Coast Guard acts quickly on diversity, but not without implementation problems
The Coast Guard's motto is "Semper Paratus." It means "Always Ready."
We see that in action when the Coast Guard rapidly responds to an oil-rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico or a capsized boat off Key West, Fla., or a crashed helicopter in Lake Huron.
Less apparent is how quickly the Coast Guard put that motto into action after it was criticized for doing too little to increase diversity in its civilian and uniformed ranks. It has moved swiftly, a congressional panel heard Tuesday, but not without important problems in the implementation of the agency's diversity program.
Last year, the consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton found a boatload of problems related to Coast Guard diversity. That February 2009 report made 53 recommendations to improve the Coast Guard's civil rights record for its members and employees.
Terri Dickerson, director of the Coast Guard's Civil Rights Directorate, told House members Tuesday that 52 of them have been implemented and that officials "are on the threshold of completing the last."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation, applauded the service for moving "to seize the initiative," but he sounded a significant cautionary note.
A 25-page Government Accountability Office report, Cummings (D-Md.) said, suggested that the "implementation of these recommendations may not really be completed." Simply checking things off a civil rights to-do list doesn't equal significant change, he said.
Producing reports, for example, "without considering whether and how they contribute to the achievement of overarching strategic objectives or respond to the actual needs of the users of civil rights services, is not likely to be adequate to overcome what have been long-standing challenges in the Coast Guard's provision of civil rights services," Cummings added.
Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (N.J.), the top Republican on the subcommittee, was more critical. "It appears that the Coast Guard is having a difficult time reaching out to certain minority groups through the recruitment process," he said.
LoBiondo hit the Obama administration for what he said was a $3 million cut in the Coast Guard's recruiting budget for fiscal 2011. "I am not sure how the service is going to be successful in recruiting a diverse and qualified workforce under the drastic cuts proposed by the president," he said.
The GAO report said the Coast Guard identified performance goals "in the form of a product, such as development of a manual, rather than in relation to a desired outcome." The GAO said action plans by the civil rights directorate lack documentation, measurable goals and means to evaluate the effectiveness of the plans.
Dickerson accepted the GAO recommendations and said "to quibble here consumes time" from "a greater imperative, specifically whether or not Coast Guard is moving toward a discrimination-free work environment. One that says to employees and applicants that they will be dealt with fairly."
Although she said she didn't want to quibble, Dickerson added: "The overwhelmingly more important point is, rather than spend time on additional measuring and studying, we acted. Leaders need to be able to assess the risk of devoting resources to moving forward versus less action but more documentation. In my assessment, we didn't need more study, examination, minutes, task forces, reports or working groups."
Perhaps the most noticeable actions the Coast Guard took were the restructuring of its Office of Civil Rights and giving it the more forceful name of Civil Rights Directorate in July. Along with the name change came $850,000 for civil rights programs, additional full-time staff members and a more centralized organizational structure. A strategic plan was developed, and the agency put in place security procedures to protect personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers. An equal opportunity manual is close to publication.
"We act to make sure Coast Guard sustains a model EEO/Civil Rights program among federal agencies and armed forces," Dickerson said. "We act because, at the end of our watch, we will be able to say we did everything we could to ensure the government's promise to its employees of a discrimination-free work environment."
Rear Adm. Ronald T. Hewitt, assistant Coast Guard commandant for human resources, told the panel that the agency's efforts last year resulted in the Coast Guard ranking 16th among the top 50 employers on a list compiled by historically black colleges and universities. In this fiscal year, 36.2 percent of the active duty recruits are minorities and 21.6 percent are women, he added.
Diversity, he said, is a "readiness imperative for us."