Intelligence community workforce is more diverse, but still struggles with retention and promotion

The intelligence community is trying to shed a long-held persona that it’s unwelcoming to employees from diverse backgrounds, but like much of government, it’s still struggling to retain and promote women and minorities.

The top leaders at five agencies within the intelligence community on Wednesday detailed their plans to improve diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility within their workforces.

Slowly, the intelligence community workforce has become slightly more diverse in recent years, officials said.

Minorities made up 27% of the intelligence community workforce in 2020, a half-percentage more than 2019. Women made up 39.3% of the IC workforce, Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, told members of the House Intelligence Committee Wednesday.

Like many federal agencies, data shows minorities and women often struggle to reach the upper-level ranks of the intelligence community. Minorities, for example, made up 15.4% of the Senior Executive Service within the IC. Hispanics make up just 3% of the SES within the intelligence community.

Within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, minorities made up 20.5% of the overall workforce, and 16.7% of the agency’s senior executive leadership corps.

In many ways, the intelligence community does a better job recruiting and hiring talent from diverse backgrounds than it does in retaining and promoting them, Haines said.

“We’ve learned through pulse surveys, exit interviews and retention inquiries something about why people stay and leave,” she said. “We’ve found that the most common reason people leave the organization is a lack of promotion opportunities. Other causes of low retention include lack of fairness and equity in the workplace, insufficient mentoring and guidance and a lack of identification with the greater organization.”

Haines said the IC agencies are seeking out more data on where their employees get stuck trying to move up the ranks. Specifically, they’re looking for barriers that might be embedded inside the promotion board process.

“It’s an ongoing process,” she said. “We need more data. We need to better understand what is in fact happening, but we’re also trying to communicate with the workforce as much as possible in order to address issues that we are finding.”

CIA officers now have diversity, equity and inclusion metrics as part of their performance plans, the agency’s director, William Burns, said.

All of the agencies said they’ve expanded their partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions and other affinity groups to help them expand their recruiting pool.

The National Security Agency said it has recruited a more diverse group of employees with each passing year. But it’s actively expanding its talent pool.

“We have had a tendency to only recruit from a certain part of the United States and emphasis on a certain part of the United States,” Gen. Paul Nakasone, NSA director, said. “While we have been very focused on the East Coast we have to be much broader.”

The CIA said it’s “urgently” focused on reducing the time it takes onboard new candidates. Currently, it takes candidates more than 600 days from the time they complete their application to the time they receive a security clearance to work at the CIA, Burns said.

The goal is to whittle that time down to 180 days over the course of the next two years.

“Longer waiting times have historically disadvantaged minority applicants, many of whom don’t have the means to remain in lengthy pipelines, Burns said.

The agency also launched a new directorate analysis program, which will give annual tuition assistance of up to $37,000 to minority students who apply, Burns said.

“There’s a lot more we can do but we need your help with changing policies that hinder program execution,” Haines said. “For instance in a community that priorities resources by mission we found that policies that govern how we can allocate our recruiting dollars can actually hinder recruiting. For example, when one of our IC mission partners lacks the resources to send a recruiter to an event with an outreach partner, ODNI is prohibited from using its resources to include them. This is an area where we could use help from Congress.”

ODNI has also created two separate offices for its equal employment opportunity division and diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility functions. The directors of those offices will both report to Haines.

“I wanted to have an absolute focus, frankly, on diversity, equity and inclusion, somebody who is 24/7 so to speak focused on that issue,” Haines said. “That’s the number one reason. Number two, I find that both the equal employment opportunity office director and the person focused on diversity will report directly to me. Neither one of them are, in a sense, getting down further in the org chart. But both of them have to work through partnerships with different parts of the IC for different purposes.”

The IC also created an enterprise-wide chief accessibility officer for the entire intelligence community, Haines added.

Not all committee members wanted to talk about diversity and inclusion initiatives at the IC. Members peppered the panel with questions about the recent operations in Afghanistan, vaccines, the border, intelligence on the origins of COVID-19 and a recent inspector general report on Michael Ellis, who the previous administration appointed to the NSA and its general counsel.

“Mr. Chairman, we are simply going to have to retitle what we call our hearings,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said. “Next time we do this, we need to title it diversity and oh my God, anything but diversity.”

In his opening statement, committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) dismissed the topic of Wednesday’s hearing altogether. He said the IC was distracted by “better pronoun usage” and “woke obsessions” and urged IC leadership to focus “exclusively on deterring our enemies and winning wars.”

The IC leaders, however, repeatedly made the case for workforce diversity and inclusion as a mission imperative.

“A diverse workforce provides us with an asymmetric advantage that other nations simply do not have,” Ronald Moultrie, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, said. “We must find the means to appeal to this population, hire them into our most challenging fields and set conditions where they enthusiastically want to remain in our government.”

Haines acknowledged the IC has long been known as a place that didn’t welcome diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. She said many agencies had open and stated policies that barred members of the LGBTQ+ community from serving at the IC.

Those policies are long gone, Haines said. But the IC still has a ways to go to improve.

“Ensuring that we have an IC workforce made up of people who think differently, see problems differently and overcome challenges differently is a prerequisite to our success,” she said. “Their creativity makes us smarter, more innovative and more successful, and that makes our nation safer and more secure against the array of adversaries and the foreign threats that we face.”

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