The Justice Department will begin evaluating mid-to-upper level managers based, in part, on their adherence to its diversity management plan. It’s the latest step in an aggressive diversity strategy that began in 2010.
“A key component of any aspect of a diversity initiative is accountability,” said Channing Phillips, senior counselor to Attorney General Eric Holder, in an interview with Federal News Radio.
The department already evaluates its Senior Executive Service members on their adherence and support of the diversity initiative. As other agencies scramble to complete diversity and inclusion strategies ahead of President Barack Obama’s March 16 deadline, the Justice Department is ahead of the curve.
In 2010, Holder told all of the department’s law enforcement agencies, U.S. Attorneys offices and other components to figure out ways to improve four things to make the department more diverse and inclusive:
Leadership commitment and organizational structure
Outreach and recruitment efforts
Staff development and retention
Employees rank the Justice Department in the top half of the best large agencies to work for, but it’s not one of the most diverse. Seven in 10 workers are white; more than half are men. A low turnover rate means change comes slowly. But the nation’s first African-American attorney general saw changing the agency’s makeup as critical to its mission, Phillips said.
AG: Agency stronger with diversity
Holder believes “that the Justice Department is stronger, more credible and more effective when it includes qualified individuals that reflect our nation’s diversity,” Phillips said.
The attorney general told the components to develop charters of bylaws to guide their strategies and set up diversity committees with staff representing all positions, from lawyers to law enforcement officers and secretaries. Senior leaders at headquarters formed a diversity council to oversee the work. But within those constraints, components had the freedom to craft their own way to reach the goal, Phillips said.
“When the next administration comes in — whenever that is — there will be a viable framework in place to carry on this mission for years to come,” he said. “Diversity is here to stay.”
Justice Department leaders plan to ask for a progress report on the one-year anniversary of implementation in July. But Phillips, who travels to field offices regularly, said he already is seeing change.
“There is a level of enthusiasm-and I’ve been with the department for over 20 years-that I haven’t seen on this issue in my tenure,” he said. “This is not from the top down. For this to be a successful initiative, you have to have engagement at all levels.”
Under the executive order, agencies must submit plans next week to make diversity and inclusion a () sustainable part of their recruiting, retention and promotion processes.
Changing the culture
In addition to holding leaders accountable for progress, the Justice Department has increased diversity training. Harvard University Professor Mahzarin Banaji spent a half day last fall lecturing senior leaders on unconscious bias.
“We’re changing the culture,” Phillips said.
But challenges remain. For example, the department hasn’t done a good job in attracting people with disabilities, he said.
“The attorney general has set a two percent goal, which I think is a modest goal, to ensure the department will do everything it can to attract people with disabilities,” he said. “In the coming years, that will be one of our main goals and objectives.”
The other challenge is mobilizing support among rank-and-file employees as well as senior leaders.
“I’m certainly not going to say we have 100 percent buy-in,” he admitted.
Skeptics may not be convinced that the focus on diversity benefits them and makes their work better, and they might be dismayed with the speed of progress, he said.
“It’s not going to happen overnight. We’ve been careful not to guarantee quick successes,” he said.
While under normal circumstances, hiring from a more diverse pool of candidates may seem like a quick way to implement change, hiring and budget restrictions make that difficult. The Justice Department, instead, is focusing on retention.
“You have to make sure that everyone who has an interest in moving up is given that opportunity. That includes providing training opportunities and career enhancement and development for everyone,” he said. “It also includes developing a pipeline.”
The department is trying to hire interns from schools outside their recruiters’ typical path.
“It’s free labor, but it works both ways,” Phillips said. “They get noticed. They get the skills. And years down the road when they finish college or law school, they have connections within the department when they start to look for a job.”
Justice has been advising other agencies in crafting their diversity strategies.
Phillips sums up his advice: “Don’t be afraid to be aggressive, assertive, and push the envelope a bit,” he said.
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 8-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.