Agencies adding more resources — and people — to power DEIA initiatives

As efforts to assess the state of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility within their organizations continue, some agencies are adding more people and resources to their DEIA initiatives, efforts they say are designed to help implement a recent executive order — and embed those principles within government for the long-term.

The order, which the president signed back in June, tasked agencies with a lengthy to-do list, one that covers key moments in the federal employee experience.

That’s by design, said Peter Bonner, the Office of Personnel Management’s associate director of HR Solutions.

“The Biden administration priorities around diversity and equity set the stage for agencies to improve all facets of employee experience, from hiring and onboarding through performing on the job, into promotions, career growth and retirement,” he said last week at a DEIA webinar produced by GovExec and the agency. “It’s really bubbling up from employees, the way we see it.”

Agencies have been assessing their current state of diversity, inclusion, equity and accessibility, a key requirement of the president’s June executive order.

Now they’re adding more staff and resources to the DEIA initiatives as well, Bonner said.

Javier Inclan left the National Science Foundation last year but returned in March to reorganize and help lead the agency’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights. The office has 12 employees now, and Inclan said he hopes to double the size of the organization within the year or so.

Some past diversity and inclusion efforts in government may have been “check the box” compliance exercises, Inclan acknowledged. But the goal of his office, he said, is to formalize and memorialize DEIA changes and embed them within the culture of the agency.

“This time’s different,” Inclan said. “All of the stars are aligning. There’s the right people, the right leadership and the right excitement in place in order to move things forward.”

The diversity and inclusion executive order calls on agencies to establish chief diversity officers within their organizations, a process Inclan likened to standing up the chief financial officer or chief human capital officer position.

These chief diversity officers can advocate for DEIA principles up and down the employee experience, from hiring and onboarding to professional development for managers and emerging leaders.

“We’re seeing that all over, in the development of the DEIA expertise at the agency level,” Bonner said. “That then trickles into the sub-agency level. From there, it’s the adoption of that by the human resources specialists, by the hiring manager, by the peer that sits down the hall from you [or] sits in the Zoom box with you, who then reinforces those. That’s where the resources come from.”

Bonner said agencies are looking for new tools and resources from OPM to help them implement the executive order at all levels of their organizations. They’re looking for DEIA advice on workplace planning, change management, professional development and onboarding, he added.

The new EO requires agencies to identify barriers to recruiting, hiring, retaining and promoting individuals from underserved populations, as well as any obstacles they might face with professional development, pay and compensation, or training and reasonable accommodations.

“Through the new executive orders on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility we’re actually creating a sense of legacy, because we want this to be the very fabric of who were are as a federal government,” said Marthaellen Florence, the acting director of training and development for the Presidential Management Fellows program and faculty leader for DEIA at OPM’s Federal Executive Institute.

For Florence, that means embedding DEIA principles into the training and leadership development curriculums for the PMF program and others, so participants can espouse diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility within their individual agencies.

“My hope is… that they will be able to take these tools that we provide them, and it’s going to be their job to also infuse those in the agencies that they work in,” she said of the PMF participants.

OPM is also helping agencies understand their own DEIA workforce data, a process that some have found to be a challenge. Some agencies ask their employees or job applicants to self identity certain demographic details about themselves, but the government as a whole doesn’t have a systematic way to collect that data accurately.

Inclan has noticed that challenge as well.

“The data is what the concern is as well, or lack of data, I should say.  The demographic data is voluntarily provided or voluntarily requested from applicants and others, it’s a concern. There’s a general mistrust of government with some folks,” he said. “With regard to collecting that data, we need to be very transparent and build that trust with our stakeholders and say, ‘Hey, we need to collect this information not for anything nefarious, but because we want to know where we are.'”

Bonner said OPM’s Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility participates in weekly DEIA “office hours,” which the Office of Management and Budget hosts. Those sessions allow DEIA practitioners to share best practices, ideas and other challenges they’ve encountered when working through the new executive order.

Those sessions have inspired agencies and the federal community to form informal groups to discuss DEIA. Inclan has participated in a sort of informal chief diversity officers council, which he said the Partnership for Public Service has organized.

“People have to believe in the effort,” Inclan said. “They need to want to do it, and they need the people to do it. We need HR specialists to hire people. We need budget folks to bring in the money. We certainly need people in the DEIA arena, whether formally or informally, to focus on these efforts. Once that happens, I think it spreads like wildfire and it becomes ingrained in our culture.”

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