Lawmaker Suggests Skirting the Rules to Boost Diversity at DHS

Lawmaker Suggests Skirting the Rules to Boost Diversity at DHS
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff

Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee had a message for the DHS official in charge of personnel on Wednesday: the department needs to find ways to target minorities for employment, despite federal regulations that say considerations such as race and gender cannot affect hiring.

What they received in response from Undersecretary for Management Elaine C. Duke was mostly agreement with their goals. Duke testified that the Homeland Security Department is trying to foster diversity both in new hires and internal promotions.

“We believe a sustained and continual focus on diversity will produce the results that the department and the committee demand,” she said.

But one thing the department can’t do is direct hires for minorities, she said.

When Norm Dicks, D-Wash., asked if the department can set out to specifically hire minorities, Duke replied that only a few DHS component agencies can perform direct hires and, even then, it’s only in a small handful of situations. In general, she said, federal regulations require that all DHS hiring has to be done through USAJOBS, the federal government’s official employment Web site, managed by the Office of Personnel Management. Resumes are ranked according to a system that is blind to race and qualified applicants are referred to hiring officers at DHS, Duke said.

Dicks and other committee members expressed surprise at hearing that all of the hires must be done through the Web site.

“You can’t hire anybody unless they go through this Web site, so how can you have any kind of affirmative action program?” he asked.

Duke said DHS’ strategy comes down to “casting a wide net” — trying to make sure as many minorities apply as possible to increase the chances that they make it to the hiring stage.

“We have to essentially train them as applicants and teach them the federal system,” at recruiting fairs and other outreach activities, she said.

When Dicks followed up, asking if the department can use any kind of affirmative action to put people into Senior Executive Service jobs — career positions that serve just below presidential appointees — Duke gave a similar answer.

“We cannot, by statute, consider diversity, gender, race as a criteria,” she said. “That is why we focus on casting the net so widely.”

Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said there are ways around those regulations that DHS could consider.

Cuellar said he used to be chairman of higher education in Texas and, when a court decision forbade the use of diversity as an acceptance criteria for schools, he encouraged the use of factors like socio-economic status.

“If you really want to diversify, you can diversify,” he said. Although he acknowledged “legal barriers,” he added, “If you really want to look at good . . . quality minorities, it can be done. . . . I did what I needed to do and diversified.”

Changing the Rules
Duke said that DHS can take more steps toward diversity within existing statutes and regulations, but she said the rules could be fixed to make the job easier.

“I think we have to change the regulations,” she said. “I don’t think we should promote a culture where we have a choice about whether we’re following the regulations.”

A committee member with a reputation for coming down hard on DHS witnesses, Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., chimed in with support for Duke, saying that both the department and Congress have been doing more symbolic than real work when it comes to diversity in employment.

“For us to learn five years later that the only way to get a job is to go through the Internet, I think we haven’t been doing our jobs,” he said. “We are not doing what we’re supposed to be doing. And that angers me.”

He said the USAJOBS system makes bringing in a more diverse workforce difficult and questioned when DHS would produce a comprehensive plan to address the issue. But he praised Duke, who has been managing the Management Directorate only since October.

“I hope whenever we have this transition, whatever the next administration, and I say this with ample thought, that they keep you, because you’re one of the very few people at Homeland Security that I’ve found give direct answers,” he said.

After the statement, committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., interjected, telling Duke the compliment was a rare thing. Pascrell had less kind words for DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.

“I would hold that we shouldn’t have the undersecretary here, because she does a great job,” he said. “I would hold that we should have the secretary here, because he does a lot of talking about how wonderful all of these things are shaping up.”

According to testimony from George H. Stalcup, General Accountability Office director of strategic issues, DHS made incremental gains in minority hiring between 2003 and 2007. In comparison to the rest of the federal government, DHS employs more Hispanics (19.5 percent versus 6.7 percent) and about the same percentage of black men, but fewer black women (7.8 percent versus 11.1 percent) and white women (17.6 percent versus 27.4 percent). He put detailed numbers in his written testimony.

In her own written testimony, Duke said DHS lags behind the federal government average of minorities in Senior Executive Service positions.

Neither Stalcup nor Duke had agency-by-agency breakdowns available at the hearing. Duke said the Transportation Security Administration has the highest percentage of black workers at DHS, while Customs and Border Protection has the highest percentage of Hispanics. She said her efforts are not focused on one particular agency, though.

“It is not OK for some department to be well represented,” she said. “We need a well-balanced department.”

She said the “wide net” strategy of actively seeking minority hires includes recruiting at historically black colleges, working with advocacy groups and advertising in areas of the country with high minority populations.

Currently, 150 DHS employees have volunteered to speak at events at colleges sponsored by the Urban League’s Black Executive Program. The department is seeking partnerships with the National Association of Hispanic Federal Executives, the African American Federal Executive Association, the Asian American Executive Network that would involve speaking at events and providing them with the listings of Senior Executive Service vacancies.

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