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A new tool for equity in economic development: The APO framework

August 10, 2023
By: Casey Nemecek

Advancing equity in economic development requires more than good intentions – it calls for concrete actions and measurable outcomes. In response to this need, the National Economic Research and Resilience Center (NERRC), part of Argonne National Laboratory, has developed the Access, Process, and Outcome (APO) framework. This evaluation tool is designed to help practitioners operationalize inclusive economic development strategies that are responsive to local context.  

The authors acknowledge an important first step in advancing equity is establishing a shared understanding of what “equity” means. They propose a uniform definition of equity as “the fair or just treatment of all individuals or groups.” In comparing “equality” and “equity,” they note that while equality “focuses on ensuring everyone gets the same resource or treatment regardless of need” whereas equity is “a more active concept, trying to understand and deliver to people what they need…[it] goes beyond equality factors…to build toward outcomes for society as a whole.” Aligning on a common language can bring about more effective communication and collaboration among practitioners and funders, ensuring that everyone is working toward the same goals.

To operationalize this definition of equity, the authors introduce the APO framework, which breaks down the journey toward advancing equity into three interconnected elements: equity of access, of process, and of outcome. These elements are embedded within a situational context, which provides the background for the current situation and the desired outcome.

Access involves ensuring all community members, especially underserved populations, can benefit from opportunities or resources within a community. Who are you reaching with your program? Are there groups in your community who are not benefiting from those programs? Why or why not?

Process includes involving all stakeholder groups in economic development decisions affecting their communities in a fair and intentional way. How are you involving different stakeholder groups in your decision-making process? Are there voices missing from these discussions?

Outcome refers to the realization of increased opportunities for individuals, achieved through equitable and inclusive processes. Are the intended program outcomes being met? Are individuals able to achieve their goals or meet their needs as a result of your interventions to improve access or process? 

The framework serves as a roadmap to guide practitioners in their efforts to advance and embed equity in their regional economic development strategies. By providing a structured approach to understanding the situational context and offering a clear language for facilitating conversations, it equips practitioners with the tools they need to drive transformational change in their region.

Adopting a structured approach, such as the APO framework, can help practitioners assess the impact of their interventions and identify areas for improvement. Without such a framework, economic development strategies risk perpetuating existing disparities and missing opportunities for broader growth. The authors caution that this could lead to a range of negative outcomes, from stifled economic potential to increased social tensions. Conversely, an inclusive and equitable approach can foster a more resilient and dynamic economy that benefits all members of the community.

The development of the APO framework represents a starting point for NERRC’s equity research. Launched in 2022 after receiving $2.4 million in grant funding from EDA’s Research and National Technical Assistance program, NERRC also hosts the National Economic Resilience Data Explorer (NERDE) and the Economic Development Capacity Index (EDCI). As part of its future work, NERRC intends to expand its suite of tools and resources, aiming to provide practitioners and policymakers with more comprehensive support in their efforts to advance equity in economic development.


This article was prepared by SSTI using Federal funds under award ED22HDQ3070129 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.