The Fierce Urgency of Now

The Hispanic underrepresentation challenge has become an albatross around the Federal Government’s goal to have a workforce that is representative of America. Thirty-nine years have elapsed since President Richard Nixon issued his 16-point plan to address this issue. The increase in the Hispanic representation has been anemic all along---averaging less than 1 percent annually---while the Hispanic representation in the civilian labor force keeps going up. As of July 2008, Hispanics made up 46.9 million (15 percent) of the U.S. population. Another 4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are almost all Hispanic. Yet Hispanics make up only 7.9 percent of the federal workforce. Alarmingly, Hispanics represented only 3.6% (236) of the SES slots in FY 2007 – where decisions are made and budgets are approved.

Like our 2009 theme for Hispanic Heritage Month indicates, the Federal Government needs to “embrace the fierce urgency of now.” This challenge cannot be ignored any longer. 67 percent of Hispanics and 76 percent of Hispanic youth voted for the Democratic ticket in the last election. Moreover, Hispanics in the U.S. population expect the Federal bureaucracy to employ a representative base of Hispanics who are better suited to understand and address their concerns. They are unhappy with a “taxation without representation” attitude in the federal halls of power.

I have participated in innumerable initiatives and meetings to address this problem. Based on firsthand experience or anecdotes I’ve heard from colleagues, I contend there are several key reasons for the lack of progress.

In regard to getting more Hispanics into the SES ranks, one problem is that agencies put all their eggs in one basket. Most agencies prefer to promote into the SES only senior GS-14s and junior GS-15s who have completed an SES candidate-development program. When this happens, seasoned GS-15s are neglected for these SES vacancies. I propose that the Office of Personnel Management create a program to certify all seasoned GS-15s who have received the top performance rating for three consecutive years. This would provide seasoned GS-15s the same potential for promotion to SES as employees who have completed a candidate development program. While this proposal would not benefit only Hispanics, it would help more Hispanics reach the SES level.

Another problem is that Hispanic employment program managers (HEPMs) — managers tasked with helping improve Hispanic representation in the federal workforce — have too little clout and too few resources to succeed. HEPMs are typically at the GS-12 level; to be effective, they should be at the GS-14 or GS-15 levels at the headquarters of Cabinet-level agencies.

Another challenge is hiring managers often fail to hire Hispanics when they are “certed”---that is, put on a hiring short list of qualified candidates known as a promotion certificate. According to OPM regulations, managers can select any applicant named on a promotion certificate, not necessarily the highest ranked one. I have heard many examples where Hispanics who were ranked highest on the “cert” were not chosen, on grounds that managers are not required to choose the highest-ranked applicant, and also of Hispanics ranked lower on their “certs” who were passed over for the highest-ranked applicants. Given the severe underrepresentation that exists for Hispanics in government, it is time OPM issues new guidance to address this anomaly.

Federal agencies do a better job of filling political positions with Hispanics than they do with career positions. Political appointees leave the federal workforce when there is a change in administration. Thus, to improve the representation of Hispanics on a more permanent basis, it is the career appointments that need to be targeted.

From my personal experience in applying for federal jobs and from the experience of many Hispanic colleagues of mine, I can say that federal managers can be quite imaginative in finding reasons not to hire Hispanic applicants. If an applicant is foreign born or talks with an accent, for instance, his trustworthiness and qualifications may be questioned. If he holds a degree from a Hispanic Serving Institution rather than an Ivy League school, his credentials become less desirable. For example, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was questioned repeatedly during her confirmation hearing about her “wise Latina” comment in a 2001 speech, even after acknowledging that her choice of words was poor. Despite an impressive judicial career as a judge, big-city prosecutor and corporate litigator, as well as a graduate of two of America’s leading universities, there were some who were willing to use the “wise Latina” remark to prevent her from being the first Hispanic in 220 years to serve in the U.S. Supreme Court. If we adopted this “perfection” standard, we would have to look to the heavens for qualified candidates for public office. Moreover, the Hispanic underrepresentation challenge would remain unaddressed for the next thirty-nine years.

What’s needed to address this challenge is for this nation’s leadership to acknowledge and indicate that addressing the Hispanic under representation in the federal sector is a top priority. To indicate that it is unacceptable for federal agencies to continue preparing reports, such as the Federal Equal Opportunity Recruitment Program (FEORP) Report, that paint a rosy picture, when the opposite may be true. To hold federal agencies accountable for their progress or lack of progress in this matter -- such as not assigning passing scores during OPM audits for failure to implement strategies to address workforce diversity.

When we do these things, we would have achieved President Lincoln’s dream of having a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Jorge E. Ponce is co-chair of the Council of Federal EEO and Civil Rights Executives.