Mixing It Up

In his quest for diversity, Rep. Danny Davis sets his sights on the senior executive ranks.

"The most basic of all human desires that people have is to be treated equally, fairly and have the feeling that they have been given the same opportunities as everybody else," says Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., who has spent much of his congressional career working to make employment more accessible, whether by fighting to help low-income and minority workers commute to jobs or by writing legislation to provide job training to former felons.

Davis' latest target in his quest for equal opportunity is the Senior Executive Service. With just 7,806 employees in its ranks, the SES might seem like a small place to start, but he believes it is critical.

Davis, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Federal Workforce Subcommittee, believes that the federal government should set employment standards for the nation, especially when it comes to addressing discrimination. His conviction comes from personally experiencing the vagaries of the hiring process-getting passed over for a promotion in the Illinois school system prompted Davis to consider moving into politics. He's interested in more than just racial and ethnic diversity. Davis has repeatedly keynoted the national conference of the National Federation of the Blind.

"Since our federal government is the leader for the nation, since we are saying to the private sector and everyone else what we ought to be doing, let it begin here," Davis says. "You can't lead where you don't go."

Ronald Stroman, managing director of the Office of Opportunity and Inclusiveness at the Government Accountability Office, says promotion systems rely on subjective decisions. "As you go up the ladder, the criteria for selection become vague," Stroman says. "It's things like: 'Do you have leadership skills?' What are leadership skills? Who defines that? As the criteria for selection become less precise, stereotypes creep into the decision-making process."

Those stereotypes, plus a series of GAO studies that demonstrate the SES isn't representative of the larger federal workforce or the population as a whole, convinced Davis that the process for promotions had to change. Last year, he introduced legislation that would require a three-person panel that includes a woman and a racial or ethnic minority to review SES appointments. It also would create an organization within the Office of Personnel Management to continuously collect data on diversity among the executive corps and administer mentoring programs. Agency heads would be responsible for diversity programs and sign off on appointments.

Many of the groups that represent women and racial and ethnic minorities in the federal government applaud Davis for introducing the legislation. "What I see in Chairman Davis is a passion for federal employees," says William L. Bransford, general counsel for the Senior Executives Association in Washington. But some would like to see stronger measures or other options that involve more SES members in the decision-making process. "The proposed legislation . . . does not, for example, mandate OPM officials to ensure that senior managers are accountable for its full implementation," says José Osegueda, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Hispanic Federal Executives in Washington.

The SEA has proposed giving agencies the option of using larger diversity panels, made up mostly of female and minority senior executives, which could veto any SES appointment that resulted from an overly narrow search.

Legislation isn't the only option minority groups have in mind. "If we can get more training so . . . they know how to get into the feeder pool, [that] is important," says Janet Kopenhaver, a representative of Federally Em-ployed Women and president of the consulting firm Eye on Washington.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Christine M. Griffin says Davis' legislation would help employees with disabilities as well. Promotions would "demonstrate to other SES members that people with disabilities can do the job," Griffin says.

Davis says his bill is at least a start. "We may never reach the level of perfection that we're looking for, seeking, or hoping for," he says. "But we do have enough faith and enough confidence to believe that we can do a better job than what we're doing."

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