The Rainmaker: Veterans Affairs’ Georgia Coffey

The idea of a rainmaker, someone called in to dance, sing or otherwise do whatever is necessary to bring about significant results, is a valid description of Georgia Coffey for two reasons.
One, as deputy assistant secretary for diversity and inclusion at the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, she has been responsible for some groundbreaking plans that could potentially affect other government agencies’ diversity management strategies.

Two, she has that special gift — of gab, the ability to influence — that removes the whimsy in the idea of influencing the weather, and makes it not only likely to rain, but rain hard.
Coffey has been in her role at the VA since September 2008. Prior to joining the VA, she was director of EEO diversity for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Before that, she did human resources and administrative work in the private sector.

Coffey also worked for nine years as the EEO and diversity officer for Montgomery County, Md., her introduction to diversity work. It was there that a supervisor noticed her affinity and sensitivity toward civil rights issues and moved her onto the EEO diversity team.

“That was one of the first opportunities I had to get into the EEO diversity area,” Coffey said. “I also had federal experience prior to the county. I was in program management at Department of Education for a brief period. Again, through the insights of a supervisor, they assigned me to work in the historically black colleges and universities program office. Sometimes your career finds you, you don’t necessarily find it.”

A Role Transformed
Since the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law has required companies to provide equal employment opportunity to all individuals irrespective of race, color, gender and other protected categories. But Coffey said during the last 15 years there has been a transformation. People began to talk about the business case for diversity. When Roosevelt Thomas wrote “Beyond Race and Gender” in 1992, Coffey said her interest in the field grew even more.

“All the government reform that you know we need, that you see in the front pages of newspapers calling out one federal agency or another for some lapse or error they made, there is a tie into inclusion,” she said. “It’s about how we empower the diverse talents and perspectives we have in our midst. We’re not empowering them; we’re still force-fitting them into the same old homogeneous mindset. That’s the key to organizational and government reform. Turn that key so everybody feels safe and empowered to contribute their talents and perspectives; a lot of these problems we’re seeing in government will go away or improve.”

That business connection is particularly relevant in the public sector because of the strength of government culture. Coffey said the culture in government is so powerful one almost dare not cross the line. It’s far more common to stay within lines, within cultural expectations, and adhere to the way business has been done — even if it’s been done the same way for the past 40 years.

“Every government agency has self-reinforcing mechanisms that perpetuate the status quo,” she said. “There’s not a great deal of incentive to change. To me that’s an inclusion challenge. We’ve got to start breaking down the silos, walls and the structures so we can think, act and work differently in government.”

Rafael Torres, principal deputy assistant secretary at the VA, said Coffey came into the department determined not to maintain the status quo. “She was able to convince the department to expand its understanding of what affirmative employment programs should be,” he said. “She spearheaded the new diversity and inclusion strategic plan.”

He said the VA’s diversity and inclusion strategic plan has since been acknowledged to be representative of best practice within government, with the Office of Personnel Management, or OPM, modeling its own plans and government-wide plans after Coffey’s initiatives.

All of this activity is in support of President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13583, which calls for federal agencies to establish coordinated government-wide diversity and inclusion programs in the federal workforce. “She’s been very influential with other agency leaders at her level and above,” Torres said. “Very savvy in bringing people together, identifying their common interests and making sure they were on board in executing these strategies.”

For instance, he said Coffey was a catalyst for policy changes related to the VA’s LGBT community. She was also able to get funding for a program to increase employment for people with disabilities, and then built a reasonable accommodations program that was centrally funded to facilitate those efforts. “She’s very good at speaking to people and making the business case for the policies that she wants to put in place, talking about how the agency can work more efficiently,” Torres said.

Of course, even the best rainmaker can’t always produce what’s needed from talking alone. Before one can empower diversity and create different outcomes, people have to feel safe to make mistakes. EEO doctrine guarantees that employees can feel confident they can work and not be held hostage, retaliated against or suffer some adverse impact because they dared to express a view that is different from the dominant view.

Continuous learning is also important, and Coffey said she wonders if dollars are being spent on the right kind of education. “Leadership is not reserved for the top levels of government. It should be at every single job level.”

Other federal agencies, including OPM, are looking to the VA’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, or ODI, to help define the diversity and inclusion role for the government.
Coffey knows it’s all a slowly evolving process. For instance, this year she was officially given the chief diversity officer title. It’s another piece in ODI’s development since she joined the VA.

First, she renamed the Office of Diversity Management and EEO to its current Office of Diversity and Inclusion. She said this better reflected the cultural changes she wanted to enact within the VA, including creation of the diversity and inclusion strategic plan. Developed in fiscal year 2009, the plan served as one of the leading models for today’s government-wide diversity and inclusion strategic plan — a plan for which Coffey said OPM has generously acknowledged the VA’s contribution.

But perhaps the VA’s most special offering to diversity in government is its Diversity Index. Coffey said even the best plan isn’t worth the paper it’s written on without metrics, some demonstration that initiatives are getting done and outcomes are being achieved.

“There needed to be a valid, user-friendly, efficient metric to measure the three overarching goals in the government-wide plan as well as a diverse workforce, an inclusive workplace and sustainability,” she said. “We set out first to develop a metric that could be commonly used across all federal agencies that in one single score would show the relative diversity of that workforce.”

ODI came up with an algorithm to gauge workforce diversity from 14 groups — seven race and ethnicity groups divided into male and female — that compares diversity within the organization with the demographic composition of the civilian labor force. For example, if the VA workforce is 24 percent African-American, and there is 25 or 26 percent of that group in the civilian labor force — which includes all private and public sector jobs throughout the United States — it’s doing pretty well. If the civilian number is 30 percent, the VA is a little underrepresented.

“We’ve tested it over a year and a half now, and it has turned out to be one of the most efficient attention-grabbing and informative metrics we’ve ever seen,” Coffey said.

Making It Rain
Coffey came up with the idea for the Diversity Index in late 2010, a self-described light bulb moment after she came home from a diversity and inclusion conference in New York. “But coming up with the algorithm was my staff, and David Williams, director of the workforce analysis division, and Thomas Middleton, senior analyst on that team. Literally in a line graph, we’ve gone back 10 years, and I can show you how VA’s workforce diversity has gone up or down,” she said.

“My team likes to say it spiked up in 2008 because that’s when we all came together. The truth of the matter is it probably has more to do with the new administration than us, but we’ll take credit if we have to.”

She said eventually the entire government will use the index, but it has not been deployed yet. However, in addition to causing something of a stir within government — Coffey said her department can hardly keep up with briefings requests about the index — it has helped ODI show the impact of its recruitment outreach, training, retention and mentoring programs.

“That’s what we think all federal agencies could do,” she said. “The more diversity we have in our workforce, coupled with an inclusive work environment that leverages that diversity, only then can we deliver the best services to our clients, the nation’s veterans. It’s as simple as that.”

The VA also partnered with OPM to produce a complement to the Diversity Index, the Inclusion Index. Initially the Inclusion Index was based on employee responses to the VA’s annual organizational climate survey. But to ensure it would be usable by any federal agency, and create a common benchmark across government, it had to use the one survey administered government-wide, the federal employee viewpoint survey administered by OPM.

On a scale of 1 to 100, the Inclusion Index identifies how employees respond to 20 items in that survey that were empirically validated to speak to organizational inclusion. OPM calls it the Inclusion Quotient, the new IQ. Coffey said it, too, will be deployed government-wide, but has not been deployed yet.

Rainmaking for change at the VA also requires that Coffey fulfill ODI’s mission — to build a diverse workforce and cultivate an inclusive workplace to provide the best services for the nation’s veterans — for which she said she relies on three things.

One is training and education. The VA offers EEO diversity and inclusion, multigenerational and cultural competency training as well as mandatory EEO, diversity and inclusion and conflict management training for all 30,000 of its managers, from executives through first-line supervisors. The organization’s roughly 320,000 employees take workplace harassment training.

Community outreach is also important. The VA’s outreach and retention division goes into the field nationwide holding programs at national conferences, affinity groups, colleges and universities to promote the VA as not only an employer of choice — attracting diverse talent to the organization — but also its work for the nation’s veterans.

Finally, there is the workforce analysis team, which Coffey said conducts advanced-level workforce analysis to find out exactly where barriers may exist with regard to diversity and equal opportunity in the VA’s various occupations, ranks and field facilities.

The Initial Spark
Coffey said she has often wondered what her former supervisors saw in her that led to those early diversity appointments and her career-long passion. She suspects it has something to do with her background. She grew up in a diverse area in northwest Washington, D.C., a child of Greek immigrants, whose experiences, positive and negative, provided her with initial information about diversity.

She is also a child of the 1960s, growing up in the midst of the civil rights era. She cites as an early influence her mother, who worked her way up from a switchboard operator at the Hilton Hotel to become employment manager without having a college education. “She would go out of her way to hire disadvantaged youth from the inner city and give them chances that no one else would give them. I found that very moving. That stayed with me through college and graduate school where I majored in educational administration.

“All I can think of is my supervisors, both in education and the county, saw the way I interacted with people,” she said. “At the end of the day, whoever you are as a person, you can’t help but let that out. People will see you when you don’t think they’re watching. They see how you conduct yourself, who you talk to, how you relate to people. I think they were right. It was a passion I didn’t even know I had until I got into the field.”

All the passion and rainmaking in the world can’t rush government, however. But policies are on the table, and that’s because Coffey has taken direct action within her span of authority, Torres said. “It’s very easy in this arena to stand back and let things happen,” he said. “She was proactive in stepping forward, making a case for change, and having the perseverance to stay with whatever the issue is until it came to its logical conclusion. That’s been her strong suit.”