Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Has the Public Sector Done Enough to Create a Diverse Workforce?

State and local governments have billions to invest in recovery and equity. Emphasis on diversity and purpose-driven jobs could get them the workers they need to make the most of a historic opportunity.

Philadelphia City Council Majority Leader Cherelle Parker wants to amend the city’s charter so that the municipal hiring process will provide opportunities to a more diverse group of applicants.
The great resignation isn’t a thing of the past. According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Americans quitting their jobs rose continuously between September 2020 and September 2021. Moreover, the number who quit in September 2021 (4.4 million) was 34 percent higher than in September 2020. Another 4.2 million quit in October, extending the trend of workers searching for better job opportunities.

It doesn’t stop there. A new CareerArc/Harris Poll study found that 23 percent of Americans plan to resign in the next 12 months.

Local government workers in public health, election administration and public safety have had their commitment to public service tested by hostility, personal attacks and rampant mischaracterization of their work and motives. Even so, a Gallup poll conducted in September found that between 6 and 7 in 10 of all Americans still trust state and local government to solve their problems.

With billions to spend on economic recovery and infrastructure improvements, all mandated to be executed through an equity lens, state and local governments have a historic opportunity to serve their communities. But they face problems if they can’t recruit and retain the people they need to do this work.

However, the disruption that has led so many Americans to reconsider their careers has the potential to change the dynamic of public-sector recruiting. A growing body of evidence suggests that increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) will be central to accomplishing this.

The Value of Workforce Diversity

A survey conducted by the Harris Poll for the company rating and job search site Glassdoor revealed the high emphasis that job seekers place on diversity and inclusion. Overall, more than 3 in 4 stated that a diverse workforce was an important factor in their job searches; the percentage increased to 4 out of 5 among Black and Hispanic respondents. Around 1 in 3 would not even apply for a job at a company whose workforce lacked diversity.

Almost a third of the Harris poll participants who said they planned to quit their jobs cited a desire for “better working conditions” as their primary motivator. Workplaces that pay attention to DEI have a bigger advantage in this regard than might be obvious.

In a piece for the Harvard Business Review, behavioral scientists from the coaching service BetterUp described findings from surveys and experiments involving thousands of U.S. employees that documented significant benefits to organizations when workers feel accepted and included. Workers who felt that they “belonged” performed 56 percent better, were 50 percent less likely to leave and took 75 percent fewer sick days.

It’s already a general priority for public-sector organizations to pay attention to diversity, notes Gerald Young, senior research analyst at MissionSquare Research Institute. “It’s amplified as an opportunity to maintain and expand the workforce — it’s not simply a value in itself,” he says.

Young is the author of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Public Service Workforce, which looks at the current state of DEI in the public service workforce.

Reflecting the Community

Across the political spectrum, members of the public can be put off with government if the people making decisions that impact their lives don’t reflect their culture or values. The value of a local government workforce that looks like the community it serves is deeper than appearances. More workers will have life experiences that help them understand the problems that citizens are facing or know the most authentic ways to communicate with or reach out to communities that need government assistance.

Women account for 46.2 percent of the workforce, and 50.8 percent of the U.S. population. For purposes of the MissionSquare analysis, women were considered to be adequately represented if they held 50 percent of the jobs in a public service category. In categories such as social assistance, health services and hospitals, women hold the great majority of positions, though 60 percent of physicians and surgeons are men.

Women have half or more of the education and library services jobs considered in the report, ranging from 98 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers to 51 percent of postsecondary teachers. They hold far fewer protective service jobs, accounting for 14 percent of police officers and 4 percent of firefighters. They are also significantly underrepresented in chief administrative officer or assistant chief administrative officer positions.

Proportions of specific public-sector jobs held by Blacks, Latinos and Asians were measured using a “differential” reflecting their share of the overall workforce. A percentage above zero reflects representation greater than suggested by this share and a percentage below zero signifies underrepresentation.

By this standard, African Americans have 13.5 percent more licensed and practical nurse jobs than expected and 3.8 percent fewer jobs as physicians and surgeons. They are underrepresented in teaching professions at all levels and in protective service occupations such as police officers, firefighters and police supervisors and management.

Although they are the largest minority population, Hispanics are consistently underrepresented in nearly all health-care, education and protective service occupations. This underscores one of the points that Anderson hopes to make — that governments need to recognize segments of the workforce they have overlooked and make a concerted effort to recruit and retain workers from them.

“When you bring in a more diverse workforce and nurture them as part of the overall team, that bears dividends in terms of the creativity and productivity of the whole organization,” he says.

In a video from a new series on public-sector careers from the Pardee RAND Graduate School, Ricardo Basurto-Davila, principal analyst in Los Angeles County, talks about his job, his path to it and how the work he is doing has the potential to help millions of people.

Bringing the Pipeline into View

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is the country’s largest metropolitan planning agency, encompassing a 38,000-square-mile region with a population of 19 million. SCAG leads a regional council of the Government-to-University Initiative (G2U), a national effort founded by the nonprofit Volcker Alliance to build a diverse pipeline of public-sector workers.

A newly published RAND Corporation research report investigated the demographics of the region and what its public sector could do to recruit a talented and diverse workforce, with implications for other jurisdictions.

The RAND researchers interviewed students from seven colleges and universities and hiring managers from state, local and federal agencies, comparing what they found to what would be involved in moving through the stages in a pipeline going all the way from talent attraction to retention and career advancement.

“One of the things the students that we spoke to emphasized was that they are really seeking mission-driven, purpose-driven occupations now,” says Tepring Piquado, chief policy director for California Issues Forum, one of the authors of the report.

Local government jobs, in particular, could give young people a way to have a direct relationship with their community and to improve it.

However, students aren’t generally aware of the range of jobs that exist in the public sector. Most who were interviewed for the study were only able to identify careers such as police officer or teacher.

“They don’t necessarily think about engineers and physical scientists and social scientists, and many other business-related occupations that the public sector employs that could lead to rich and fulfilling careers,” says Charles A. Goldman, a senior economist for the RAND Corporation and a study co-author.

It doesn’t help that job seekers venturing into government listings may encounter job titles derived from bureaucratic categories. The RAND paper recounts an example in which Pennsylvania greatly increased the flow of qualified applications by changing the name of a job from “Administrative Officer 5” to “Director of Lottery Sales.”

Recommendations from Piquado, Goldman and their co-authors include emphasizing the purpose-driven nature and stability of public-sector jobs, outreach through channels including job fairs, meetings of community groups, job search websites and information campaigns and an internship database. Students who do decide to apply for jobs may need help navigating a complex and extended hiring process.

Local governments that don’t hire large numbers of candidates every year could consider working together to improve their marketing, says Goldman. “We heard from some of the smaller cities that they face challenges in building up productive relationships with colleges and universities because they’re not in the hiring market all the time and their contacts become dated.”

Training opportunities such as implicit bias training can be valuable, says Piquado, but what’s most important is that leaders reinforce that hiring a diverse and talented workforce is a priority and that this emphasis is mirrored throughout an agency. “That’s what drives the action.”

The G2U is flanked by another Volcker Alliance program that approaches the worker pipeline in a different way. Taking a page from military preparation programs, it offers college students a curriculum and certification designed to draw “diverse, talented young people” into government careers.
A group of students from the 2021 cohort of Arizona State University’s Next Generation Service Corps.
A group of students from the 2021 cohort of Arizona State University’s Next Generation Service Corps, comprising more than 100 graduates with majors including journalism, health, engineering, and design who also earned a certificate signifying commitment to public service.
(Volcker Alliance)

A Public Service Corps

The Next Generation Service Initiative is an outgrowth of a program first developed at Arizona State University (ASU) by its president, Michael Crow, and journalist Tom Brokaw. Brett Hunt, a former officer in the Army and foreign service, was hired to get it off the ground in 2015.

“They said we should have things like ROTC, where folks that have a propensity to serve would be able to study their chosen major and be exposed to public service, to character-driven leadership, to cross-sector collaboration skills and be able to go on to serve their communities,” says Hunt.

Hunt led the ASU Public Service Academy for more than six years, and in 2021 went to work for the Volcker Alliance to bring the model he had developed to other universities. To date the network has attracted participation from 11, with more on the way. The long-term goal, says Hunt, is to have a Next Generation Service Corps (NextGen Service) in every state.

He and his team are recruiting schools and determining whether conditions are right for a program to flourish on their campus. The Volcker Alliance provides planning grants and Hunt’s staff helps them get started, sharing best practices and curriculum from other schools.

Hunt has found that many of the students who come to the program have benefited from public assistance, such as experiencing homelessness and then becoming passionate about preventing it. Students who are enthusiastic about sustainability are enlightened regarding the many ways they can work on this through city government.

There’s no intention for every program to be the same. “We don’t see this as a franchise model, but rather something that is anchored by core components and responsive to the communities in which these programs exist,” says Hunt.

The ASU corps has 450 students currently enrolled and 300 graduates. More than 150 majors are represented in the program. The curriculum includes a study of the ways that public, private and nonprofit sectors work together to take on complex challenges.

NextGen Service also works with state and local government to place students in internships, with the hope that they will eventually work for agencies where they have interned. “That’s how we’re hoping the model will be built and will work,” says Hunt.
Lisa Myers
Lisa Myers retired in November after more than three decades at the Howard County, Md., police department. She was the first woman and the first African American to serve as department chief.
(Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Room for Improvement

The public-sector workforce may be more diverse than the private sector’s, but that doesn’t mean things are as they should be. Only 41 percent of respondents to a 2021 MissionSquare survey who worked at state and local organizations with 500 full-time employees or more felt that the racial composition of their workforce reflected their community. Only 20 percent from organizations with fewer than 500 workers said this was the case.

Every organization should have a DEI officer, even if it’s an extra assignment for an existing worker, Young says. “One of the things you would want a DEI officer to analyze is the methods by which you do recruitment,” he says. If a recruitment process is not netting diverse candidates, there could be human (or AI) factors behind those results that are not being recognized and need to be changed.

For example, information such as home address or schools attended that are included on applications can give clues to ethnic or gender identity. When such information is screened out during the hiring process, the number of people of color who are called back increases, says Young.

It would be smart to consult workers from groups likely to face discrimination to identify processes that might work against them and the best ways to address them, he says.

“As an example, if you were to look at issues of women’s representation in the workforce, it would not serve you well to just talk to men.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
Special Projects