Meet the legislative branch diversity officer who’s the latest NAPA fellow

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Among this year’s class of new fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration, are a few people from the legislative branch. Among them, Zina Merritt, the chief diversity management officer at the Government Accountability Office. She talked with the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:
Tom Temin: Ms. Merritt, good to have you with us.

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Among this year’s class of new fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration, are a few people from the legislative branch. Among them, Zina Merritt, the chief diversity management officer at the Government Accountability Office. She talked with the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Merritt, good to have you with us.

Zina Merritt: Thank you so much, Tom, for hosting me.

Tom Temin: At GAO, are you someone that looks at diversity and inclusion efforts across the agencies from an auditing standpoint? Or are you concerned with what’s going on in GAO itself?

Zina Merritt: It’s actually a mix of both. My official role as the chief diversity and management officer at GAO is one to provide advisement to our own senior leadership, as well as our management team unit heads, and our employee groups. And in addition to that, GAO has probably about 50 audits going on right now looking at some aspects of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. And I serve as a key stakeholder and advisor on those engagements as well.

Tom Temin: Got it. And just a quick question on the accessibility question that has been added to the whole term there. The DEA, accessibility has always been for the handicapped or for people with disabilities, has always long been a feature and requirement of federal agencies in the way they set up technology and offices to accommodate the public and their own employees, I think 507 and 508 if I’m correct. So how did that get added to the diversity question, which is a little bit of a different issue?

Zina Merritt: Well, I’d have to break it down this way, and go from a definitional perspective. I mean, diversity, of course, is what each individual brings to the organization. It can be their cultural background, different talents, the inclusion piece is ensuring that they have some sense of belonging, once they become an employee of the organization, there’s the equity piece to make sure that they have a fair shot at excelling in the organization. And then we added the accessibility piece. The accessibility piece, the way that we look at it is making sure not just people with disabilities, but all employees have access to the tools and services that they need to accomplish their jobs. I think most people do think of it from the ADA, or from a federal aid perspective and only centered around people with disabilities. And they might think of programs like reasonable accommodations and others that focus on that. But I think with the current administration, the focus is much greater. We’re trying to make sure that our organizations have the apparatus needed to be able to more effectively recruit individuals with disabilities. And GAO is no different from that. We see some attrition in this area. So it’s also a problem that we’re trying to solve and to be better positioned, not to just be reactive, fpr every employee that has a disability. But to be more proactive to make sure we have policies and procedures to address any needs.

Tom Temin: And how do you think the government is doing in general on all of these counts?

Zina Merritt: Well, I think, I am a part of a chief diversity officer council. And it’s something that all of us are adding additional focus on. I can’t really give a scorecard as to how anyone’s doing or the government why, but we all are in this together, looking at ways to improve the current state of things. We’re learning from academia, private sector practices, and others on this particular journey.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Zina Merritt. She’s the chief diversity management officer at the Government Accountability Office, and a newly named fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. And just give us a little sense of the career that led you to where you are now.

Zina Merritt: Sure, I’ll be happy to talk about my GAO journey. Well, my public service career began over three decades ago. And I’ve served all of that time at the U.S. Government Accountability Office known as GAO, with the exception of one year. So I would say personally, to me, that’s kind of a testament that GAO has been a great place and the perfect place for me to do my tenure. I started as an analyst examining federally administer programs. I spent about 20 years of that career, examining international programs. And after that, I spent about six years examining DoD programs, particularly inventory management, and I used to use my leadership, I used to say, hey, guys, you are really given me some tough issues like somebody put a sign on my back and said, give Zina some of the tough issues to examine. But the great thing about GAO, I came to GAO with a bachelor’s in business administration, and a master’s in information system. But the way that GAO operates, they really cultivated my talent. They provided some great training, they provided some great leadership skills. And that’s how I rose to the level of senior executive. And it was through checking in and staying on top of agencies to implement recommendations, working with agencies like DoD to get inventory management off the High Risk List, which have been on there for over 20 years by working collaboratively with them. That has been one of my strong suits throughout my career.

Tom Temin: Now you are a fellow at NAPA. And do you have some sense of the types of issues? Well, I guess we can guess, that you’ll be working on. And that’s kind of interesting, because it’s often Congress that calls on NAPA, just as it calls on GAO to look at things that it’s interested in learning more about.

Zina Merritt: First, I want to say to be elected was a pretty humbling and also a proud moment for me. I always love to interact and engage with individuals from academia, the private sector and other federal agencies on issues. But NAPA presents a very unique opportunity for me to engage with some of the top thought leaders across the country from different sectors. And yes, NAPA has identified 12 grand challenges for public administration to focus on. And I am very much interested in one of them particularly, and that is the one centered around social equity. Because both in the work that I’ve been doing at GAO and have observed inequities remain just issue that has to have more teaching focus, especially I think, the pandemic era really shed light on some pertinent issues that both NAPA and the GAO can continue to focus on. And through NAPA, I hope to engage with some like-minded individuals to help to address some of these issues of inequities in arenas such as criminal justice, health care, education and other areas. Also, just one last point on this, there’s been a number of surveys that have been put out about the decline in public trust, and the perceptions of the American people believing that the federal government isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do to serve them, at least some of the time. So I think the academy is a great place to work with others to try to focus in help to enhance that level of trust in government again.

Tom Temin: And let me ask you this after 30 years in government and seeing what it’s capable of in terms of diversity, inclusion, equity, and where it falls short. Would you recommend public service to say a daughter, son, cousin, friend?

Zina Merritt: Indeed, actually my son may follow my footsteps. He actually had an internship, one of the federal agencies this summer, he said he absolutely loved the experience. And so we’ll see. But yes, I use every opportunity through recruitment fairs and other venues, venues like this, to really talk about my career, my journey, and encourage others to at least consider us. I know there’s a lot of competition out there. But we definitely see ourselves as a premier public service institution.

Tom Temin: Zina Merritt is the chief diversity management officer at the Government Accountability Office, and a newly named fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Zina Merritt: Thank you so much for hosting me again, Tom.

 

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