Leading from the Inside: Advancing DEI at the State Level

February 29, 2024 | James Bell III

An Asian person and Black person discussing work at a table with a laptop and notepad in a modern office setting.

Campaigns for racial justice have grown throughout our country, and parallel conversations focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have increased, especially in public service. We experience this effect through the lens of facilitating more equitable and responsive service delivery. Our programming, policies, and data must be culturally informed and relevant. But DEI must also be valued internally in how we contribute to employee recruitment, retention, and development. Today’s workplace is complex, and DEI is vital for improving outcomes for all the populations we serve.

Most modern organizations have come to terms with the critical need for DEI initiatives. The evidence highlighting how these efforts can improve an organization’s productivity, creativity, retention, and financial success has been clear for some time. But, honestly, is that enough? And why haven’t we made the earth-shattering changes we all know are possible? Perhaps it could be traced back to the changes we hope to seek being assigned outside of our organization when it should be us who are leading and implementing change.

Breaking down siloes for diversity requires new ways of working with fewer barriers among and across teams and their unique people. To remove these perceived barriers, I propose that a few key steps must take place.

1. Put the people first.

I have been in too many meetings where employees are considered “resources” or “FTEs,” and it’s so unfortunate. As advantageous as it may be for some, the lure of DEI as a return on investment cannot be the sole purpose for pursuing such initiatives. We lose the essence of humanity and unique individuality that makes diversity so special when we limit people to a box on an organizational chart. If governments want to attract and retain the best possible talent, the actual business case to make is talent itself.

Building a diverse and inclusive culture cannot only be a human resources function or a top-down effort. All people across departments should see themselves reflected in this work and be able to identify a path to make it their own. As leaders, we should work relentlessly toward understanding the needs of others while building a safe environment for the type of collaboration needed to solve complex problems better. This means constantly learning and embracing new concepts, ideas, and ways of doing things. Each of us has the power to create a more substantial, fairer workplace where everyone can contribute their strengths, talents, and ideas while being treated with dignity and respect.

2. Back your program with a budget.

Organizations have shouted their pledges and promises to foster more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments from any rooftop they could find for at least three years. Although determining which groups are walking the walk is challenging, a strong indication of one’s commitment is to look at budget line items. A lack of or limited budget is an immediate red flag that conveys that DEI is not a priority. Just like anything else, if something is important to you, you will spend the money required to implement it properly.

One of the best ways to demonstrate your commitment to DEI is through sustainable, tangible financial investment. This allows our DEI initiatives to be continuous and to evolve over time based on the immediate need. We are not in a position to check the box or allow one implicit bias course to cover all the broad gaps we are experiencing. There is also the benefit of a broad supply of qualified DEI practitioners and consultants who are experienced in guiding organizations through complex DEI issues. Should we continue to face complicated and longstanding DEI issues, it isn’t up to our staff to try to resolve them. We must assign monthly, quarterly, or annual monies to address these problems.

3. Hold yourself and your organization accountable.

Regardless of agency or size, DEI efforts within organizations often lack strategic follow-through and accountability. These endeavors are often reactive, episodic, or only prioritized after a public relations crisis. We can’t only respond when we are required to respond. The communities we serve—and our employees—expect that we will carry out our responsibilities and fulfill our promises. We have not consistently been diligent in creating mechanisms for feedback, and if we have, we fail to implement them.

To truly embed DEI into our culture, we need meaningful metrics and the willingness and courage to use the data to hold ourselves accountable. How will we ever know if we are going in the right direction or making desired changes if we never discuss the data? And that isn’t to say results must be perfect because we know changes take time. But it communicates clear goals and allows for solid focus and discussion for alignment. This disclosure is necessary to drive change and inspire others by demonstrating that progress is possible.

The future of state government must fully embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion both as an aspiration and as a responsibility. We must create a sense of belonging and environment for organizational justice, even if this means resisting the status quo that we have nurtured and become far too comfortable letting stand. We should be celebrating rather than marginalizing employees because of their individuality. We should be challenging business practices that undermine our organizational values and fail to treat employees equitably.

This article first appeared in the Diverse Executives Leading in Public Health (DELPH) Magazine, Issue 2. Learn more about DELPH’s leadership development initiative by visiting DELPH program page.