President Joe Biden issued a fresh executive order aimed at pushing the federal agencies he oversees to better meet the needs of underserved communities, even as his workforce struggles to diversify itself.
In January 2021, Biden signed executive order 13985 as the lodestar for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in federal programs. Since then, executive agencies have sought ways to promote equality in how they make policy and administer programs.
“It is imperative to reject the narrow, cramped view of American opportunity as a zero-sum game,” Biden said in the order issued Feb. 16. “Achieving racial equity and support for underserved communities is not a one-time project. It must be a multi-generational commitment, and it must remain the responsibility of agencies across the federal government.”
Biden has underscored the importance of diversity both in the communities his administration serves and in the workforce he employs. In 2021, he issued another order to reform federal HR practices. However, the identity of the federal workforce, which is predominately male, white and non-disabled, has shifted little since 2017, according to an inaugural report published by the Office of Personnel Management on Feb. 15.
As the White House prepares to unveil its 2024 proposed budget early next month, according to news reports, the latest order furthers diversity standards for budgets down the line.
For example, it has been the expectation of the administration that 15% of the more than $600 billion the government spends each year in federal contracting will go to small disadvantaged businesses by 2025. The latest order adds a similar goal to be met one year earlier. OMB is tasked with setting that figure.
The order also sets out budget season considerations for what funding agencies might need related to these initatives.
“Starting with formulation of the fiscal year 2025 budget and for each subsequent year, the director of OMB shall consider how the president’s budget can support the Equity Action Plans ... in order to reinforce agency efforts to meaningfully engage with and invest in underserved communities and advance equitable outcomes,” the official document reads.
The directive also tells agencies to ensure that the location of federal buildings takes into consideration neighborhoods and that are near existing employment centers and are accessible by public transit. Such considerations are part of the selection criteria for the next FBI headquarters set forth by the General Services Administration.
Overall, the government’s approach to DEIA is federated and interagency. The executive offices within the White House have handed down best practices and expectations and created structures, like the new Steering Committee on Equity, to ensure agencies have what they need.
Agencies are then tasked with coming up with their own specific Equity Action Plans, which are public documents reflecting progress made, potential barriers that underserved communities may face, and agency strategies to address them.
This committee will begin collecting agencies’ plans in September and each year after to evaluate them.
Leveraging AI is another way that government is brainstorming ways to make its services more accessible and efficient. AI is still developing for the government as much of federal spending is rooted in research and development. Still, thanks to a growing body of policy, budgets and agency strategies, federal AI spending grew 68% from fiscal 2019 to 2021, according to Deltek.
In October, the White House released an AI “Bill of Rights” white paper that, while not official guidance or policy, signifies a focus on this kind of technology at the federal level.
Biden also encouraged agencies to use their civil rights authorities to protect the public from “algorithmic discrimination” by weighing in on decisions regarding the design, acquisition and use of AI and automated systems.
Former President Donald Trump ordered in 2020 that AI should be used by federal agencies in ways that would be traceable, transparent and accountable so as to foster “public trust and confidence while protecting privacy, civil rights, civil liberties, and American values.”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.