President Joe Biden has doubled down on his promises to expand the diversity and equity of the federal workforce, even as political uproar around critical race theory nearly derailed the Senate confirmation of his choice for Office of Personnel Management director.
Biden signed an executive order on “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce” on June 25, charging the heads of federal agencies, the directors of OPM and the Office of Management and Budget, and the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with developing policies and practices to expand diversity and inclusion of the federal workplace.
“As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government must be a model for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, where all employees are treated with dignity and respect. Accordingly, the federal government must strengthen its ability to recruit, hire, develop, promote and retain our nation’s talent and remove barriers to equal opportunity. It must also provide resources and opportunities to strengthen and advance diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility across the federal government,” Biden wrote.
“This order establishes that diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility are priorities for my administration and benefit the entire federal government and the nation and establishes additional procedures to advance these priorities across the federal workforce.”
Though the order itself does not mention critical race theory by name, it does instruct agency leaders to provide greater access to training that covers many of the ideas outlined in that theory, among other diversity and equity concepts:
“Such training programs should enable federal employees, managers and leaders to have knowledge of systemic and institutional racism and bias against underserved communities, be supported in building skillsets to promote respectful and inclusive workplaces and eliminate workplace harassment, have knowledge of agency accessibility practices, and have increased understanding of implicit and unconscious bias.”
Kiran Ahuja, who was recently sworn in as OPM director, came under fire from conservative members of Congress for her previous support of critical race theory, and was confirmed by a narrow 51-50 vote.
“This executive order will help in our efforts to recruit, retain, and honor the most effective workforce, one in which federal employees from all backgrounds and walks of life feel included and valued,” Ahuja said in a statement. “These types of efforts are best practices for major employers across sectors seeking to stay competitive in the marketplace, and OPM is looking forward to working with all of our federal partners as we better position our workforce for the future.”
Critical race theory, which examines the cultural and institutional practices that contribute to racism, has recently become a controversial topic between Republicans and Democrats, despite its inception nearly half a century ago.
That controversy came to a head in the federal government when then-President Donald Trump prohibited agencies from conducting any diversity training that was based in critical race theory. Biden later rescinded that order when he took office.
Beyond training programs, the order also instructs OPM, OMB and the EEOC to develop metrics for measuring and improving diversity in the federal government across racial, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, parental status and religious lines.
Those agencies will be expected to issue a Governmentwide Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Strategic Plan within 150 days of the order, based on agency evaluations of their current diverse state. Agency heads will then have to submit their individual plans based on that guidance 120 days later.
Agencies will, under the order, be expected to track demographic data of workforce, leadership, employment, hiring and pay decisions to better understand how those areas do or do not support expanding diversity.
The order also outlines comprehensive considerations for transgender and gender-nonconforming feds by instructing agencies to remove administrative barriers to employees changing their gender identification on forms and IDs, requiring such forms to have a nonbinary options, and ensuring that federal health insurance offers gender-affirming care.
The order once again steps into contested territory by also instructing the Defense Department to “take actions to promote equitable healthcare coverage and services for LGBTQ+ members of the uniformed services (including their beneficiaries and their eligible dependents), LGBTQ+ beneficiaries, and LGBTQ+ eligible dependents, including coverage of comprehensive gender-affirming care, through the Military Health System.”
Trump backed his decision to ban transgender people from the military in 2017 by referencing the “tremendous medical costs” of such service members. Not all transgender people choose to medically transition, either by medication, surgery or both.
Biden reversed that ban in his first week in office.
Agency leaders must additionally seek to improve harassment prevention, pay equity and workplace accessibility.
Biden’s order also addresses employment concerns raised by experts for improving the federal workplace, such as ensuring that more federal internships are paid, expanding opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals and preventing agencies from relying on an applicant’s salary history during the hiring process or when setting pay for an existing employee.
As often demonstrated under the Trump administration, the president has broad authority to determine federal workplace policy, unless expressly prohibited by law. Therefore, despite the potentially controversial nature of elements of Biden’s order, it is likely to stay in place for the extent of his administration.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.