EEOC chief looks back, outlines new goals

Ida L. Castro has served as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) since October 1998. President Bush could appoint a new chair, but no decision on that has been made yet. Castro is serving a term as as an EEOC commissioner that runs through July 2003. talked with Castro shortly after the release of EEOC's Accomplishments Report for Fiscal Year 2000 about the commission's achievements and efforts to work with stakeholders in the federal sector.

EEOC's case backlog in the federal sector dropped 14 percent in fiscal 2000, according to the report. Why?

We've seen reductions in both the appellate backlog and in the complaint backlog filed against agencies. It's a result of regulatory reform. We streamlined processes and took a far more common sense approach on how to handle complaints on the front and back end. We've tried to do everything we can to help agencies reduce their caseloads of complaints. We also increased training, which helped boost productivity in the hearing and appeals process. Those two efforts [have] come together, resulting in a reduction in our backlog of appeals. The appellate inventory dropped 14 percent, and the hearings inventory fell 12 percent. We also reduced by 9 percent the average time needed to process an appeal without sacrificing quality. We're very pleased with our advancements, but it's a work in process.

When you became chair, what steps did you take to win the trust of the commission's many stakeholders and overseers?

The first, and most important step I took at the outset was to reach out to all the stakeholders and try to understand not only their concerns, but their priorities. Given the commission's workload, it's always been a challenge for the chair to pay attention to the federal sector. My first commitment was to make sure that, no matter what, I maintained a clear focus on the federal sector. We had been deliberating on federal regulatory reform. I wanted to make sure that process was completed.

One effort not mentioned in fiscal 2000 report was the EEOC/NPR interagency task force. What did the task force ultimately accomplish?

I think it accomplished a lot. It's true an ultimate product was not published, but that's only because time ran out. We laid out an extremely ambitious agenda, and we did that deliberately. Since the federal sector hardly ever gets addressed in such a comprehensive manner, there were a lot of things we needed to cover. We talked about data collection. We culled information on best practices and developed a number of pilot projects that began operating immediately. We developed a pilot project with the Defense Logistics Agency, where we're going to be able to transfer complaint information electronically. We're testing that out, with the hope we can replicate that throughout government. What we couldn't do was have another month added so we could issue these recommendations in a joint report. This is not to say the work of the task force has been for naught. We do not intend to drop stakeholder input; we will work with our wonderful network to make sure we continue.

Will EEOC move ahead on some of the task force's proposals, like creating a database with information on federal managers accused of discrimination?

Let me put it this way. We will move ahead with the development of a user-friendly database that addresses EEOC and management and the concerns of those who have made charges. Years before my arrival, we were criticized for issuing data reports that managers and GAO agreed were fundamentally unreliable. Our data depended on what the agency provided; it wasn't easy for us to verify data. We have the responsibility to look at the entire question and come up with a data collection process that is accurate, trustworthy, and perhaps more important, that is useful. Now, within the context of task force discussions on this question, of course I am aware of serious concerns that were raised by our stakeholders in terms of what type of data we were collecting, who would have access to it, and quite frankly these are valid, genuine and serious concerns. We've been continuing to flesh out and will make sure we incorporate those concerns in the ultimate product. [This process] is one reason we weren't able to meet our deadline. We needed to take time to resolve these matters.

Will you continue to meet with the task force's network of stakeholders?

We hope that we continue the dialogue. As you know, we got our [FY2001] budget very late. We are in the process of making sure commitments we made in our budget request [are fulfilled]. As soon as these administrative concerns are completed, I would certainly hope we can then look at questions that remain. We find this dialogue extremely hopeful. We hope to continue to reach out and make sure our feet are well-grounded.

Will you try to bring in stakeholders who stayed off the task force, like the NAACP?

We've been in consistent dialogue with [the NAACP]. Of course, each organization is entitled to and has the absolute right to decide how it participates. It doesn't mean we are not engaging them or not open to hearing what they contribute. More generally, we've tried to stay in touch with everyone, even if we know they're going to disagree with us. I met with those groups first. They are the ones I'm most interested in hearing from.

GAO has criticized the quality of EEOC data on discrimination complaints. What steps has EEOC taken to improve data collection efforts?

We moved on that front before the [March 2000] GAO report. By the time the report came out, there were little or no surprises. We've done a lot in the last two years. First, we provided training to agencies on problems that were found in how they collected data. We did internal checks of the data itself. And we dedicated the resources required to get the job done. In the past that's been very difficult. In 1998, when I arrived, we had an increase in our budget. We expanded the staff somewhat in the federal sector, and began to hire the expertise we needed to tease data questions out.

How have the Nov. 1999 regulations affecting the federal discrimination complaint process been received by EEOC stakeholders?

I believe they're seen as successful. That's the feedback I'm getting. We've met with folks in town hall meetings. They are pleased with the notion that we made a major effort to streamline our process to implement our regulations in a fair manner. We continue, of course, to hear about additional ideas. That's just part of the process; there's always room for improvement.

What are your top federal sector goals for the commission in 2001?

I think we need to continue to build on the successes we have completed so far. We need to expand the availability of information, so that everybody understands their rights and responsibilities. Today, we announced that for the first time we are posting our decisions on our Web site. Now, everyone will have access to decisions in the federal sector. It's a major step in the right direction.

How is the commission affected by the change in administration?

Well it all depends on the direction the new administration wishes to take. I would hope that it is clearly recognized that we're moving in the right direction both in the private and federal sector. I'll be the first to acknowledge there is always room for improvement. The new administration will inherit an EEOC that is extremely different than [what met the Clinton administration]. I would hope it's clearly acknowledged that the commission is well placed to build upon success.

If you left tomorrow, what would you leave knowing about the EEOC that you didn't know coming in?

The one thing I know now that I did not know when I came in is that there are too many working people that still work in an environment that would be more appropriately set in the 1930s, or even the 1800s. That shocked me. When I arrived, I expected to deal with what has been coined as 'sophisticated' discrimination. But I spent an extremely significant part of my time and resources on cases of egregious discrimination. In just a year, we filed 20 cases involving hangman's nooses. [This happens] at a time when you'd think our laws have been around long enough to compel understanding of civil rights, like it should be in our DNA by now. But it's not. I believe managers both in the private and public sectors really need to look at their workplace and understand that a large number of workers there weren't even born when the civil rights movement was in full swing. They need to be trained, supervised, need to understand that civil rights at the workplace must be a core value of the [working] environment. Unless we do that at all times, we will see a resurgence of perhaps the saddest chapter in our history. At the same time, I was honored, privileged, and pleased to address precisely those questions as well. I'll be grateful for the rest of my life for this opportunity to serve.

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