New Senate bill requires agencies to brush up diversity and inclusion plans

A New Jersey senator is urging federal agencies to focus more intently on improving the diversity of their workforces.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced the Federal Jobs Act on Thursday, which charges agencies with identifying and removing barriers for employment and improving hiring, promotion and training opportunities for federal employees of diverse backgrounds.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are co-sponsors.

The bill builds off an executive order from President Barack Obama, who in 2011 called for four-year governmentwide and agency plans on diversity and inclusion through an executive order.

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Like that order, the bill requires the Office of Personnel Management, Office of Management and Budget and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as the members of the President’s Management Council, to craft a new strategic plan on diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce.

The plan should identify “comprehensive strategies for agencies to identify and remove barriers to
equal employment opportunity in employment practices,” the legislation reads. Plans should be updated at least once every four years.

OPM published a governmentwide diversity and inclusion plan back in 2016. No similar governmentwide diversity and inclusion plans have published since.

“Diversity and workplace inclusion is much more than a vision statement, especially when it comes to federal agencies,” Menendez said. “Our Federal Jobs Act strives to make a government by the people and for the people, look more like the people it represents. Increasing diversity in the workplace also creates a culture of inclusion that is reflected in the policies and programs advanced by the federal agencies, giving visibility and a voice to communities that are often left behind.”

In addition, Menendez’s bill mandates individual agencies to publicly submit their own diversity and inclusion plans, which should describe demographic data, as well as employee participation in professional development programs and agency outreach efforts.

Agency heads must work to “achieve a workforce from all segments of society” and “avoid discrimination for or against any employee or applicant on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy or gender identity), national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, veteran status, or any other prohibited basis,” the legislation reads.

Agencies should conduct exit interviews with departing federal workers, the legislation said, so that organizations can better understand whether employees from diverse backgrounds are leaving at different rates compared to their colleagues.

Beyond the reporting mandates on agencies, federal prime contractors would have to submit their spending estimates on economically and socially disadvantaged subcontractors.

Organizations within the legislative and judicial branches should, if possible, develop and submit their own diversity and inclusion plans, the bill said.

Many agencies already have and maintain such plans, but the federal government overall has struggled to improve the diversity within its top leadership corps.

According to OPM data, minority representation in the Senior Executive Service decreased slightly in fiscal 2017 from the previous year. Executives from diverse backgrounds made up 21.2% of the SES in 2016, compared to 20.7% in 2017.

The Senior Executive Service is overwhelmingly — roughly 79% — white.

In contrast, Black employees made up 10.4% of the Senior Executive Service in 2017, compared to nearly 19% of the general federal workforce.

Hispanics made up 4.6% of the SES and 8.9% of the entire federal workforce, according to an OPM report on the Federal Equal Opportunity Recruitment Program from 2019.

The Hispanic Council on Federal Employment has expressed its frustration with the incremental improvements in hiring in recent years, despite previous efforts to more dramatically expand opportunities in government.

The council used to meet a few times a year, but public meetings have stopped within the last year or so.