Ask the White Guy: What Is Wrong With the Federal Government?

A reader observes that her federal agency is out of touch and wonders if DiversityInc can help.


Why doesn’t DiversityInc extend an invitation to the federal government agencies to participate in the DiversityInc Top 50 Survey as corporate America does in sharing best practices for diversity management? It is much needed and I am sure that if they did, it might ring the alarm and move some mountains.


We used to have a DiversityInc Top Federal Agency competition, but there is a consortium of Equal Employment Opportunity officers who decided to not participate, so after a few years of struggling along to get participation, I dropped the effort.

Of the dozen or so agencies that did participate (yours was not among them), results were not on par with the corporate sector. In my opinion, other than in the U.S. Navy (and currently, the U.S. Marine Corps), there is little leadership involvement. Read Retired Admiral Mike Mullen: Trust, Candor & Reliability for more on diversity in the military.

I don’t know how many times I spoke at federal agencies where some under-assistant-deputy-secretary-something-or-other introduced me and then ducked out so he didn’t have to hear my talk (and it was almost always a “he” and I could feel their disdain for the dog-and-pony-show diversity events that stood in for actually doing something).

I’ve observed that diversity management for federal agencies is much about face and little to do with actual work, accomplishments or accountability. Management is squirreled away in the EEO offices, where the leaders of EEO have very little interaction with people who actually run things and there is nothing more than compliance work going on. There is no “CEO commitment” among the majority of agency heads.

Old-School & Overwhelmed?

In my observation, President Obama’s executive order “Establishing a Coordinated Government-wide Initiative to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce” has resulted in no substantial change in behavior. I get the impression that most of the old-school federal executives are waiting to see what the presidential election will bring.

I must have had hundreds of visits to dozens of agencies over the years; I’ve been struck by the awkward and stilted manner that people interact with senior management. There’s a lot of pointy hierarchy and obsessive, starchy regimentation. I’ve never seen those attributes connected to productivity—and, indeed, I have the impression that if half of the federal workforce quit tomorrow, most Americans wouldn’t know the difference.

I had to laugh out loud when I read in The New York Times about the investigation into Google causing “one of the biggest violations of data protection laws that we had ever seen.” Michael Copps, who last year ended a 10-year term as a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, said regulators were overwhelmed. “The industry has gotten more powerful, the technology has gotten more pervasive and it’s getting to the point where we can’t do too much about it,” he said.

Here’s the best part: Aside from admitting that his agency couldn’t keep up, the fine for the “biggest violations of data protection” was (hold on to your hats) $25,000. With that stunning level of organizational accomplishment, do you think someone’s going to care about diversity?

Innovation From Diversity Management

In a meeting in Washington, I heard the best explanation for why things are the way they are: A very wise man posited that you can’t help but avoid hiring 2 percent incompetent people every year. But if you don’t fire anyone, 2 percent becomes 4 percent, which becomes 6 percent—and soon, the incompetents are running the roost and figuring out how to squeeze out the competent people.

I won’t out you or the agency you work for, but it’s been in the news quite a bit lately; it has fallen behind the times and is now a drag on the budget. This is a management issue, and diversity management falls into that category.

Your “alarm bell” idea isn’t going to “move any mountains” until the first “mountain” gets scooped into bags marked “fertilizer” and trucked away by someone in authority. There is no perceived reason for change, so no change is happening.

There is no such thing as a trickle-up diversity effort. Your wistful desire for change at your agency is not matched by a perceived business reason or accountability to improve effectiveness via diversity management, which would have all sorts of benefits.

These include organizational effectiveness, higher-quality recruiting, improved productivity, meritocratic promotions, improved supply chain, multi-culturally competent interaction with citizens (marketing and sales of your agency’s services), nuanced understanding of problems and opportunities, etc.

Watch the video below to learn how cultural competency through diversity management helped Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, No. 13 in The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, save millions in marketing costs. The company, along with nine others, presented innovations at our Innovation Fest! diversity event.


All those things that corporations know are a competitive edge lead to innovation, a subject which around which your agency has consistently lagged.

Good luck to you.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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  • Thanks for that article. It is all so true. There is an office in my agency that does not provide good customer service and it stinks. Thanks again.

  • Gosh, I can understand Luke’s disenchantment with the experiences he’s had in the Federal sector, but to say that half of government employees could quit, and no one would notice, is unduly harsh and unfair, and on a par with the assault on government and — by default, government employees — currently being fomented by cynical, partisan, political hacks.

    • Luke Visconti

      No successful corporation that I’ve seen works as inefficiently as the federal government. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of well-meaning people in the federal sector, but the head count alone demonstrates how federal management hasn’t taken advantage of productivity gains made possible by technology – just to give one gross example. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • Johnny Wilson

    As a federal worker within the Department of Veterans Affairs, witnessing these injustices on a regular basis, what can I do to stop it. After all, retaliation is still alive and in full use within the agency.

    • Luke Visconti

      Thank you for speaking up. As a veteran, I am watching with alarm the stories about veterans with PTSD waiting longer and longer for treatment.
      I agree with your assessment about your perception of potential retaliation – think about the two facets of this. After two 10-year wars, the Department of Veteran Affairs finds itself unable to cope with PTSD – and you are afraid of retaliation for pointing out how to get the job done more efficiently. Both are hallmarks of the same problem – dysfunctional management. There is nothing you can do, but do your best to help the veterans around you. I feel for you, but understand that there are many fine people in your department, and the veterans need you to continue to rise above your justified frustration and provide the service that called you to this profession.
      Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • Why don’t you come right out and say these things when you speak at our agencies–you described it so EXACTLY!!!!

    • Luke Visconti

      You’re right, I’ve been too polite up until now. Fair warning. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

    • Bette Turner

      Mr. Visconti, you are spot on about the VA. I am disabled veteran with PTSD. I was hired under the VRA program of all things and was railroaded out of my job. They intentionally put me in situations that aggravated my disability. When I was unwell and went to the emergency room(in the VA hospital I worked in) they still reported me AWOL with a doctors note. When I went to EEO they called me AWOL for that. In both cases their justification was I made no attempts to call my supervisor. So they just conjured up scenarios to exploit my disability until they had enough evidence to fire me–that right fire me. And this all happen in my first 90 days on the job. I have sin e then decided to leave the workforce altogether for health reasons. The congresswoman I contacted looked the other way also. I’m working on getting private attorneys to pursue this.

  • We used to have a robust “minority” program (that’s what we called it back then), but it was employee driven and not micro-managed from on high. Local managers supported us by chipping in a few dollars here and there and not standing in our way when something was working. Suddenly, HQ management decided to disband our groups and replace them with a management-driven agenda, i.e. create a new diversity program that makes it look like they’re doing something, but actually nothing gets done, probably because all the worker bees who used to get things done have been disenfranchised. The diversity program is now a total joke, but when some manager somewhere gets his yearly review, the diversity program check box is colored in. I doubt our Director even knows we have a failing diversity program.

  • From Luke: “A very wise man posited that you can’t help but avoid hiring 2 percent incompetent people every year. But if you don’t fire anyone, 2 percent becomes 4 percent, which becomes 6 percent—and soon, the incompetents are running the roost and figuring out how to squeeze out the competent people.” APPARENTLY I AM NOT A VERY WISE MAN. PLEASE EXPLAIN HOW THIS IS MATHEMATICALLY POSSIBLE. THANK YOU.

    • Luke Visconti

      Sorry for the shorthand. A workforce is an ever-evolving place – people are hired, people retire or leave for other reasons. In the federal setting, almost nobody gets fired. When I was on active duty, there were guys who had countdown calendars to retirement prominently displayed. We called people like that “retired on active duty.” At least in the military, there is an up-or-out policy these days – a relentless drive to root out incompetents. That’s not the case for almost all of the federal workforce. So, if you hire 2% incompetents and don’t fire anyone (and have very low turnover), next year you have 4% incompetents, the following year 6% (2+2+2), and so on. I’ve observed that competent people will not hang around and work with or for incompetents, given a choice. In my estimation, when the level of incompetent people gets over 10%, you’re in trouble – 20% is the tipping point where the competent people flee. Not all federal agencies are incompetent. Some, like the IRS, are very, very good at what they do. (The IRS is also very good at managing diversity.) I realize many of you are laughing at the irony of this – but, you see, it’s all about money. Accountability for money, whether it is the Komen Foundation, General Mills or the IRS, forces the issue: Is it more profitable to take the extra measurements to ensure top quality by ensuring equity in recruiting and talent development – or can we afford to discriminate? Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • Phil Seeberg

    Could a big part of the difference (problem) compared to the private sector be that the top level is tied to the party in power, and as you said, it seems that lower levels of management can just wait out the heads and whatever programs may be put in place?
    And there is so much talk about cutting costs in agencies that the managers probably figure that they need to keep as much fat as possible so when the cuts come they can still do some of their job.

    • Luke Visconti

      No doubt that political appointees are a considerable problem – but a bigger problem, in my opinion, is the bloated headcount and poor management. There’s so little work actually being done that people have the time to plot against each other in the game of vicious political infighting among career civil servants that seems to take up 90% of the conversations I’m involved in. Another huge problem is that nobody’s rewarded for thrift or efficiency. Ever hear of “use it or lose it”? It’s the federal government philosophy that you have to spend every dime of budget allocated to you or you won’t get the same budget next year. As far as fat goes, I don’t know of a single federal agency that has trimmed its workforce over the past ten years to match successful corporate models of utilizing human capital with the increases in productivity brought by information technology in mind. There are also some 100% “fat” areas – for example, the Small Business Administration. I know dozens of successful entrepreneurs and I’ve never met one with a sustainable business that’s been helped by the SBA. I’m reasonably successful – been out on my own since 1994 – and from that perspective, I can tell you that we should shutter the SBA today. Immediately. Maybe reconstitute it along the lines of economic development in specific underserved regions – but maybe the government shouldn’t be in that business in the first place! Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • You are only discovering the tip of the iceburg, Luke. I worked for both the OFCCP (protecting private industry employees) and the US Census Bureau/NPC (as an internal EEO Manager “protecting” federal employees). Within just a few short months working as the EEO Manager, I realized the depth of the problem within the federal EEO system (internal)…there is no real accountability. Who deals with the head of a federal agency when that agency decides not to comply with the federal government’s own regulation on EEO? The answer comes straight from the EEOC’s mouth – nobody. Well, actually action would fall upon Congress. I asked the EEOC if Congress has EVER acted upon the EEO non-compliance of an agency and the response was straight to the point – no. Until someone holds the top officials accountable, nothing will change. Often agencies simply show a video to employees in order to comply with EEO and Diversity related training needs (not all, but most), and some do not even do that. Federal EEO Officers do not have the power to take action if discrimination is found. That office is used to filter the complaint through the investigative process, then they are done. Their job descriptions are clear that they are not decision makers and that they are not to even determine if the complaint is valid. I did it anyway and found my head bruised and bloodied by ramming it against all the walls lined with red tape. I am currently writing an article about this subject, using the federal government’s own statistics on compliance. The federal government could use lessons from many in private industry on how to be respectful of workplace diversity. Carol Dawson, CCDP, EEO GUIDANCE, Inc.

  • As a former EOA (military counterpart to EEO), I would like to point out that one of the biggest challenges that I faced was the lack of interest in completing a command climate assessment survey, a major problem we have is, too many survey’s. At my last command I was presented with at least 5 survey’s in a year. For those that ever put together a command sized survey, there is a significant amount of work and time involved.

    Luke’s earlier statement about competent’s will leave, was on point; after seeing the hurdles that make up EEO, I will never work in the field again. I still believe that promoting and encouraging diversity is the right and honorable thing, I just don’t believe the federal government is anymore committed to diversity than fixing the budget.

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