A Diverse Government from the Top Down

Focusing on Equality in the Senior Executive Service

Last week the Obama administration released its plan to promote diversity in the federal government. But to turn this commitment into reality, the administration must focus on the Senior Executive Service.

Members of the Senior Executive Service, or SES, occupy the government’s top managerial, supervisory, and policy positions. The SES is comprised of around 7,000 senior civil servants involved in nearly every government activity, helping to run approximately 75 different government agencies including the Treasury, NASA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These executives are career public officials that continue to serve even when the White House transitions between administrations.

A recent Center for American Progress report raised some concerns about the SES’s ability to truly represent the American people given current trends in hiring and recruitment. The report, “A Better, More Diverse Senior Executive Service in 2050,” finds that the SES’s projected ethnic, racial, and gender composition in the coming years will fail to reflect the ever-growing diversity of the American people unless the administration takes steps to turn this around.

This is a worthy goal. A more diverse government at all levels is good for our democracy, our leadership, and our government’s productivity.

The Senior Executive Service in 2030

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, minorities currently make up 34 percent of the civilian labor force but only 17 percent of managerial positions in the SES. This figure is not likely to improve without decisive action. By 2030 CAP projects communities of color will constitute nearly half (43 percent) of the labor force yet only a paltry 29 percent of these important senior executive positions.

Hispanic Americans will be the most poorly represented. While Hispanics are expected to eventually occupy 23 percent of the civilian labor force, they are only projected to be 6.8 percent of the SES. This represents less than a third of their labor force share.

Women will also continue to be underrepresented (constituting 47 percent of the labor force but only 40 percent of the SES), along with Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. Whites will remain notably overrepresented.

The report did identify one encouraging result, however. African Americans’ percentage of the SES is expected to broadly reflect their representation in the workforce.

Why we need diversity in the senior ranks of government

The report identified three primary reasons why increased diversity is important for the SES: democracy, leadership, and good business.

One of our nation’s foundational principles is that the government should represent the people it serves. The United States is undergoing a profound demographic shift, and by the year 2050 there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority. As communities of color continue to grow, it is critical that all levels of the federal government are engaged with and responsive to their needs and concerns. Increasing diversity in the SES will better reflect the reality of the American public and it will also increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our democracy.

In a time of such rapidly increasing diversity, it is also crucial that the federal government continues to act as a leader in ensuring fair hiring and employment practices, and in advocating for the expansion of opportunities for people of color.

More diversity in the SES is good business, too. Many studies indicate that a diverse workforce leads to greater effectiveness, productivity, and increased innovation. In a 2011 survey conducted by Forbes Insights of more than 300 high-level administrators, 85 percent agreed that “a diverse and inclusive workforce brings the different perspectives that a company needs to power its innovation strategy.” A 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office likewise concluded that “diversity management makes good business sense that enhances productivity and innovation.”

The path to a more diverse Senior Executive Service

The CAP report suggests that the administration should set a goal to close the diversity gap between these executive positions and the civilian workforce by 2030. The administration must focus on recognizing and cultivating talented minority individuals and women in the ranks immediately below the SES to establish a strong applicant pool for promotion.

This approach must include paying special attention to Hispanics, who continue to be drastically underrepresented in the SES. An effective strategy to increase Hispanic representation in the SES would include identifying a database of promising Hispanics that can later be brought into high-ranking positions in the federal government.

These strategies are designed to ensure that as the administration promotes diversity and inclusion, they focus on recruiting the very best minorities and women to these key roles.

In conclusion, any strategy to promote diversity in the federal government must include a strong commitment to a more inclusive SES, with particular attention paid to Hispanic representation. Only with decisive action to remedy this inequality will the administration achieve its goal to deliver the best public service and lead the nation as its model employer.

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