The role of DEI in the public sector hiring experience
Updated: Mar 8
Twin challenges of hiring experience and diversity
Successfully recruiting and retaining staff in the public sector has been an ongoing challenge since the pandemic. CivicPulse, in partnership with Qualtrics, has begun conducting regular surveys of local, state, and federal government employees to better understand how they can improve staff retention. In our most recent survey, we explored the role of the recruitment and hiring process in influencing candidate choice.
Meanwhile, public sector employers are simultaneously trying address how to create a more equitable workplace that fosters opportunities and meaningful work for people of all backgrounds. This pursuit of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) can take many forms, but it can be especially important in the recruitment and hiring process.
As it turns out, the solution to one problem may solve the other. Drawing on data from a national survey of 1,148 local and state employees, we found that recent hires in public sector agencies that had explicitly incorporated diversity, equity, and inclusion practices into their hiring rated their experiences as candidates more highly than recent hires in public sector agencies that had not done so. Notably, this finding held across genders, race, and ethnicity.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Practice
We also wanted to better understand what DEI hiring practices public employers were engaging in and what type of departments have been more or less likely to adopt such practices. Many mentioned policies that removed identifying information from applications on first review to avoid unconscious bias related to gender, race, and nationality. Other respondents highlighted their agencies’ efforts to expand their recruitment channels into more diverse venues, include statements encouraging women and minorities to apply, or remove minimum job requirements to broaden the applicant pool. Requiring training on things like unconscious bias and having more diverse hiring panels were also frequently mentioned.
Overall, we find that 69% of employers in state government, and 73% of employers in local government are taking at least some steps to pursue DEI in their hiring process (we did not have sufficient data from the most recent survey to report on the federal government). However, there is a great deal of variation in the prevalence of DEI when looking across different departments. For example, we find that 79% of respondents in health agencies and 77% of respondents in public works departments reported having DEI practices in their hiring process, while only 64% of respondents in legal services and 63% of respondents in human resources reported having such practices.
There is also evidence that these practices have spread relatively quickly. At least 35% of all respondents in state government and 45% of all respondents in local government said that they had increased their efforts in pursuing DEI in hiring within the last two years. Again, however, this varied substantially by department. Although respondents in human resources were least likely to say their government was taking steps to pursue DEI, they were among the most likely to say their agency had increased their DEI efforts in the last two years. Meanwhile, respondents in departments associated with the legal system were the least likely to report recent increases in DEI efforts in hiring.
Challenges To Consider When Implementing DEI Practices in Hiring
While DEI practices are spreading quickly in state and local government—and they appear to be associated with increased satisfaction with the hiring process across demographic groups—many respondents involved in the hiring process nonetheless expressed reservations. When asked their thoughts on current efforts to pursue DEI in hiring, one common sentiment was that diversity efforts should not come at the expense of hiring the most qualified candidates.
On the other hand, advocates of DEI will tend to point out that there are different perspectives on what it means to be qualified. For example, given that governments serve the public at large, with many services targeting marginalized communities, some agencies might value direct experience with such communities more than other professional or educational credentials. Public sector employers looking to advance DEI in hiring should pay close attention to navigating this tension so as to mitigate any potential backlash.
While the legitimacy of DEI efforts in public sector hiring should be judged on its own terms, it is worth noting the possible connection it might have to addressing the ongoing challenge of staff retention that public sector employers are also grappling with. While further research would be needed to identify whether the pattern pointed to here reflects something causal, it is worth considering how the pursuit of DEI might have some positive spillover effects on recruitment and retention in the public sector more generally.
The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random-sampled survey of state and local government employees. Responses were collected between August 9 and October 24, 2022.
The sample frame draws on Power Almanac’s continuously updated contact list of government officials from counties, municipalities, and townships with populations of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with Qualtrics and implemented by the CivicPulse Team.
Below are the key survey items used to generate the results:
Overall, how satisfied or unsatisfied were you with your hiring experience?
Is your department or agency taking steps to pursue DEI in its hiring practices?
In the last 1-2 years, has your department or agency’s efforts to pursue DEI in its hiring practices increased, decreased, or stayed about the same?
DEI efforts in hiring have increased
DEI efforts in hiring have decreased
DEI efforts in hiring have stayed about the same
In general, what do you think about the current efforts to pursue DEI in hiring for public sector jobs?
Nathan Lee, PhD
Managing Director of CivicPulse