Lawmakers see room for improvement in DHS diversity efforts

The Homeland Security Department has made progress toward increasing diversity in its ranks, but still has a way to go in reaching an optimal mix of employees, witnesses told a House panel on Wednesday.

DHS is committed to building workforce that is "competent, effective and reflective" of the population, said Deputy Secretary Jane Lute, in testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee. "A lack of diversity hampers our ability to make wise and informed decisions."

Hispanics are better represented at DHS than at any other Cabinet-level agency, making up nearly 20 percent of the workforce. But black employees account for only 14 percent of the workforce, and black females make up only 1 percent.

In 2008, the department created a diversity action plan, establishing minority outreach efforts, and in April officials laid out a 120-day action plan with targeted marketing strategies and performance metrics to evaluate improvements. But several committee members expressed concern over the department's approach to outreach. Relying solely on the Internet to contact minority populations is a reflection of the "lazy attitude of the federal government in its outreach," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.

DHS is committed to sending recruiters to job fairs and historically black colleges and universities to engage potential hires on a more personal level, according to Lute. Representatives of the Secret Service, a component of DHS, have attended more than 1,100 job fairs since 2007, and one third of the newest recruits are minorities.

Secretary Janet Napolitano also has focused on engaging veterans, and on Tuesday announced more employment and contracting opportunities for this population. Twenty-five percent of DHS staffers are veterans.

"When senior leadership is committed to something, it gets done," said Christine Griffin, acting vice chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, adding EEOC and the Office of Personnel Management are dedicated to assisting Homeland Security with its efforts.

Committee members also questioned the lack of diversity in high-level DHS positions. White employees hold 87 percent of the senior positions at DHS and 76 percent of top executives are male. Governmentwide, the Senior Executive Service is 85 percent white and 71 percent male. Lawmakers urged agency officials to increase opportunities for minorities in upper management.

Homeland Security's diversity action plan calls for targeted marketing efforts to fill SES spots, revised selection procedures and expanded initiatives to educate candidates on application requirements. The department in September hosted a forum for 50 diversity-serving organizations to discuss ways to increase minority presence in senior positions.

"Neither the secretary nor I believe that if you emphasize diversity you are somehow sacrificing quality," Lute said.

Several witnesses stressed the importance of collecting employee feedback to determine the barriers to diversity recruitment and retention. According to a Government Accountability Office report released during the hearing, DHS relies solely on workforce data to identify diversity issues, and tools such as exit surveys would provide to a better understanding of challenges and possible solutions.

Rank-and-file employees are a rich source of quality information and ideas, Lute said, but efforts to increase diversity haven't yet filtered down to all levels. The department has never had a formal policy on working with employee groups such as the National Association of African-Americans in DHS, but on Tuesday released a management directive to address this discrepancy.

Some components of DHS have made more progress than others toward increasing diversity, witnesses said. The Transportation Security Administration has implemented a career development program, an initiative to move employees up to management positions at the headquarters level and efforts to educate potential hires on job requirements. Women, for example, might find extensive travel particularly burdensome and letting them know about the requirements up-front could reduce turnover.

While TSA and the Secret Service are increasing diversity, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has fallen behind. Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, told the committee that the agency has little diversity in geography or in employee skills and it has limited representation from state and local authorities.

"If the department does not figure out how to diversify its workforce, we run the risk that noninclusive hiring patterns will be solidified," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the committee.

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