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Fostering Diversity in Local Government

In the 55 years since the pivotal law banning employment discrimination, many local governments are going beyond compliance to programs that foster diversity in the workforce. A Leading Edge Research report released by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) in Jan. 2019 points to selected examples of local governments that have excelled in increasing diversity and inclusion. The report culminates in new findings and recommendations that may be useful for local leaders.

Dr. Kendra L. Smith, Director of Community Engagement for the University of Houston- College of Medicine, authored the report based on the dearth of people of color in high-wage local government jobs. The translation of laws establishing and promoting diversity in the workforce into standards of behavior for employers heralded the era of compliance programs, or internal mechanisms put in place by an organization to fulfill law requirements.

However, many local jurisdictions seek to promote diversity “beyond compliance,” according to Smith, in the form of programs that recruit, hire, and retain workers from underrepresented populations. Here are some important takeaways.

1. “Going ‘beyond compliance’ begins with leadership—top-down and bottom-up.”

Local leaders can drive diversity efforts by following five key actions: understanding, acknowledgement, commitment, allocation, and action. Leaders must understand that diversity is hard to come by organically, acknowledge that there is work to be done, deliver messages to the public that reinforce their commitment to addressing the problem, and then put their money where their mouth is. “It’s one of those things you have to ‘walk the walk and talk the talk,’” Peggy Merriss, Decatur City Manager, stated in the report. “Letting people know that the city manager has their back is not easy work. It means speaking up and not [just] doing what is popular.”

2. “Recruitment and hiring processes are being reconfigured.”

Obstacles that prevent the success of job seekers from underrepresented populations include testing processes, unpaid internships that are unfeasible for lower-income families, and even the language used in the job posting. “If we want true equity and inclusion, this means discarding practices meant to keep people out,” Diane Powers, Director of Tacoma’s Office of Human Rights, said.

3. “Recruitment strategies are designed to be more purposeful and intentional.”

Recruiters have moved beyond the traditional “post it and they will come” model, instead going straight to community members through job fairs, community events, and events at historically black colleges and other institutions focused on minorities.

4. “Undoubtedly, there is a pipeline problem.”

Pipelines to higher-level positions in government are ineffective or nonexistent, which is concerning because of the fewer number of people of color at the top. Pipelines are groups of employees that are trained to move into higher-level positions when they become available. Fostering talent within pipelines is a continuous effort, but local governments often lack the forethought and training to develop them.

5. “A culture change is happening.”

All participants noted a culture change in which members of the community feel that they have “a seat at the table,” which has impact on diversity efforts. In the city of Tacoma, for example, a resolution was passed in Dec. 2017 to support the formation of the Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs in order to allow for better engagement of immigrant and refugee populations.

6. “Metrics and accountability are lacking.”

Participants noted that metrics are used to observe the outcome and impact of their work, but substantive metrics are lacking.

7. “The relationship between offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion and human resources needs maturing.”

Newly created offices of diversity and the longstanding human resources department of a local government need to collaborate to drive forward diversity initiatives. One participant stated, “It is a collaborative effort. HR has to be on board. If not, our work suffers and hurts [the organization] because we’re not doing as much as we can.”

Smith also provided six recommendations that work as an entwined strategy to create programs to optimize the processes to hire and retain qualified candidates:

  1. “Organizational champions must be in place to drive the work.”
  2. “Adopt an asset-based perspective and create a solid strategy for recruitment and retention.”
  3. “Create job descriptions that attract, not deter.”
  4. “Validate minimum qualifications and exams immediately.”
  5. “Increasing diversity must be linked to succession planning.“
  6. “Metrics and accountability must be made a priority.”

Find the full report here.

How is your local government improving diversity in the workforce? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo Credit: ICMA Research Report page 24.

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