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Diversity—The Newest Era in Public Personnel Administration

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

By Patrick S. Malone
March 13, 2023

Public personnel administration has a distinguished history in the world of public service. From the beginning, elected officials and citizens depended on civil servants to implement public policy at all levels. Personnel administration and human resources professionals strive under exceptionally challenging conditions to effectively utilize the human beings that comprise our agency and department workforces.

The many roles entailed in personnel administration are quite well-known and serve as the lifeline for our delivery mechanism for public policy. Recruitment, advancement, benefits, conflict resolution, training, retirement and more. When personnel in public organizations are managed well, the proper conditions for human motivation and commitment are created. But the composition of the workforce benefitting from these services has changed significantly over the years beginning with the first administration.

Scholars generally agree that there have been three major phases in the development of personnel administration:

Era of Gentlemen: commenced during Washington’s first administration and is typically considered to have lasted until the inauguration of President Jackson. The main considerations were fitness of character, integrity and high social standing. Job qualifications meant little.

The Spoils System: began when Jackson took office where he enjoyed the reputation of institutionalizing a system spoils system, designed to eliminate long tenured federal administrators who he considered to be too old or to carry an upper-class bias. This era ultimately bred high levels of corruption.

The Merit System: emerged in the 1860s and was eventually written into law by the Pendleton act in 1883 and the civil service reform act of 1978. The system as we know it today is based on merit, as the name suggests, not political connections.

It is the latter, the Merit System, that has been the foundation of public personnel management for years, and rightly so. The nine principles speak volumes. They provide the foundation for a fair human resource framework that focuses on recruitment, advancement, fair and equitable treatment, equal pay, integrity, efficiency, performance, training and protection. Indeed, the merit system deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the positives it has brought to the workforce.

Many years have passed since the initiation of merit principles. One wonders if we are now ready for the next major era of personnel administration, one that goes beyond the protection of individuals and moves toward aggressively recruiting the type of workforce that we need to succeed in the public service. Perhaps it is time for an era that builds on the benefits that the Merit System has offered to government over the years but is more intentional in nature. Our protective mechanisms are sound, but who are we protecting? Where are they from? Does the composition of our workforce truly represent the individuals that we serve? The next phase of personal administration in the public service must focus on creating a diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace.

The benefits of diversity are unquestionable. Research consistently shows that a diverse workforce brings together more perspectives that contribute to better decision making. Since individuals hail from various backgrounds, they bring viewpoints that allow for robust discussion of the problems facing the public service. Diverse teams are more creative and more innovative. Finally, a diverse and inclusive workforce contributes to a sense of psychological safety among teams and individuals. Feeling a sense of belonging increases trust and improves motivation for all.

According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), diversity inclusion is the socially responsible thing to do. As OPM notes, 54 million men, women and children have disabilities, but just over one third of working-age Americans with disabilities are employed. Why? Additionally, an aging population will ensure people stay in the workforce longer, with the number of residents older than 65 doubling by 2050. By that same year, over half of the U.S. population will be “minorities” (any race other than non-Hispanic, single-race whites) and one third will be of Hispanic ancestry. Have we adjusted to this? Does the complexion of our public administration, workforce reflect these changes? In a word, no. Now is the time to make this a priority.

At the federal level, several executive orders regarding diversity inclusion and equity have already been signed, and agencies are scrambling to meet the requirements. This is a great start, so long as the orders are not rescinded if a new party controls the White House in the next election. Also, it is important to note that a new era of personnel administration focusing on diversity would be incomplete without acknowledging that the challenges we face begin long before a recruiter sees an application for a public service position. Diversity challenges begin much earlier—with our communities, neighborhoods and schools. It begins with creating opportunities for all. 

Inclusion and diversity are not political topics. They are not fads. They are social imperatives and smart business strategies that will help all our government organizations achieve their mission in a more efficient, creative and effective way. Perhaps with focused attention on our communities and a de-politicalization of the subject, scholars and practitioners can push forward with the next era of personnel administration.

Author:  Patrick S. Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University.  He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service.  His co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) was released in Spring 2021.  His new book, “Decision Points” is targeted for release in Spring 2024.

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