Obama plans government workplace diversity effort

Christine Griffin is the deputy director of the OPM.
Christine Griffin is the deputy director of the OPM. (By Timothy Grant/office Of Personnel Management)
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By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

If creating a government workforce that reflects the people it serves, particularly at top civil service levels, is a high priority for Uncle Sam, you can't tell it by his record.

White men held more than 61 percent of senior pay level positions in fiscal 2009, far more than their representation in the total workforce, according to the latest Annual Report on the Federal Work Force by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Women hold just 29 percent of senior positions. African Americans are a paltry 7 percent, and Latinos are almost invisible at 3.6 percent.

"It's a very, very serious problem that you have for minorities and women," said Jorge E. Ponce, co-chairman of the Council of Federal EEO and Civil Rights Executives.

It's a problem that has not escaped the Obama administration's notice. The White House is preparing a presidential directive, in the form of an executive order or presidential memorandum, on increasing federal workplace diversity.

Presidential orders and memoranda sound impressive, but they are only as good as the effort to make them work. Previous attempts to increase workplace diversity have withered from inattention.

The directive would follow along the lines of the Executive Order on the Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government that President Obama issued in November 2009, an effort widely praised by veterans' organizations.

That order created an interagency Council on Veterans Employment and directed agencies to develop specific operational plans to boost hiring. Obama also told the agencies to "establish a Veterans Employment Program Office, or designate an agency officer or employee with full time responsibility for its Veterans Employment Program, to be responsible for enchancing employment opportunities for veterans within the agency."

A similar diversity directive would put teeth in a government personnel agenda item that has had more bark than bite. Six weeks after Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry took office last year, he listed increasing workplace diversity as one of his three long-term goals, along with controlling federal employee health-care costs while maintaining benefits, and reforming the federal pay system.

He labeled them "often intractable issues" and said reaching those goals would not be easy.

Diversity would be the first of Berry's three long-term goals to get the kind of attention a presidential directive would bring. The three short-term goals he announced at the time - reforming recruiting and hiring practices, improving work life and workplace conditions and veterans employment - all have received White House attention.

The government's senior-level diversity figures are so bad, said Christine Griffin, OPM's deputy director, "because historically we just haven't done a good job of making sure we provide everyone with career development training."

Career development to create a broader range of candidates for the Senior Executive Service may also be part of Obama's directive.

Griffin would not say anything about Obama's plans, but she did say OPM is "working on ways to establish a government-wide program to focus on diversity."

When Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) was chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees federal employee issues, he made diversity a priority, holding one hearing on it after another. Along with Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Davis introduced an SES diversity bill in 2009. But he no longer runs that subcommittee, and his legislation has gone nowhere.

"There is no great movement right now to do anything" legislatively on diversity, said Bill Brown, president of the African American Federal Executive Association.

The lack of movement also seems to apply, with a few exceptions, to organizations that represent employees of color. Perhaps they're active behind the scenes, and that certainly can be an effective strategy, but they don't apply much public pressure. An exception is when Congress holds hearings on workplace diversity, which isn't often.

"Then everybody gets all ginned up," Brown said.

One thing that could use ginning up is the "special emphasis programs" that were created decades ago to help agencies meet their equal employment opportunity goals. Special emphasis programs were established for women, Hispanics and other minorities, people with disabilities and veterans.

Federally Employed Women, perhaps the most active federal workers' organization devoted to diversity, complains that the special emphasis effort for women has "gradually eroded to the point of almost nonexistence."

The problem is compounded, according to FEW, because the OPM regulations outlining how the Federal Women's Program should be implemented can't be found. "While our understanding is that these instructions included requiring each agency to develop a Plan of Action, to designate an FWP Coordinator, and to submit a periodic progress report to OPM, our efforts to obtain the actual implementation language or these plans have been futile," says an FEW report.

If that language is missing, it shows just how little importance government officials over the years have given the issue of diversity. Griffin said the Obama administration is planning to develop guidance to agencies on the special emphasis program.

That can't come a decade too soon.

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