Workplace diversity order is just the first step in effort

Joe Davidson
Columnist August 22, 2011

For those hungry to increase diversity in the federal workplace, the executive order President Obama issued last week may leave even the vegetarians among them asking, “Where’s the beef?”

The answer: Wait for the second course.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Think of Obama’s order promoting “the Federal workplace as a model of equal opportunity, diversity, and inclusion” as an appetizer preparing for more meaty efforts to come.

By itself, it’s just another plan. But it’s really too early to tell how effective it will be. More will be known after the promised overall strategy is developed, followed by more detailed agency-level proposals.

The order calls for a coordinated government-wide strategic plan to promote inclusion and diversity. The Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget, coordinating with the President’s Management Council and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, will issue that strategy within 90 days. Agency specific plans are due 120 days after that.

“That’s what we’re going to be looking at much more closely,” said Janet Kopenhaver, Washington representative of Federally Employed Women.

Obama’s order called for a government-wide plan that includes “comprehensive strategies for agencies to identify and remove barriers to equal employment opportunity that may exist in the Federal Government’s recruitment, hiring, promotion, retention, professional development, and training policies and practices.”

Federal employment statistics demonstrate the need for concrete action, particularly in the top civil service ranks. Latinos were only 4.1 percent of the employees in the senior pay levels in fiscal 2010; African Americans, 6.7 percent; and women, 31.2 percent.

Those figures are pretty sad, particularly given the government’s long-expressed interest in diversity. Obama’s team will have to work hard to make sure its plan is not just another disappointing effort, long on rhetoric, short on results.

Kim Lambert, president of the Interior Department chapter of Blacks in Government (BIG), isn’t optimistic.

“I don’t think it’s going to change anything in terms of how they’re doing business. because they are already doing diversity plans,” she said of the executive order. “That’s nothing new.”

Jorge E. Ponce, co-chairman of the Council of Federal Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights Executives, was adamant in his call for “an action-oriented agenda” to increase the pitiful representation of Hispanics in the Senior Executive Service.

“No more councils. No more reports. No more statistics. No more paralysis!” he said in an e-mail, his words in red.

He has reason to be upset.

In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton issued an executive order “to eliminate the underrepresentation of Hispanics in the Federal workforce.” It called for implementing a nine-point plan from 1997 and laid out deadlines for regulations to be issued and a high level task force to be established.

Yet, here we are. Another decade, another executive order.

Skepticism is understandable. Lambert and Ponce don’t speak for everyone, however.

“Agencies will pay attention to an executive order,” said Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who pushed federal workplace diversity when he was chairman of the House subcommittee on the federal workforce. “I know it’s been a snail’s pace, and I’m quick to agree with those who say we have not moved fast enough.”

Added William Brown, president of the African American Federal Executive Association: “It’s a call to arms . . . for agencies to get serious.”

One thing that might help them get serious is the muscle built into the order.

“This order will hold all of us accountable for results, from Cabinet officers and myself down to the very front line managers and employees,” said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, during a press briefing last week.

Yet, although they are accountable for results, the order doesn’t call for any hiring targets or goals to measure the results. You can thank relentless attacks on affirmative action for that.

Nonetheless, Berry called the order “a great leap forward” in a speech prepared for a BIG conference in Boston on Monday. Curiously, a spokeswoman said BIG’s national president, David Reeves, was not prepared to discuss the executive order even after Berry discussed it in his speech.

In the speech, Berry told BIG members that he was “confident that because we took the time to get buy-in from all our stakeholders and forge a consensus, we’ll see enthusiastic participation government-wide.”

“And if there are any holdouts,” he added, “just let me know.”

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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