By Melissa J. Anderson

Last month the White House announced a new initiative to advance diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce.

According to a US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, President Obama signed the executive order, which will direct the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget to begin laying the plans for improving diversity in the federal government’s various offices.

The order will push the agency heads to “to establish a government-wide initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce; develop a government-wide strategic plan and guidance for agency-specific plans within 90 days; identify best practices to improve agency efforts; and establish a system for reporting on agency progress.”

The agencies are given 120 days to produce a plan. EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said, “President Obama’s Executive Order reinforces the leadership that federal agencies can play in ensuring that every qualified worker has an equal opportunity to succeed and advance in the workplace.”

Role Model for Private Sector

The President explained that his goal in the order was to ensure the office is utilizing the best and the brightest minds – rather than falling back on old stereotypes of what leaders should look like. The order states:

“To realize more fully the goal of using the talents of all segments of society, the Federal Government must continue to challenge itself to enhance its ability to recruit, hire, promote, and retain a more diverse workforce. Further, the Federal Government must create a culture that encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness to enable individuals to participate to their full potential.”

It’s clear that the goal of the directive is to position the federal government as a role model in the diversity space. Chair Berrien said, “The Executive Order will help the nation fulfill the promise of equal employment opportunity, in every workplace, beginning with the federal government.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that Obama has stated that the federal government should be out front when it comes to employment practices – for example, the President’s advocacy for flexible working arrangements and telework in the federal workforce has been due in part to its need to attract and retain the most capable employees.

Accountability-Based Approach to Diversity?

The government has engaged in many diversity initiatives in the past – without much startling success – but the big difference in the new Executive Order is a nod to accountability.

Within 90 days of the order, the agencies responsibility will have to develop a government-wide diversity and inclusion strategic plan “to be updated as appropriate and at a minimum every 4 years, focusing on workforce diversity, workplace inclusion, and agency accountability and leadership.”

The plan will also have to establish a system for reporting on progress in implementing the plan.

The order stops short of establishing firm accountability targets, but according to Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson, it’s a step in the right direction. He writes:

“This order will hold all of us accountable for results, from Cabinet officers and myself down to the very front line managers and employees,’ said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, during a press briefing last week.

Yet, although they are accountable for results, the order doesn’t call for any hiring targets or goals to measure the results. You can thank relentless attacks on affirmative action for that.

Nonetheless, Berry called the order ‘a great leap forward’ in a speech prepared for a [Blacks in Government] conference in Boston on Monday.”

Accountability for diversity is a critical part of engaging key stakeholders in the process – but the approach begs the question: how can you report on progress and have accountability for that progress if you have no goals in the first place?

As Gordon M. Nixon, President and CEO of RBC said at the 2009 Catalyst Awards, “If you don’t set goals, you don’t achieve success.”

The bank, which emerged from the global recession in as one of the strongest financial companies in the world, was honored for its winning diversity strategy, which included a strong target-based approach. Nixon said, “We look at diversity as the right thing to do,” both for its “social purpose,” and as “a significant business opportunity.”