Hispanic education initiative expands interagency collaboration

WFED's Jason Miller with Juan Sepulveda, Director, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans

wfedstaff | June 3, 2015 3:43 pm

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Too many times when Congress or the White House decides a new program is needed or to expand a current program, it’s the career federal employees who bear the brunt of the changes.

Rarely the administration or Capitol Hill reduces the amount of work or address resource issues to take on the new program.

That was not the case, however, when President Obama signed a new executive order to improve how agencies support educational opportunities for Hispanics, said Juan Sepulveda, the executive director of the White House initiative on educational excellence for Hispanics.


“In the past, my office had a heavy focus on backward looking reporting where we asked each agency what they did in last year that was education focused that was impacting the Hispanic community?” Sepulveda said in an interview with Federal News Radio.

There was so much that was going on, but the reality is for a good chunk of the history of the imitative, most agencies were not complying with the order. They didn’t have the staff, or it was not a high enough priority. And the few who did report were couple of years behind.

We talked to the career folks and asked them if this was working. They were real honest and said “No.” So that was one thing we took out in the Executive Order, the annual requirement for the report.

Instead, Sepulveda said the career employees said better collaboration among agencies and outreach to citizens would be better.

So the new executive order require new levels of interagency cooperation and public-private partnerships.

“There are a number of new pieces added to the Executive Order and the highest priority is on action so you will be seeing from our office in terms of people who are part of our staff but also as we are working with colleagues at Education Department and a number of other agencies really trying to directly work with communities to create deeper public private partnerships,” he said. “So the federal government really stepping up and helping communities as they put together their plans to take on education challenges for their communities.”

Obama signed the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics Executive Order Tuesday. It’s a combination of building on and improving what has been going on across government for the past 20 years. Sepulveda said George H.W. Bush signed the first order in 1990.

The goal is to expand and improve educational opportunities for all Hispanics from early childhood to adult education.

There are several other changes or additions, including the strengthening of an interagency working group focused on these issues.

“The Domestic Policy Council is becoming part of that but really the President is asking agencies to step up and be part of this as demographics changes with Latinos being the largest and fastest growing minority group in the country,” he said. “We know there are a lot of agencies that have education focused components, such as HHS, Labor, NSF and Agriculture. We were working with OMB to put together a list of all education focused programs not housed at the Education Department.”

He added that in all there were more than 100 programs across the government focusing on educations from early childhood at the Department of Health and Human Services to adult training at the Labor Department.

Sepulveda said the lack of collaboration and connection among agencies and Hispanic communities has frustrated citizens.

He said through a series of more than 100 town-hall style meetings in more than 30 states, Latino community leaders said they don’t understand how the government works or what is available for them in terms of programs and grants.

Sepulveda uses an example of a group for Los Angeles coming to Washington for a meeting at the one department, and ended up being dropped off at the wrong agency.

“They went to what they thought was the correct room and heard a presentation about a grant program, put in a proposal and won a grant, but it’s not a good strategy to have the cab driver take you to the wrong building,” he said. “They are asking for Education Department 101 and to be connected to key staff and other parts of the department to understand the thinking, the opportunities and get access to data.”

Earlier this week, Education hosted a one-day conference in Washington where it brought in a number of agencies to give presentations and answer questions from more than 300 people in the Hispanic community about educational opportunities. Sepulveda said Education also webcasted the meeting to 25 states, Washington and Puerto Rico.

“What we’ve seen already as we’ve started to put together teams and really reached out to our career employees both at the Education Department and some of the other agencies, they are excited, they like it because it’s a chance to have that direct connection and impact,” he said.

Sepulveda readily admits that the Executive Order will place some new stress on his small office. He said plans are underway to pull in experts from around Education and other agencies on short term assignments.

“It’s a change of what our current staff is doing in terms of what they used to do in the past, a new focus on working directly with communities and really reaching out to this national network,” he said. “The current staff structure will have a new set of roles and responsibilities.”

He said in the past the only options was to do more with less or get more money and resources. But the initiative is trying a third option where they take advantage of career employees’ expertise.

“How do we get smarter about how we do are our work as federal employees in the 21st century and create these work teams that come together, do their things and at certain points people step up and play a larger role and other points they step back?” Sepulveda said. “We constantly are redefining who is part of the team so we can match what the community is asking us to do to help them move forward.”

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