to federal surveys means more specific information is available on every individual, making them more easily identifiable. SOGI data should only be collected when needed, and available as an option otherwise. Irrespective of why or how SOGI data is collected, all individuals have a right to privacy.
For example, although the 2020 Census limited gender identification questions, it asked, for the first time, questions about same-sex couples. The data is protected, technically, in two ways – using technology protections like encryption for the databases and mathematically with the application of a disclosure avoidance system. Other access practices, such as using third-party validators to evaluate data requests, can also be employed to protect the privacy of small populations.
The Interagency Working Group on Equitable Data should establish principles for protecting such small and vulnerable populations. The policies can describe when and how to collect SOGI and how that data should be protected with technology and operational norms. For example, the technical systems where the data is accessed can employ different permission levels. That allows people with the lowest permission levels to access only high-level data, and the most granular level data is available only to those few with the highest permission levels. Operational principles could include not allowing staff to share data with portable devices or not sharing sensitive information on presentation slides.
Finally, SEAP encourages ongoing conversations with the public and groups like ours. We can provide feedback on the successes of using the new SOGI data and flag any inappropriate uses. Thank you for the opportunity to provide input on such an important data and equity issue.
The Southern Economic Advancement Project