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Chief Inclusion Officer as Complexity Manager

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tanya Settles
May 5, 2023

Public sector leadership has become more complex over the past few years, with no indications that complexity reduction is on the near horizon. A longstanding, but recently exacerbated, challenge for local governments is effectively embracing and leveraging diversity in a way that provides equitable service to increasingly diverse communities. At the same time, government entities are legally and ethically responsible for ensuring that employees have equitable access to work environments that are inclusive, anti-discriminatory and psychologically safe. 

Governments are complex social systems by design. The duality of internal inclusion and external equity can create tensions between communities and governments that test the skills of government leaders to sustain a governance structure that is responsive to multifaceted and diverse communities. Adding to the complexity is the reality that separate government departments and agencies interact with each other and the community in very different ways, exhibiting traits of unique ecosystems within the larger governance structure. These challenges make up the fabric of a community. When managed well, the challenges create opportunities for equitable innovation. When managed poorly, purposeful complexity quickly becomes unmanageable complication. Overall, government entities have succeeded in managing the internal/external equity balancing act, although some missteps need to be reconciled from an equity standpoint. 

To meet these challenges, many local governments have created a designated role of chief equity officer, signaling an important shift toward more inclusive governance. This new professional position offers a unique opportunity to help manage the complexity of government that stems from balancing the duality of equity, instilling both a sense of welcomeness for the community and a sense of belonging for government staff. Internally and externally accountable, chief equity officers and diversity managers can build relationships that create opportunities for voice and reconcile policies and practices that create barriers to community engagement and fairness.

Chief Diversity Officers and Complexity Management

Utilizing the role of chief diversity officer as a key to complexity management has 5 potential benefits:

  1. Sidestepping FOMU: The fear of messing up (FOMU) is a significant barrier to a fully inclusive government. When FOMU happens, leaders and staff recognize a need to address challenges related to inclusion and diversity but worry that they might make a wrong move that would further alienate potentially marginalized community members or employees. Sometimes, leaders simply lack the skills and expertise to implement meaningful change. This risk is particularly high where diversity is multi-sectional or crosses multiple policy domains. A skilled and designated inclusion leader can coordinate government response to challenges, guide implementation and reduce FOMU. 
  2. Leverage decentralized decision-making: When different departments and agencies address specific but disparate policy domains or service delivery areas, siloed decision-making can be ineffective and introduces the risk of inefficiency. An inclusion officer can support the development of efficiency improvements by ensuring that communication channels remain open and problem resolution is the result of multiple perspectives, experiences and disciplines.
  3. Improved community engagement: Chief diversity officers have an important role in bringing government agencies closer to the community and vice versa through inclusive engagement practices. A skilled DEI professional brings together people of different identities, roles, perspectives and affinity groups to ensure that all people have voice and access to problem resolution with their government. In other words, engagement leads to voice; voice leads to understanding; and understanding leads to collaborative problem resolution.
  4. Improved job satisfaction and employee retention: Engagement between government employees and members of the community around public policy is at the core of why emerging leaders enter public service in the first place—to be a part of something bigger and more important than any person can achieve individually. When employees connect in meaningful ways with the community and are treated fairly by their agency leaders, job satisfaction increases and can be sustained. Gen Z and Millennial employees are particularly attuned to inclusive workplaces. 
  5. Efficiency improvements: Inclusive workplaces result in greater innovation and problem-solving, fiscal stability and improved service. When relationships and engagements between community and government are managed responsibly and inclusively, opportunities to improve efficiency and equity are boundless. 

Organizational complexity is not negative and can be a starting point for creative and innovative problem solving. A chief inclusion officer can help government organizations become comfortable with complexity by bringing a sense of calm to the chaos of organizational and policy complexity, thereby strengthening the relationship between government and community, supporting healthy work environments and creating future pathways toward greater inclusion.

Author: Tanya Settles is the CEO of Paradigm Public Affairs, LLC.  Tanya’s areas of work include relationship building between local governments and communities, restorative justice, and the impacts of natural and human-caused disasters on at-risk populations.  Tanya can be reached at [email protected].  The opinions in this column and any mistakes are hers alone.

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