Thursday, February 29, 2024

Dedicated to diversity: How the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is ensuring an equitable and inclusive federal workforce

How the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is ensuring an equitable and inclusive federal workforce

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is responsible for the oversight of the entire federal workforce, representing more than 2.2 million employees. In 2021, the Biden-Harris administration introduced Executive Order 14035, a government-wide strategic plan to address diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in a meaningful way.

The order prioritized advancing “…opportunities for communities that have historically faced employment discrimination and professional barriers…”. Those communities include people of color, women, veterans, military spouses, older Americans facing age discrimination, people of various faiths requiring accommodations and people who were formerly incarcerated. The order also addressed workplace harassment, pay inequities and sexual harassment.

Through the implementation of EO 14035, the Biden-Harris administration aims to set a standard for state and city governments as well as businesses in the private sector.

Leading the charge

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja was instrumental in developing the strategic plan. Nominated by President Biden, she was confirmed as director in June 2021 in a 51/50 vote, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the deciding vote. She began working on OPM’s mission of diversifying the federal workforce and ensuring that agencies were inclusive and representative of America. Though there has been some opposition across the nation to DEIA efforts in various sectors, Ahuja says this work benefits everyone.

“All these practices around creating an inclusive work environment are just, frankly, a good business model,” Ahuja said. “We’re only going to be as good as the people who make up our organizations, and if we don’t have those diverse perspectives, we’re going to have blind spots on what our policies look like, also, what our services look like and what are the resources that go out the door.”

Ahuja’s personal and professional background adds a unique perspective to the role of director. Her mother and father emigrated to America from India, and they landed in Georgia at a time that was particularly divisive.

“Growing up in the south and seeing the level of segregation that I did, and just where the opportunities lied, and the kind of economic and social disparities, I was like, ‘This is not right in the world, and I need to do something about it,’” Ahuja said, a notion that set her on the path of public service.

With few Asian Americans around in her childhood, she came to see herself as a person of color first – joining various activities catering to minority youth, including the Black student union, the gospel choir at a local Black church and eventually transferring from Emory University to Spelman College, a historically Black college for women, where she completed her undergraduate degree.

“That [attending Spelman] was such a formative experience for me to be exposed to Black history, Black literature, culture, all of that. And I do think that’s important especially as immigrants when we come to this country,” Ahuja said. “Yes, we can carve out our own spaces, but it’s important that we understand and build relationships with all kinds of folks in this country.”

Dr. Janice Underwood joined the DEIA effort as chief diversity officer at OPM, the first ever chief diversity officer for the nation. Working daily to dismantle centuries-old systems that have negatively impacted the nation, Underwood said, “DEI and A are principles of democracy,” a way to achieve the liberty and justice for all set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

“Our DEIA work has to help everyone,” Underwood stated. “It supports the entire workforce.”

Dr. Janice Underwood is the nation’s first chief diversity officer. (Photos provided/ US Office of Personnel Management)

Underwood previously served in Virginia as the Chief Diversity Officer for the state. There, she aided in developing the ONE Virginia plan, a step-by-step guide to creating a more diverse and equitable workforce. The plan acknowledged the discriminatory policies in the country’s history, like the Naturalization Act of 1790 and the Black Codes in 1865. To course-correct, the plan aimed to “…operationalize inclusive excellence and respond with a DE&I approach that is proactive, relevant, and progressive,” as stated in the Virginia governor’s strategic plan on higher education for 2021-2025. The ideology from the ONE Virginia plan has carried over to Underwood’s work at OPM.

Underwood emphasizes that she does not do this work alone. She coordinates externally with chief diversity officers from each of the federal agencies and internally with her team of “DEIA Avengers,” which include Joseph Pinnell.

Having recently joined the team at OPM as the diversity program specialist, Pinnell focuses on “dignity and respect” as a foundation to start a dialog instead of a debate. As the former deputy chief and executive director of workforce engagement for the state of Indiana, Pinnell understands the fears that people have about DEIA efforts, but he wants to bring both sides together to get closer to the goal. Pinnell said, “Our approach is to change behaviors, not beliefs.”

Real data, real results

Committed to being a model for DEIA, OPM is looking for tangible results by using data to measure their efforts. The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) is disseminated nationwide annually to measure whether the DEIA strategies are working, taking into account how federal employees feel about their opportunities for advancement, whether their ideas were being heard and if they experienced biases in the workplace.

“The OPM FEVS is the largest annual survey of government employees in the world that tracks how federal employees view their current work environment, including workforce management, policies, and new initiatives,” according to a statement released by OPM.

“You can’t change what you don’t measure, and you won’t measure that which you don’t acknowledge,” Underwood said. From 2022-2023 Ahuja and Underwood noted a two percent increase in employee satisfaction with DEIA; this represents thousands of employees. Survey results and other key data collected have also provided OPM with specific areas to address, including increasing diversity when hiring.

“We need to make sure the applicant pool is diverse,” Ahuja said. This means improving awareness of the positions available as well as recruiting directly from Minority Serving Institutions (MSI’s), which include Tribal colleges, Hispanic serving institutions and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU’s). First up is a partnership with Underwood’s alma mater, Hampton University, called Level Up, a pilot program that informs students in high school and college about federal careers and internships.

Joseph Pinnell is the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s diversity program specialist.

“Hampton is focused on tapping into the government’s recruitment and paid internship opportunities for students on campus and in the community,” said First Lady and Hampton alumna Myra Williams via the school’s website. The partnership will help students with creating a resume that is searchable as well as finding federal jobs and internship opportunities for students and recent graduates.

By offering more paid internships, OPM seeks to eliminate the barriers of the past that prohibited students and young adults from pursuing internships because they could not afford to work without pay, a privilege that historically only well-resourced people could take advantage of. Internships offered now encompass agencies across the country and, following the pandemic, more remote positions are available, says Ahuja. Some internships even offer salaries for students currently enrolled in school, meaning students can attend classes, work remotely and still be paid, gaining valuable work experience while pursuing their degree. Underwood shared plans to extend the Level Up pilot at Hampton to other MSI’s and K12 institutions.  

Additionally, OPM is prioritizing accessibility. “In the Biden administration, we elevated the ‘A’ in DEI,” Underwood said. Their office has explored and implemented strategies to recruit, accommodate and retain people with disabilities – focusing on what is needed not only to be hired, but also to maintain employment. Schedule A is a special, non-competitive pathway into the federal government for people with disabilities, a listing from which agencies can hire directly.

“We’ve been just doing a lot more work with our federal partners to remind them of our commitment to individuals with disabilities and hiring,” said Ahuja. “I think we have those who are very committed and champions in the federal agency.”

Eyes on the prize

Underwood hopes that working in public service will be thought of as a “prize” again someday soon. She envisions the kindergarten student in class dreaming of becoming a public servant when they grow up. A quick search through usajobs.gov will yield open positions and internships in a variety of fields like engineering, human resources, cybersecurity and even fishery – managing and conserving fish and wildlife.

“There’s a federal version of every dream job,” Ahuja said. Federal employment was once known as a pathway to the middle class, and she hopes that people will once again see it as a desirable part of their career journey.

The ultimate goal is for her office to “live across administrations” and for DEIA to be embedded into the daily operations of all federal agencies. Underwood acknowledges the journey to an inclusive and equitable workforce is hard work, but she celebrates every step toward progress.

“Take every win you can get,” Underwood said. “Create small goals, small wins, to get to the big wins.”

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