Details Need to Be Ironed Out in Government Diversity Initiative

“Diversity as a Transformational Strategy,” the name of the panel I moderated Monday, sounds like a worthy topic. Correction, it is a worthy topic. But I was a bit surprised that we didn’t actually get to the transformational bit during out discussion.

Our Strategies D.C. event was an intersection between the public and the private sectors, but despite President Obama’s Executive Order 13583, to establish a coordinated government-wide initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce, I don’t get the impression things have come together quite yet.

Granted, I am making an assumption based on one panel that lasted an hour, and the order is still only a year old. Certainly, everyone’s working. The desire is there, but it doesn’t seem like people are sure how they should be working or what exactly they should be working on, and in what order.

I heard many different ideas, all of which have merit — these are things many organizations in the corporate sector have already adopted — and there was a sharp interest in metrics and how to prove the value of the diversity executive’s work. But there was also a sharp focus on representation, time spent to identify and accept the right language — definitions for diversity and diversity management, for example — and confusion over how to deal with the government’s increasingly large contractor population. Infrastructure needs, budgetary restraints and how to create partnerships and answer the all-important “What’s in it for me?” question from key stakeholders also throw wrenches into the works. These challenges are not unfamiliar to the private sector either.

John Robinson, chief diversity officer at the U.S. Department of State, spoke eloquently about how critical it is to identify what success looks like and who is supposed to play what role in bringing that state about, and Bruce Stewart, deputy director, office of diversity and inclusion for the Office of Personnel Management, had some interesting things to say around key performance indicators and other ways his branch of government had found to measure and contribute to that organization’s business. But a continued focus on demographics despite a stated desire to move beyond compliance and embrace more strategic concerns was conspicuously absent.

I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of work to be done. Once the knowledge sharing begins in earnest and everyone figures out the basics, I’d like to revisit the idea of transformational diversity in a year to see how far the needle has been moved. Of course, figuring out the basics — how to promote acceptance of behavioral diversity, for instance — has been going on for decades now …