MSPB issues report about minorities in government

At a time of great political debate as to whether government affirmative-action programs should continue, the Merit Systems Protection Board has issued a report on the status of minority employment by the federal government.

The MSPB interpreted the provisions of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 as requiring federal agencies to create a "representative work force" in a manner that is free from discrimination and preferential treatment. And few can argue with the board's statement that this is not an easy task.

In some areas, the MSPB report gave the government good grades in achieving its goal. It noted that the status of minorities has "improved markedly" since the passage of the CSRA and that minority employment in the federal government "exceeds minority participation in the civilian labor force." It also noted that minorities in administrative positions and at higher grade levels are now promoted at "generally equivalent rates" to nonminorities.

But the report also noted there are differences in the employment experience of minorities and nonminorities in the federal government. For example, minority males have not advanced as far in their careers as nonminority males, it said."Not all of the differences can be explained by differences in education, experience and other measurable merit-based factors," the report said. It added that these differences are due to subtle biases against minorities (racial and sexual) that continue to influence decisions on hiring and promoting federal employees.Unfortunately, the report appears to me as nothing more than a quick-and-dirty analysis of what is really an extremely serious problem. To deal with an issue like equal employment, one needs to hire a research firm, take an appropriate sample and make sure the correct conclusions are drawn. In my opinion, the MSPB has not done any of these things.Instead, the board relied on statistics furnished by the Office of Personnel Management; subjective responses from 13,328 federal employees who responded to surveys (out of a pool of about 1.7 million full-time employees); and opinions from equal employment opportunity experts from government and from minority interest groups.In one section of its report, the board noted that minorities are concentrated in lower-paying occupations and ought to enjoy greater representation at higher levels. The gist of the MSPB comments seems to be that there should be a quota system, notwithstanding the fact that President Clinton and Bob Dole are on record as being opposed to quotas.Even when differences in education and experience and other factors are taken into account, the board believes that minorities have not progressed to where they should be. It attributed this to discrimination based on race or national origin.A Far Reach for the ConclusionBut how did the MSPB reach this conclusion? How do you examine every promotion within the federal government to determine whether minorities have received equal consideration for jobs they were qualified for? Certainly not by looking at the number of minorities selected.But that seems to be the approach taken by the MSPB. They looked at a variety of numbers, concluded that something was amiss and attributed the disparity to discrimination. I find this whole approach seriously flawed.The MSPB findings are also flawed because they accept without verification the subjective responses of individuals to questions posed to them. For example, minority employees said their opportunity to serve as acting supervisor when their regular supervisors were away was not identical to the opportunity afforded to nonminority employees.This could mean that discrimination does in fact exist against minority employees, or it could mean that minority employees simply believe they are being discriminated against. I am surprised that the MSPB, with its staff of statisticians, is satisfied to publish a report based on data collected in this manner.When commenting on the overall situation within the federal government, the MSPB noted that minorities have made significant progress but were still victims of discrimination in some cases. The board attributed that condition to the "subjective judgments that ultimately come into play whenever decisions are made on issues such as employee selection, promotions and performance appraisals."Well, subjective judgments are made every day in the real world - not just with respect to minority employees but with respect to nonminority employees. That is human nature, and there is no way to eradicate that.The MSPB cannot create a perfect world. But if you read this report, you get the impression that it thinks it can.Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who is a regular contributor to Federal Computer Week.


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