Best Practices and Partnerships for Building a Diverse Public Service Workforce

Developing a diverse public service that appropriately reflects the communities it serves is a top-priority for Maryland counties. Here, we explore some best practices and potential partnerships to do so.

colored outlines of men and women in business attire in front of black and white drawings of diverse facesMaryland counties — like many across the country — are actively and consciously working to diversify their workforce to better reflect the communities they serve. Doing so is beneficial not only to local residents, but also to improving local government services, community relations, and increased workplace satisfaction. In fact, “The research tells us that when a local government looks like the community it serves, it is perceived as being more legitimate and elicits greater cooperation for the government,” says As Leisha DeHart-Davis, professor of public administration at the University of North Carolina.

The current challenge

A recent report from Route Fifty explored the issue of diversity in local government workforces and offered some best practices:

According to data from a MissionSquare Research Institute survey, in 2021 only 38% of the cities responding found their workforce to be reflective of the community when it came to race and ethnicity. Though 56% of cities surveyed by MissionSquare for another report indicated that diversity, equity and inclusion are a top or high priority, only “42%  have a formal program in place,” according to Gerald Young, the senior research analyst there.

The same report noted, however, that challenges go beyond hiring:

Few in the public sector would believe—or admit that they believe—that hiring a diverse workforce isn’t beneficial. But hiring doesn’t even become a factor if a diverse mix of candidates aren’t applying for jobs in the first place.

Best practices for diversifying local government workforces

Route Fifty offers several best practices and successful examples that Maryland counties might consider to help diversify their workforce.

  • Put forward an image of a county that appears welcoming to people of all races, ethnicities and genders: The careers page on Memphis, Tennessee’s website is a good example of this. “But if you look at a lot of local government websites, they don’t even think of the pictures they put up with their job ads,” says DeHart-Davis. “Memphis really got it right with that image.”

  • Deepen pipelines that leads people of different backgrounds to public service: Delaware, for example, “is committed to reinforcing the pipeline to jobs with the state from historically black colleges like Delaware State University,” says Claire DeMatteis, secretary of the Delaware Department of Human Resources. “The real prize is when we keep those people in Delaware, preferably in the public sector,” she says.
  • Develop nontraditional pipelines at the same time: Importantly, not all potential public servants will attend college, some will seek trade experience, for example. As such, Delaware has extended its reach “a step deeper into the educational track.” “For people who aren’t college-inclined,” says DeMatteis, “we created Delaware Pathways, in the high schools and middle schools. We grab the kids—many of them in the non-white population—and bring them through high school or middle school and connect them with a job path that can lead to employment with the state.”
  • Offer flexible recruitment practices: Not all candidates can easily access all application processes, which may create barriers to jobs. For example, the Philadelphia fire department traditionally held all its civil service tests periodically on a single day. “But just because the city thought Saturday was a convenient day, it might not be for many people, especially those in our most challenged communities,” says Michael Zaccagni, director of human resources there. “So, we expanded things out and now our testing is done over a two-or-three-month period during which people can come in and test at their leisure and they can even take the test remotely. That has had a major impact on the diversity of the employment pool.”
  • Alter degree and skills requirements where practical: For example, instead of requiring a bachelor’s degree, job postings can say “bachelor’s degree or equivalent,” which opens up the positions to people who qualify in other ways but don’t have a diploma. In fact, the State of Maryland recently did so for thousands of its job openings, in an attempt to attract a more diverse, qualified pool of candidates.

Help at home

The University of Baltimore has several programs and initiatives to help Maryland’s local governments attract and retain a diverse public service. One such program — currently open for applications — is the Maryland Equity and Inclusion Leadership Program.

That program is offered jointly by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at The University of Baltimore and the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights.

The 8-week program combines asynchronous and live instruction, with peer group interaction, and is:

• committed to helping participants and their organizations become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive;
• comprehensive and academically grounded; and
• job relevant and requires participants to complete a project focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Read the full report from Rout Fifty.

Learn more about the University of Baltimore Leadership program.