Advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility for the federal workforce has been a significant priority for the Biden administration for well over a year.
Following the administration’s 2021 executive order on DEIA, the Office of Personnel Management created, and now leads, a Chief Diversity Officers’ Executive Council (CDOEC).
After months of planning, and two council meetings so far, federal diversity leaders are trying to hammer out some more long-term changes, as well as build out agency pilot programs, to help advance the administration’s DEIA priorities for the federal workforce.
For one, the CDOEC during its second meeting convened for the first time four new working groups centered on advancing DEIA initiatives, although the working groups are still “in infancy,” according governmentwide Chief Diversity Officer Janice Underwood. Underwood is the first to hold the newly created governmentwide position, housed in OPM’s DEIA office.
The launch of the working groups came after the council’s first meeting, which set up diversity leaders’ roles, responsibilities and expectations, as well as discussed various proposed working groups. The CDOEC is led by OPM Director Kiran Ahuja, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Burrows, Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Jason Miller, along with Underwood.
“[The council is] thinking about this beyond just a complaint process, or numbers of complaints, or recruitment numbers — that’s not what this is about,” Underwood said in an interview with Federal News Network. “This is about making sure that we foster community engagement [and] a sense of belonging, making sure that people have access to, say, accommodations that they need, to ensure that they can do their job with efficiency.”
Beyond the work of the council itself, agencies should also start ramping up the work contained in their DEIA strategic plans, Underwood said. These plans are focused on internal goals and metrics to improve, for example, accessibility in federal services. The strategic plans, many of which have been made public, include current agency assessments of DEIA, as well as maturity models to plan for improvements.
“[The plans] really helped agencies use a template to say, ‘this is how you start the process. This is where you begin. And this is how you track your progress,’” Underwood said.
In one example, the Agriculture Department has set up an internal DEIA executive council, and its DEIA strategic plan in part focuses on extending employee onboarding to try to lead to better retention rates.
Federal diversity leaders are also assessing data from the results of the 2022 Federal Employees Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), which included a new index measuring how employees feel about the federal government’s work to advance diversity.
In the index, 69% of respondents reported positive perceptions of their agency’s DEIA-related practices. Broken down into each of the four categories of DEIA, inclusion was the highest-performing section, at 75% positive responses, while equity had the lowest positive perception, at 65%.
The FEVS results show how the workforce currently sees DEIA at agencies, but Underwood said the broader plan is to use the results of the survey over multiple years to track progress and changes over time.
The index “represents a cohort of questions that are meant to really assess federal employees’ perceptions of the ‘D,’ the ‘E,’ the ‘I’ and the ‘A,’” Underwood said. “We are using that baseline to say, ‘OK, here’s our line in the sand. This is what the federal workforce is telling us. And now we need to grow from there. Now it’s time to show progress.’”
Additionally, OPM in December hosted the first-ever DEIA summit, which focused largely on accessibility, as well as employment of people with disabilities. The inaugural event — for which 2,800 federal employees registered — is something that OPM plans to continue hosting on an annual basis.
During the 2022 summit, diversity leaders highlighted efforts to improve accessibility, including, for instance, efforts to open more doors to federal jobs for formerly incarcerated individuals.
Additionally, creating an American Sign Language (ASL) function at a few agencies, such as the General Services Administration and the EEOC, was one takeaway that Underwood said she hopes will now expand to other agencies as well.
Agencies such as GSA can use its lessons learned from developing its ASL program, which included the availability of an ASL interpreter and closed captions, to help other agencies who might be interested in developing a similar program. It’s important to share any mistakes made, as well as costs and benefits, Underwood said.
“We’re asking those agencies — and there’s a handful that already have that functionality — to now help these other agencies that perhaps don’t have that, [and] are seeking or are interested in it. Let’s partner together and almost create a mentor-mentee relationship,” Underwood said.
Other offices within OPM are also keenly focused on different ways to make progress on the DEIA executive order. For instance, OPM Chief of Staff Khalilah Harris has said that highlighting remote opportunities to join the federal workforce may help federal hiring managers reach more job candidates in underserved communities.
There are working groups in individual areas of the federal government as well, including one in the inspector general community. Leaders of that IG working group are looking at ways, for example, to enhance awareness, knowledge and understanding of DEIA principles by hosting activities and other types of training.
Ultimately, Underwood said that DEIA should be “baked into” agency operations, so that it’s less likely to lose focus or progress as time goes on. Most concretely, what that means is having a budget set aside for DEIA initiatives.
“It’s really baked into the budgeting and the work of the institution or the organization,” Underwood said. “We [need to] look at this beyond an HR function, a recruitment function or an EEO function, and really look at this work from a whole-of-agency or whole-of-institution perspective.”