It was a monologue because reporters were not allowed to ask questions during the conference call or follow up on the questions they submitted in advance, the bulk of which Pon didn’t answer. There’s nothing wrong with being a stenographer in a courtroom, but Pon’s refusal to take questions left journalists in the role of glorified dictation takers.
Talk of overhauling the federal civil service has been around for decades, with outside experts offering well-considered studies and suggestions. No matter how needed aspects of reform might be, given the hiring freeze Trump implemented shortly after taking office, the pay freeze and compensation cuts the administration has proposed, and repeated Republican attempts to fire feds faster, federal employees can be excused if they view this administration’s push for civil service reform with trepidation.
Yet Pon is determined to have a proposal done by the midterm elections, an ambitious goal even if everyone agreed, which is hardly the case. Unfortunately, the passion he has for changing the way federal employees are managed — hired, compensated, promoted, fired and retired — far exceeds the administration’s diluted desire to have the workforce look like the public it serves.
That was demonstrated by the two most recent OPM strategic plans — one from the Obama administration and the latest issued by the OPM in February, shortly before Pon took office. They could hardly differ more regarding diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce.
The 2014-2018 Strategic Plan issued by the Obama administration makes diversity and inclusion a high priority. For example, the first of five strategic goals under the Obama plan is “attract and engage a diverse and effective OPM workforce.” The Trump plan for 2018-2022 scarcely mentions diversity and inclusion, providing only lip service.
Look at the “Summary of Goals and Objectives” on Page 8 of the Trump document. It lists four goals with no mention of diversity and inclusion. In flow-chart fashion, the goals are supported by 14 objectives. None mentions diversity or inclusion. The words “diverse” or “diversity” are mentioned only four times in the 22-page document, compared with 20 times in the Obama administration’s 33 pages.
“We find this strategy of omission alarming,” said Wanda V. Killingsworth, president of Federally Employed Women, “and hope that as positions are being filled in the federal government — particularly high-ranking offices — the Trump administration will place emphasis on diversity and inclusion.”
While the administration’s retreat from diversity as a top priority can’t be pinned on Pon, he seems happy to represent an administration that gives diversity and inclusion advocates good reason to shudder.
He did not respond to questions for this column, but in response to Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) during his October nomination hearing, Pon said he had not read Obama’s Executive Order 13583, “Establishing a Coordinated Government-wide Initiative to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce.”
In written responses submitted after the hearing, Pon told Harris that agencies “should actively recruit from all segments of society and provide broad leadership development opportunities to build their pipelines for future leaders” and promised “to build upon the goals identified” in Obama’s order.
“It is my understanding, based on the last data OPM posted to its website, that minorities as a whole are no longer under-represented across the Federal workforce,” his written response said, “although their representation lags somewhat in SES positions.”
“Somewhat” is an understatement for women, who are 35.3 percent of the Senior Executive Service.
On the surface, it seems the data belie his understanding.
The federal workforce was 8.4 percent Hispanic, according to the OPM’s Federal Equal Opportunity Recruitment Program report for fiscal 2014, which was the document available in October. The fiscal 2016 report issued this February shows a slight increase, to 8.6 percent. In both fiscal years, the percentage of Hispanics in the civilian labor force was about 15 percent, making it seem that they are vastly underrepresented.
On this point, however, Pon was not far off.
The civilian labor force includes noncitizens. But citizenship is required for most federal jobs. Hispanic citizens are only about 10 percent of the civilian labor force, meaning their representation in the federal workforce is low, but not as low as it initially appears.
Nonetheless, the lack of energy for diversity exhibited by the Trump administration worries proponents.
“It is troubling that there appears to be a de-emphasis on diversity and inclusion under the Trump administration,” said Gilbert Sandate, chair of the Coalition for Fairness for Hispanics in Government, by email. “As the agency responsible for spearheading the federal government’s D&I policies and programs, it shows an absence of strong leadership and investment in this important area. We urge Director Pon to reevaluate OPM’s strategic direction regarding diversity and inclusion, or lack thereof, and amend this important policy document to ensure that D&I remains a strong component in the federal government’s toolbox.”