Q&A with a federal all-star on diversity, equity and inclusion
Under the Biden administration, federal agencies have renewed their efforts to reshape government as a diverse, equitable and inclusive employer. However, even after the new administration revoked the executive order that effectively banned diversity, equity and inclusion programs within agencies, federal leaders may still face challenges integrating DEI principles into their organizations. Leaders such as Miguel Aviles-Perez of the U.S. Coast Guard offer invaluable lessons on how government can successfully strengthen and transform its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
What is your role in the Coast Guard and how do you promote diversity, equity and inclusion within the agency?
I am chief of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which implements our diversity and inclusion program across the organization. We’re a team of over 10 members comprised of active duty, civilian, contractor and reservist personnel that help execute the D&I program.
The D&I action plan outlines three main goals: develop D&I acumen across the organization, strengthen leadership’s D&I awareness and accountability, and build and maintain an inclusive workforce. We are in charge of affinity group program management, D&I studies and assessments, gender strategy across the organization, and diversity outreach and education.
Wow, that’s a lot. Has this comprehensive approach been a benefit or a challenge?
We strongly believe there’s no single solution that will enhance D&I in an organization. Instead, this work requires a combination of intentional strategies. In that combination resides the power to achieve change. You will notice our plan takes a holistic approach to diversity and inclusion. We’re looking at everything we’re doing through the lens of diversity and inclusion.
What success have you seen so far?
D&I is the responsibility of all and we have been able to instill this idea across the agency by engaging senior leaders in our work.
We have also involved the entire organization in D&I programming. The ecosystem of D&I includes human resources, training and education, and every single mission area, directorate and department in the agency—from top senior leaders to individual members, supervisors, managers and commanders.
Do you have any advice for other federal leaders who are just starting to work on diversity, equity and inclusion?
My number one piece of advice is, as they create the business case for diversity and inclusion, always base the case on assessments and data. We have a lot of good intentions in D&I. People want to create programs and training, and they want to just fix D&I as if D&I is a problem to fix. Start by evaluating the D&I program using a respected standardized assessment. The temptation to skip this is strong.
Once you have a rubric to tell you where you stand on D&I, then use the results of that assessment to develop strategy and a plan. Then get responsibility out to the field by creating a group of leaders from the entire organization tasked with implementing specific D&I programs.
If you could do one thing to make the federal government a more diverse, equitable and inclusive employer, what would you do?
I would change the mindset that diversity and inclusion is charity. No, it’s a mission multiplier. There are so many perceptions out there that diversity and inclusion is just a soft program, but it’s not. D&I has the same level of importance as finance, accounting, engineering and communications. If I could change anything, I would make D&I a top priority for organizations.
I would also make diversity and inclusion a profession within government. Right now, we don’t have an occupational series that brings D&I professionals together, sets professional standards for them and defines the core competencies of their work.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Learn more about what the Biden administration can do in its first 100 days to help the federal government improve its diversity, equity and inclusion record.