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“When we draw on the wisdom of a workforce that reflects the population we serve, we are better able to understand and meet the needs of our customers – the American people.”

U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Office of Diversity and Inclusion

Our federal government has a diversity problem. Like many countries, the United States is becoming increasingly diverse. Yet women, people of color, and people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LBGT) community are underrepresented in the federal government—especially in leadership positions. Why does it matter? And how can competencies help to boost government diversity? 

Why Diversity and Inclusion Matters for Federal Government

The federal government is not simply the largest employer in the U.S. It has a special diversity and inclusion role to play. The U.S. Constitution starts with, “We the people of the United States….” Our country’s government was created to serve the citizens, who give the government its powers (and responsibilities). 

While inclusiveness in the earliest federal government’s workforce naturally reflected the diversity practices of the day, the government is uniquely positioned to change the laws that have historically held back people in marginalized groups. For example, the government granted women the right to vote, banned laws prohibiting interracial marriages, guaranteed equal rights for persons with disabilities, and legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S.

Only by cultivating a diverse workforce representative of the population it serves can government agencies understand the range of needs, opinions, and issues that its laws and services are designed to address. 

What, Exactly, Are Diversity and Inclusion?

“Diversity” and “inclusion” are separate yet complementary terms. One is about differences; the other is about a culture that embraces those differences. In its Governmentwide Inclusive Diversity Strategic Plan 2016, OPM defined the terms as:

  • Diversity. A collection of individual attributes that together help agencies pursue organizational objectives efficiently and effectively. 
  • Inclusion. A set of behaviors that encourages employees to feel valued for their unique qualities and experience a sense of belonging. 
Benefits of Diversity and Inclusion

Employees are more likely to feel satisfied in an environment that nurtures diversity and inclusion, leading to higher employee engagement and retention rates. Benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce are well-documented:

  • In a 2018 study, McKinsey & Company found that organizations with gender-diversity on their executive teams were 15 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability and companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams (higher percentage of nonwhites and multiple ethnicities represented) were 33 percent more likely to outperform their peers on profitability. 
  • Cloverpop research shows that inclusive decision-making improves company performance and creates a decisive competitive advantage. 
  • Josh Bersin found that inclusive organizations were 1.7 times more likely to be innovation leaders in their markets.

While government isn’t motivated by profit, it absolutely needs to attract and retain talent, make good decisions, and shape its future workforce to thrive in a constantly evolving digital, globally-connected, citizen community. 

Federal Government Diversity Statistics

The federal government closely tracks and reports on the data that describes its civilian employees. While the government does a better job reporting on numbers of employees who are female or people of color than those with disabilities or who identify as LGBT, there are pockets of data showing that these groups, too, are underrepresented and discontent.  

Comparing OPM data and the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest statistics, we see that:

  • Women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only 43.3 percent of government employees.
  • Minorities represent 39.6 percent of the country’s workforce while OPM reports 36.7 percent of its workers are nonwhite.

Greater discrepancies are evident in government leadership positions. The most recent Federal Equal Opportunity Recruitment Program (FEORP) report to Congress showed the percentage of minorities in the Senior Executive Service (SES) – the executive leadership of federal government – remains at a paltry 21.2 percent. That’s an almost 20 percent discrepancy. While women are better off, they’re still underrepresented at 35.3 percent – a 15.5 percent discrepancy. 

This Washington Post article takes a deeper look at which minority groups are gaining (Hispanics and Asians) and which are losing ground (African Americans) in the SES. The article quotes Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, who characterizes the federal government diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts as “stalled.” 

How Competencies Help 

One way to jumpstart D&I efforts is to use competencies. As objective measures of skills, knowledge, and behaviors, competencies can help the government get past some of the historical barriers that are keeping agencies from making more progress in their diversity and inclusion goals. 

  • Set the tone at the top. When your most senior leaders are skilled at modeling inclusiveness, it sets the tone for the rest of the company.
  • Hire for competencies. When your job descriptions are focused on competencies, you avoid some of the common “shortcuts” that limit a talent pool. Hiring on academic pedigree is one such example. Be sure your job descriptions are written with diversity in mind, avoiding words like “rockstar” and “guru” in job titles and emphasizing your company’s commitment to inclusion.
  • Train early and often. Making a cultural shift of any kind is an uphill battle. You’re moving from a well-established way of doing things to something new. Though some have been discouraged by slow progress, research is showing that diversity training can work, especially as part of an ongoing program that focuses on skills development. Competency-based training helps managers develop an awareness of diversity and inclusiveness, an understanding of the benefits, and an ability to create inclusive teams that thrive in the new culture. 

The Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton summarized their findings and recommendations to the federal government in their Preparing for Federal Workforce of the Future infographic. Not surprisingly, “attracting and managing diverse talent” – at all levels in government – is one key for success.

Are you ready to infuse your agency’s diversity and inclusion with a competency-based approach? Contact us to find out how Avilar’s WebMentor Skills™ competency management system is supporting federal agencies today. Or schedule a demo to see how it works. 


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