We Need to Increase Diversity in Policymaking

Diversifying the policymaking arena is imperative to developing and enacting policies that effectively respond to today’s America.

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President Barack Obama speaks at the start of a cabinet meeting in the White House. Obama has been criticized for a lack of diversity in his cabinet. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama speaks at the start of a cabinet meeting in the White House. Obama has been criticized for a lack of diversity in his cabinet. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

To mark the culmination of the current class for the Center for American Progress Leadership Institute program, regular “Race and Beyond” author Sam Fulwood III asked Dennis Vega, one of the program’s graduating Fellows, to write this week’s column. The opinions and views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of the U.S Agency for International Development.

When President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he insisted that his administration would be one that “looked like America.” Although there were undoubtedly political reasons behind this remark, President Clinton clearly realized that diversity is imperative to good government and good policy. Despite this sentiment and subsequent efforts to diversify the policymaking arena, however, diversity continues to escape influential positions in Washington both in and out of government.

Although the diversity of the Obama administration is comparable to that of the Clinton administration, broad demographic shifts have taken place across the United States during the past two decades. Demographers at the Census Bureau project the United States will become a plurality nation by 2043. “The new projections—the first set based on the 2010 Census—paint a picture of a nation whose post-recession population is growing more slowly than anticipated, where the elderly are expected to make up a growing share of the populace, and that is rapidly becoming more racially and ethnically diverse,” The New York Times reported in December. “All of these trends promise to shape the nation’s politics, economics and culture in the decades to come.” But administration staffing has not kept pace. In other words, the current administration fails to look like today’s America.

The potential effect of high-velocity demographic trends on the political landscape makes diversity in the policy world a major topic of discussion. This is especially the case in the wake of the 2012 election in which groups of African Americans, Latinos, and other ethnic voters proved decisive in re-electing President Obama. Media outlets have largely focused on voting projections, warning that Democrats and Republicans alike will need to change their policies, messaging, and outreach in order to take advantage of the growing number of people of color in the electorate.

This media coverage, however, simplifies a much larger and much more important narrative. Reflecting diversity is not just about winning votes. It is about developing and implementing relevant policies that are supported by the people they are designed to serve, and it requires drawing on and including the voices of people of color.

The world has changed significantly since President Clinton’s attempt to build a representative administration. At the heart of CAP’s Progress 2050 program is an understanding that “[t]he United States will become a nation with no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050. This expected transition provides the progressive movement with an exciting opportunity to help America live up to its ideals of equality and justice for all.”

Real change will only come about if progressive leaders seize this moment and opportunity to more deliberately engage diverse stakeholders in the policy process. Policymaking behind closed doors is a thing of the past. Further democratization of the policy process, including by finding ways to engage a wide range of stakeholders at every stage of policy development, can positively transform our approaches to the key challenges of our day and achieve greater impact.

Central to this approach should be the reminder that ethnic groups are not monoliths. Policymakers should seek out innovative ways to engage constituents that draw a diversity of perspectives and facilitate nuanced approaches to challenges.

Traditional policymakers have a responsibility to develop a policy apparatus that looks like America. But that’s not enough; people of color must also become more centrally engaged. If we are to expect legislative and policy outcomes that reflect the diversity of America, we must demand that the policy machinery includes people of color in a formal way, through active engagement at each stage of the policy process.

Importantly, all Americans also have a distinct responsibility to demand that policy institutions take steps to increase diversity within their own ranks. Discussing the virtues of diversity is not enough. Organizations should play a key role in engaging with and introducing younger generations of people of color to policymaking whenever possible.

Programs such as the Center for American Progress Leadership Institute are an important step in the right direction. The Leadership Institute is a program that seeks to identify, equip, and advance a new generation of policy experts from communities of color to assume responsible leadership in the development and implementation of progressive public policies. Despite its virtues, however, the Leadership Institute, as well as similar programs, are not a replacement for policy leaders to do even more to incorporate diversity at all levels of its organization and operations.

Policy institutions should critically examine their internal makeup and judge whether they reflect the diversity needed to advance the most effective policy positions. The most hotly debated and critical policy issues of the day, including immigration, access to education, health care, gun violence, and criminal justice, disproportionately affect people of color. That alone speaks to the need and the benefit of recruiting a diverse staff that can develop and enact effective policies that respond to today’s America.

At a time when progressive organizations are pushing the Supreme Court to recognize the benefits of diversity to the educational experience, actions must match rhetoric. Think tanks, academia, strategic consulting firms, and government agencies must take proactive steps to increase diversity in the policy world and fulfill the promise that President Clinton envisioned with a team of policymakers that “look like America.” And progressive organizations must lead by example by deliberately seeking out and fostering diverse backgrounds and diverse thought in our own efforts, capitalizing on the diversity of America at every stage of the policy process.

Dennis Vega is the chief of staff at the Office of Budget and Resource Management at the U.S. Agency for International Development. He is a Fellow in the 2013 class of CAP Leadership Institute.

Tomorrow the Center for American Progress will host “The Case for Diverse Voices in Public Policy: Emerging Themes on the Road to 2050.” Sen. William “Mo” Cowan (D-MA) and Laura Murphy, Washington legislative office director of the American Civil Liberties Union, will address how the nation’s leaders must understand the complexity of policymaking in a diverse nation. Additionally, a panel of the CAP Leadership Institute Fellows will discuss how they are preparing themselves to grapple with these critical issues.

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)