Beyond Compliance: Recruitment and Retention of Underrepresented Populations to Achieve Higher Positions in Local Government

February 20, 2019


R esearch has shown both quantitatively and qualitatively that diverse groups outperform homogeneous groups in problem solving, accuracy, and creativity. However, a diverse workforce rarely happens organically. A 2013 study examined the racial and ethnic composition of local government employees in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States over the past 50 years, and it found that high-wage local government jobs consistently have been disproportionately held by white employees. Furthermore, while racial minorities have been underrepresented in high-level jobs, they have been overrepresented in low wage-earning jobs. The trend is similar for women. The dearth of these populations in leadership roles plays a significant role in the provision of services and the future capacity of the local government workforce.

It has been nearly fifty-five years since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that prohibits employment discrimination and applies to employers with fifteen employees or more, including local, state, and federal government. Other laws passed such as the Equal Pay Act (1963), Age Discrimination in Employment Act (1967), Equal Employment Opportunity Act (1972), Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), Civil Rights Act of 1991, Family and Medical Leave Act (1993), and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act (2010) were all designed to prohibit specific forms of employment discrimination. These laws were translated into standards of behavior for employers, which birthed the age of compliance programs. Compliance programs are internal policies and procedures set by an organization to comply with laws. These programs were often the basis of efforts to recruit, hire, and retain diverse populations; however, these compliance programs were often reactive and designed to prohibit discriminatory behavior. Compliance rules did not speak to the fundamental issues facing underrepresented populations or the value of bringing them into the workforce.

Seeking to become more proactive and inclusive, many local jurisdictions are endeavoring to go “beyond compliance” and create substantive programs that recruit, hire, and retain underrepresented populations into their ranks. The purpose of this report is to describe research on local governments that excel in increasing diversity and fostering inclusiveness. This research is based on interviews with specialists, a detailed literature review, and qualitative case studies of three cities and one county: Hennepin County, Minnesota; Tacoma, Washington; Decatur, Georgia; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
This report highlights seven findings, as follows:
  • Finding 1: Going ‘beyond compliance’ begins with leadership—top-down and bottom up
  • Finding 2: Recruitment and hiring processes are being reconfigured
  • Finding 3: Recruitment strategies are designed to be more purposeful and intentional 
  • Finding 4: Undoubtedly, there is a pipeline problem
  • Finding 5: A culture change is happening
  • Finding 6: Metrics and accountability are lacking
  • Finding 7: The relationship between offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion and human resources needs maturing.
The following recommendations serve as an interconnected strategy to build programs that go beyond compliance to create hiring and retention processes that are robust and equitable and that secure the best candidates possible.
  • Recommendation 1: Organizational champions must be in place to drive this work
  • Recommendation 2: Adopt an asset-based perspective and create a solid strategy for recruitment and retention
  • Recommendation 3: Create job descriptions that attract, not deter
  • Recommendation 4: Validate minimum qualifications and exams immediately
  • Recommendation 5: Increasing diversity must be linked to succession planning
  • Recommendation 6: Metrics and accountability must be made a priority.
Overall, jurisdictions lie on a continuum of passive and active engagement in the recruitment and retention of underrepresented populations in higher positions in local government. Those actively engaged are creating innovative programs that are, indeed, increasing diversity and fostering equity and inclusiveness.

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