US agencies tasked with annual diversity reporting in new Biden order

By on 01/07/2021
Diversity champion: US president Joe Biden’s new civil service diversity order comes in the same month as he signed into law a Bill introducing a federal holiday commemorating the outlawing of slavery in the US. Picture by White House

President Biden has signed a new executive order aimed at removing the multiple workplace barriers faced by US federal employees from disadvantaged communities, with the aspiration of turning government administration into a “model” for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility [DEIA].

The order calls on federal departments and agencies ­– collectively the largest employer in the US – to put in place new initiatives around DEIA and to report on their progress annually. Biden says his goal is to “cultivate a workforce that draws from the full diversity of the Nation”.

The order aims to level the playing field for people from disadvantaged groups, including those facing barriers to full participation in the federal workforce due to their race or ethnicity, LGBTQ+ status, disability, health or pregnancy-related conditions, or religion.

Fair access and personnel management policies must also consider additional “underserved communities”, a category that includes graduates who are the first generation in their family to attend college, people with caring responsibilities, military veterans and their spouses, former prisoners, rural dwellers, those affected by poverty and English learners.

“Individuals may belong to more than one underserved community and face intersecting barriers,” the order explains.

A broader view of discrimination

In a further move away from the Trump-era executive order that banned some forms of diversity training – rescinded under Biden in January this year – the new order calls on agencies to increase training programmes that build their understanding of “systemic and institutional racism and bias against underserved communities”.

Other areas to be targeted include phasing out unpaid internships in favour of paid opportunities, and improving outreach to educational institutions operating far beyond the top ‘Ivy League’ universities.

The executive order, signed on 25 June, mandates the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to produce a government-wide plan to raise standards in DEIA within 150 days, and to then review it at least every four years.

The plan should set expectations around regular progress reporting from each federal agency, with the first report due four months after the OPM plan is produced, and annually thereafter.

The OPM’s long term plan will also be informed by “data-driven” assessments of the current state of play at each federal agency, produced within 100 days of the order being signed.

The OPM will provide agencies with best practice guidance and technical assistance. One area of focus, for instance, will be improving the collection of demographic data about federal employees, and using it to track progress “in a manner consistent with privacy and confidentiality protections”.

Areas where discrimination and disadvantage can arise – and should be addressed by measures in the plan – include background investigations, performance evaluations, mentoring programmes, internships, health benefits and disciplinary actions. Federal bodies are charged with showing how they’re addressing harassment, setting out mechanisms to report it and policies to outlaw it, and creating a climate that encourages “bystander intervention”.

The OPM will also conduct a separate review on racial, gender and other pay gaps in the federal workforce, writing a report with recommendations for the president.

Reaching out to recruit

To improve diversity in the talent pipeline, the OPM and the Office of Budget and Management will co-ordinate a government-wide “Partnerships initiative” to strengthen relations with education and training institutions operating outside the white middle class mainstream.

These will include historically black colleges and universities, institutions with a largely Hispanic population, colleges and universities for Native Americans and tribal groups, and organisations for veterans, former-prisoners, and the economically disadvantaged.

Providing information technology and personal assistance services that meets the needs of people with disabilities will also be a priority.

Agencies will also be expected to review current practice in hiring under “Schedule A” rules, which allow appointments outside the normal competitive process in order to enhance equity.

Individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ should have access to support services, and equitable access to healthcare and health insurance.

The order defines “accessibility” as “the design, construction, development and maintenance of facilities, information and communication technology, programs and services, so that all people, including people with disabilities, can fully and independently use them.”

It also includes the reduction of “physical and attitudinal barriers”, access to every “internal and electronic space”, and the pursuit of best practice such as “universal design”, a set of principles for inclusive buildings, furniture, signage and lighting.

About Elaine Knutt

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