The Office of Personnel Management in Washington. (Shawn Thew/European Pressphoto Agency)
Columnist

If Uncle Sam is committed to increasing the level of racial, ethnic and gender diversity in his government, particularly at the highest levels of the civil service, you sure can’t tell it from the latest statistics.

Office of Personnel Management (OPM) figures show diversity levels have improved little, stayed flat or, in some cases, regressed over the most recent period studied.

“The percentage of minorities in the Senior Executive Service (SES) remained the same in FY 2016 as it was in FY 2015 at 21.2%,” according to the recently released Federal Equal Opportunity Recruitment Program Report to Congress for fiscal year 2016, which was under the Obama administration. Women demonstrated the largest SES increase, with a 1 percentage-point bump to 35.3 percent, still far below their portion of the workforce. While there certainly have been advances since the first report, covering fiscal year 2001, the gap between white men in top positions and other groups has always been substantial. White males made up 36.1 percent of the nation’s civilian labor force in 2016.

White people accounted for 78.8 percent of senior executives in 2015 and 2016 and were 66.4 percent of the national labor force.

Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, cited three reasons that diversity and inclusion (D&I) “efforts have stalled in the Federal government”:

  • “An absence of a link between mission accomplishment and D&I programs.”
  • “An inability to articulate the return on investment (ROI) for D&I programs.”
  • “The lack of a rigorous and analytical basis for D&I programs.”

“Hiring decisions that create a workforce that does not reflect the changing demographics of our nation are likely to have unintended consequences,” Valdez said, “such as investment decisions that do not address the needs of women and minorities, or the perpetuation of federal policies that have contributed to underrepresentation in the federal workforce.”

A deeper look into the generally stagnant people-of-color percentages reveals some ups and downs, albeit slight, among the groups. The largest variation was among African Americans, who are going backward in the SES, the highest civil-service rank. Their percentage dropped from 11.4 percent to 11 percent from 2015 to 2016. Asians increased from 3.2 percent to 3.5 percent, while Hispanics rose from 4.4 percent to 4.6 percent.

That jump did little to bring SES Hispanics closer to their portion of the civilian labor force, which is 15 percent. Hispanics also are far behind in overall government employment, making up just 8.6 percent of federal employees. African Americans are 10.5 percent of the civilian labor force but 18.4 percent of federal employees. Civilian labor force percentages commonly are lower than population percentages.

“It is obvious that Hispanic parity in the federal workforce will never be reached when compared with their numbers in the national civilian labor force,” said Gilbert Sandate, chair of the Coalition for Fairness for Hispanics in Government. It estimates that this gap equals $8.5 billion in annual salaries lost to the Hispanic community.

Government-wide data obscures wide variations among agencies. Black representation in executive departments, for example, ranges from about 38 percent in Education and Housing and Urban Development to a low of 5.6 percent in Interior. For Hispanics, the highest representation is 22 percent in Homeland Security; the lowest is 3.3 percent in Health and Human Services.

HHS, however, has the highest percentage of women, at 64.9 percent. Transportation has the lowest, 26.2 percent.

Using a Freedom of Information Act request, the Coalition for Change, an organization that focuses on bias in the federal workforce, found that from 2005 to 2015, 108 class-action complaints were filed regarding federal employment discrimination against black people.

“Year after year, thousands of black Americans, like the Black U.S. Marshals who have a pending class action against the U.S. Department of Justice, allege federal officials deprive them of career opportunities, such opportunities provide black Americans the avenue to attain Senior Executive Service Level positions,” Tanya Ward Jordan, the coalition’s founder and president, said in an email.

The OPM report does not cover President Trump’s administration, but no one expects things to improve under this president. Quite the opposite.

“Our federal government functions best when it is equipped with qualified individuals who meaningfully reflect and represent the country they serve,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “There is a stunning lack of diversity in the nominations Trump has put forward for judicial seats and executive branch positions. It’s clear he does not value diversity and inclusion.”

The Leadership Conference pointed to a USA Today article that said 92 percent of Trump’s judicial picks are white, adding, “President Trump’s search for deeply conservative federal judges appears to have eliminated most African Americans and Hispanics from the running. Among Trump’s first 87 judicial nominees, only one is African American and one is Hispanic. Five are Asian Americans. Eighty are white.”

For Sandate, information like this means “the prospects for brighter days ahead are dim when it comes to diversity in the federal workforce. At the end of its first year in power, the Trump administration has shown no signs of taking its foot off the pedal when it comes to emasculating agencies’ budgets, missions and programs, and of marginalizing the rights of minorities, immigrants and people of color.”

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