Building a Federal Workforce that Looks like America

It’s been two years since President Obama signed the Executive Order on Diversity and Inclusion in the federal workplace. As we all know, organizations and organizational culture take a great deal of time to change. This is especially the case for government agencies, which are often over a hundred years old.

Today, I attended an event by the Partnership for Public Service on Diversity and Inclusion Leadership in the 21st Century. The panel discussion included leaders in the Department of Interior who have made great progress in building a culture of diversity and inclusion in their departments. It was enriching to learn the challenges, strategies and future outlook of enabling a diverse federal workforce.

The panelists included:

Rhea Suh – Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget, DOI

Suzette Kimball – Acting Director, U.S. Geological Survey

Rowan Gould – Deputy Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Context of Diversity in Government

Rhea Suh began the discussion by highlighting how current diversity and inclusion programs are different from years past. She told the audience that statements regarding diversity have consistently been a part of various administrative government mandates for the last 15 years, but tangible results were lacking.

Previous programs seemed to operate similar to quote systems, which did little to instill constructive conversations on diversity in the workplace. The missing component in past initiatives was a focus on building the capacity and culture that weaves diversity into the organizational mission.

Passion as a Common Ground

While diversity is importantly related to the realms of EEO and human capital, Suh emphasized that it needs to be connected to programs and agency missions. The recurring theme in the discussion was that employees in public service are passionate about their area of work and agency mission. Driving a culture of diversity necessitates that employees recognize it as a key part of sustaining their mission. For example, having a diverse team managing the nations parks is important to the mission of getting people of various demographics to visit these parks.

Top and Bottom Down Approaches

The DOI created an overarching Diversity and Inclusion Plan, but asked each bureau to create their own specific strategies. Kimball and Gould highlighted how the top-down guidance served as a solid starting point and how their offices are implementing bottle up initiatives. In particular, over 500 employees across the USGS, FWS and other DOI bureaus have been trained as “diversity changes agents.” These change agents serve as champions for understanding and propelling the importance of diversity in their everyday work.

Engaging Generations

Lastly, the DOI Secretary Sally Jewell stopped by to give her perspective on the topic and particularly touched upon the engagement of younger generations into the federal workforce. She said that diversity is a public service imperative that is both a marathon and a sprint. Secretary Jewell, noted that, even given hiring constraints, providing opportunities for young graduates to experience government is essential to having workplace diversity and preparing future leadership.

Preparing future leadership is also important to GovLoop. We’re holding the Next Generation of Government Training Summit in just two weeks. Among the 25 breakout sessions, one will be on Diversity’s New Frontier. It’s not too late to sign up for the two day, OPM approved training. Check out the schedule and register here!

Read the Partnership’s latest report on diversity and inclusion in federal agencies here.

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Dale M. Posthumus

My problem with this article is that there is no measurable results presented. It states that DOI has made great strides in building a culture of diversity and inclusion. But, only actions are presented, no results. Ms. Shuh even said that the difference between then and now is tangible results. Where are the tangible results? DOI has a plan. Okay, so what? I am sure they had a plan 15 years ago. Many government employees who I have known over the years will say the government is good at making plans, its getting results that are hard. I realize my comments may be a bit harsh, but the quickest way to kill what could be a promising approach is to fail to measure results and communicate them to all stakeholders.

Kim Truong

Hi Dale, appreciate the feedback. Next week, the Partnership for Public Service is putting out a new report on the status of diversity in federal agencies and I can certainly post the link when it’s a available. A great report from last year is available here.

I did find some preliminary info particular to the DOI bureaus mentioned:

With regards to agency performance to “Support of Diversity and Inclusion,” the FWS scored 66.2 and USGS scored 58.1. These are higher than the gov’t-wide average of 56.8. This info is based on survey data from the Partnership. They’ll be putting on more events on the topic if you’re interested.

Julie Chase

The article was nice. Yes, each agency has to have a “plan” in place for all types of diversity hiring. And that is about it really. The President’s EO of 2010 was a grand effort to get more folks with disabilities into government service work. The goal was 100,000 and each agency had to set a percentage to meet that goal. But here is what the EO did not say. “There is no funding for this, you just have to make ‘a plan’ stating, yadda, yadda, this is what we are going to do.” Then they put on a shelf on a computer file and it’s “poof” forgotten. I know a young man who has two college degrees, qualifies for Schedule A, is HFA and followed every rule and reg with his resume on USA JOBs, is working with EEO and Voc Rehab, and lo and behold….”HIRING FREEZE”. And minimally qualified vets are points ahead of him. So much for diversity. Basically, each agency has to have a plan to hire….”whatever” to promote diversity. Reality is, they DON’T have to. Additionally, the programs to get recent grads and students in the government door has been shut tight. NO FUNDING. Yes, each agency “can” budget for these programs, but in reality, they don’t have to. I have asked myself if our installation is participating in Pathways. The answer is “NO, we don’t have funding for that.” So as the boomers retire, there is no one to replace them. And with the furloughs slamming DoD, the young people are no longer interested. The EO of 2010 is basically bird cage liner. This is what needs to be discussed at these think tank meetings. Outside the beltway, agencies are struggling meet every feel good program that comes down the pike. It pleases them to no end, that “they don’t have to”. All they have to do, is “make a plan.”

David B. Grinberg

Regarding diversity and inclusion, the federal government is a model workplace compared to the private sector in general and corporate America in particular.

Nevertheless, while progress has been made government-wide, more still needs to be done to effectuate the President’s executive order.

Kim Truong

Hi Julie, thanks for sharing your perspective. I was a contractor in defense health IT, so I also know a few stories of software, plans, memorandums, etc. ending up on “the shelf.” What I learned from those experiences and from the event was that tough initiatives like diversity really need strong champions to push implementation. That’s the rationale behind the DOI’s Diversity Change Agent Program and one can connect with over 50 change agents in the GovLoop group. It’s certainly a difficult time for agencies that must meet new mandates, while facing stringent funding & hiring challenges, but I think it’s also important that issues like diversity are put on the radar.

David, appreciate the comment!

Julie Chase

Kim, thank you for bringing up this worthy topic. Diversity is only as strong as the agencies who understand and support it. Our installation EEO works very hard with supervisors/managers on getting them to understand there is a whole group of hard working folks out there with disabilities who are eager for the chance to be a civil servant. I find sometimes that people, being people do not fully understand the scope of disabilities. The range is vast. The contributions these folks will make an any organization where their skills and education match are even bigger. Our EEO hosts several shadowing events through the year. In an effort to match people, skills, education the office works in tandem with state Voc Rehab office. The Voc Rehab office refers clients who have the KSI’s meeting the needs of various organizations throughout the installation. Our EEO holds meetings and contacts supervisors and managers asking them if they would like to participate in the shadowing. Some managers do step up to the plate and volunteer their time and organizational team to spend the day with a person showing talking to them about the mission of their organization and how things get done to in support of the warfighter. Others, either through ignorance and/or apathy can’t be bothered. Even though we are in a hiring freeze, it allows supervisors and managers another hiring option to find the just the right person who will contribute to their mission and be a part of the team. Hiring persons who are qualified Schedule A does not have the same arduous hiring restrictions and wait. This “INCLUDES” hiring VETS who are “Schedule A”. A hire would take less than a month vs. the six months or more for an all US Citizens hire. Most supervisors/managers who pass on the shadowing program (esp. STEM organizations), have difficulty understanding that some folks with disabilities “do” possess the necessary education and skills required to be positive contribution to their workforce. Getting them to understand this concept is the hard row to hoe with our EEO, as people have their inner perceptions. Thank you for this worthwhile topic.

Julie Chase

David Grinberg, thank you pushing hard with this. It is only through understanding our EEO’s can bring diversity throughout the entire government workforce. It doesn’t matter who we support as civil servants, what does matter is not only we model diversity, but we continue evaluate how that modeling will be implemented.

Kim Truong

Great insight. Your agency’s EEO sounds like a solid example of finding ways to build diversity and constructively change organizational culture, even under freezes, etc. Thanks for taking the time to share!