Diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the federal government: A way forward
Federal leaders and practitioners leading diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility—or DEIA—efforts have reason to be optimistic. Renewed attention to racial justice and equity, coupled with recent executive orders from the Biden administration, have provided government with an opening to advance efforts to build a more diverse, equitable, inclusive and accessible workplace.
The Partnership for Public Service, with knowledge partner McKinsey & Company, recently presented a series of workshops that aimed to equip federal leaders working across government with research-based insights—and a community of practice—that supports more effective DEIA work.
Participants noted that some of the most helpful insights involved implementation. While publishing DEIA strategies is a critical first step to aligning internal teams around specific goals and holding agencies accountable for promoting a diverse, equitable, inclusive and accessible workplace, implementation can be far more difficult, unpredictable and open-ended.
Four key factors can help agencies and leaders successfully tackle this challenge.
- Alignment and activation: Building strong relationships and communication between DEIA leaders, decision-makers and mission leaders. Making a case for how DEIA improves mission effectiveness—for example, highlighting research that shows more diverse organizations outperforming less diverse ones—and anchoring DEIA decisions in data—for example, analysis that shows rates of promotion for women of color compared with other groups—can emphasize for leaders why diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility lay at the core of organizational health and performance. It can also broaden the coalition of active participants in the work, increase the number of leaders role modeling DEIA values, and—crucially—help lighten the load for DEIA leaders. One agency successfully did this by internally publicizing specific examples of how diverse perspectives led to new and innovative ways of working.
- Capacity: Gaining access to the time, people and funding to make DEIA strategies come alive. Like any other business or mission priority, the most successful DEIA efforts receive resources commensurate with the scope and expectations of the work. Existing federal equity or diversity offices, however, are not typically designed to meet these increasingly scaled up expectations. Implementing DEIA initiatives that rise to the level of the federal government’s stated ambitions will require additional resources—both full-time employees and dollars—to be built into current and out-year budgets.
- Expertise: Maintaining the requisite DEIA expertise to ensure that strategies, plans, policies and implementation will be effective. Though challenging, federal DEIA leaders have the ability to identify the root causes of inequity and tailor strategies, plans and policies to affect change in multiple mission contexts within their own organizations. DEIA expertise will be critical in helping mission leaders design tailored interventions that account for important nuances such as racial equity and LGBTQ+ viewpoints, are sensitive to workforce needs, and make a significant difference.
- Governance: Establishing a concrete definition of success with clear roles and responsibilities for implementation and a plan to regularly measure progress and course correct as needed. DEIA work is most successful when expectations are clearly defined and leaders and organizations are held accountable to deliver results—just as they would be for any other mission priority. For example, one agency is reporting progress to its workforce annually using specific metrics—a move that increases transparency around DEI. Another agency is working to establish a DEIA performance objective for all of its Senior Executive Service members.
The federal government has signaled its commitment to becoming a model for DEIA.
But time is critical. To fulfill this promise to better serve the American people, leaders should consider accelerating their efforts to plan for implementation—even while their DEIA strategies are still in development. This would be worthy work for the nation’s largest employer.