Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Government: Chapter 1

Posted on January 19, 2021

Black Lives Matter Protest with signs
Photo by Kalea Morgan on Unsplash

This series was written by Vince Vu. Stay tuned for the five-part series on Diversity, Equity, and Belonging in Government.

Chapter 1: Being BOLD when engaging in the Work

Let’s call it like it is – diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging work (“DEIB”, or, my favorite, “the Work”) is really hard. It’s hard no matter what department, division, or even sector you’re in. It’s hard when you’re in a resource-starved organization, and equally as hard if you are well-resourced. But, I’m guessing you already know that. And I hope you clicked on this article because you want to do something about it.

The truth is that we, as government practitioners, are uniquely positioned to address this challenge. We’re uniquely positioned to engage with the Work. We’re uniquely positioned to create a lasting impact. And – if I can be so bold – we’re uniquely positioned to dismantle the systems, policies, and procedures that perpetuate structural racism, inequities, and different forms of discrimination based on power and privilege. 

(You can tell I get super fired up from this.)

Although I currently work in the private sector, I’ve worked in government for most of my career. In every position I’ve had, I’ve had the privilege of advancing the Work in a number of different ways – whether programmatically, politically, or even with policy. In every situation, I’ve seen how powerful deliberate action with the Work can be. I’ve seen how it can change lives and create a lasting impact that actually increases residents’ trust in government. I’ve also seen the sheer number of super dedicated, super talented coworkers who engage in this work day in and day out.

I wanted to sit down and put some thoughts to paper about how to engage in the Work comprehensively – from where to begin philosophically to tactical programs and tips. Although I am definitely not an expert and still on my own learning journey, I thought that by writing some thoughts down I might be able to spur some conversation and maybe even help you out on your journey as well. Thus, the birth of this series. Welcome!

For this first chapter, I want to highlight two foundational concepts that have been incredibly successful in every single public sector DEIB initiative I’ve been a part of: 1) shared terminology and 2) XO Data.

Shared Terminology

I know I came off really strong by literally having the first sentence of this post throw out four very meaningful words at once – diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. However, I think that, at a minimum, engaging in the Work requires that every single employee – leader or individual contributor – understand the difference between these concepts, and be able to explain, defend, and advocate for these concepts in every setting.  The first step that every organization should take when engaging with the Work is to help all employees understand the definitions behind the core concepts.

Let’s start off with the most clinical definitions:

Diversity – the representation of multiple identities 

Equity – the acknowledgment and constant/consistent redistribution of power

Inclusion – the notion that the thoughts, ideas, and perspectives of all individuals matter

Belonging – the status where every individual can realize their full potential, be psychologically safe, and be respected, valued, and participate in power structures that affect them

These were the definitions that I learned in grad school. If you’re anything like me, the geeky side of you loves the academic prose – but, the practitioner side of you loses a teensy bit of interest (it’s ok to admit this).

While I think those definitions can be helpful in their own way, I’m a HUGE fan of Dr. Dafina-Lazarus Stewart’s conception of these concepts:

Diversity asks, “Who’s in the room?” 

Equity responds: “Who is trying to get in the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?”

Inclusion asks, “Have everyone’s ideas been heard?” 

Justice responds, “Whose ideas won’t be taken as seriously because they aren’t in the majority?”

This explanation comes from Dr. Stewart’s incredible essay on the language of appeasement, which I HIGHLY recommend as a side read – zir essay expands upon that “conversation” and provides much more color than I can do justice here.

Tactically, this journey of shared understanding can take the form of several different initiatives depending on what makes the most sense in your organization. Here’s one way to roll this out, tailored for our current pandemic life:

  1. Digital all-hands/town hall with senior leaders about the importance of the Work and shared definitions
  2. Training modules – either pre-recorded and taken individually, or cohort models
  3. Facilitated discussion with immediate workgroup
  4. Digital all-hands/town hall to reconvene to reinforce new organizational concepts and laying out a roadmap for further discussions

All of this can take place over the course of weeks/months, of course, based on your organization. The important part here is to make sure the message begins and ends with leadership, to provide multiple ways to enable and train staff on the new concepts, and to discuss the concepts with peers.

Engaging with the definitions of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is the first, most crucial step. Some organizations go further and start to educate as well on other terms:

  • Racism
  • Systemic racism
  • White privilege
  • White fragility
  • Etc.

It’s up to you and your organization to choose where to go. But, at a minimum, start with DEIB.

XO Data

The other element that is crucial to begin your organization’s journey is taking a good hard look at your data. One framework that I’ve found really helpful in understanding your data comprehensively is thinking about X-data – or, experience data – and O-data, or operational data. Let’s take a look at the difference between the two.

Operational Data (O-data)

You and your organization have a ton of this. O-data are data on things like finance, HR, or performance – in other words, tangible records of tangible activities. O-data is the kind of data that we in government work with day in and day out. When you think of “data” in general, you are most likely thinking of O-data.

Experience Data (X-data)

X-data is data on some kind of experience. It’s data about humans, not about tangible records. It’s the belief, emotions, and sentiments – it’s what’s happening behind the scenes to cause the O-data.

Here’s an example:

Attrition data is O-data. It tells you about the number of employees that are leaving your organization.

Exit interview data is X-data. It tells you why employees are leaving your organization.

Or, to put it another way – O-data tells you what happened. X-data tells you why it’s happening.

This is particularly relevant in the Work because we often look purely at O-data. We look at our employee demographics and create plans on how to create better representation. We look at data on attrition and try to retain employees. However, what we don’t often tend to do is look at X-data and understand why these trends are happening. For example – looking at employee demographics is great, but what about the differing experiences of employees from different demographics? Trying to slow attrition is valuable, but how do you know your intervention will actually affect attrition rates? These are some of the questions that X-data can answer.

When engaging in the Work, start looking at the types of data you rely on in your programs – and try to catalog them as either X-data or O-data. If you’re missing X-data, try to include metrics that help you understand the “why” behind the trends. This is the data that is actionable; this is the data that you can change as you begin your DEIB journey.

Whew, okay, that was a lot. 

TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) – When engaging in the work, begin at a minimum by:

  1. Embarking on a shared organizational journey to understand the definitions of DEIB, and
  2. Begin thinking about your XO data and how it tells the story of DEIB in your organization.

By doing these two things – you’ll enable your organization to start your DEIB journey on the right footing.

So, what is coming next in this series? In the upcoming chapters, here’s what you can expect to humor me on:

  • How to authentically listen to the community when doing the Work
  • How to understand analytics and insights with an equity lens
  • How to actually take action with the Work
  • Tying it all together in a program that makes sense

Again, I’m not an expert, nor do I claim to have all the answers. What I do have is one perspective that has been helpful in engaging with the Work, and I hope you find it valuable as well. See you in Chapter 2, comrades. 

Vince headshotVince Vu is the Head of Government Strategy at Qualtrics, focusing on state and local government. He advises government agencies and organizations on effective experience management (XM) programming, including program design, survey assessment, resourcing, and change management. Prior to joining Qualtrics, Vince managed research and data analytics teams in multiple government settings at the city, county, and state levels. Vince earned his Masters in Public Policy, specializing in advanced policy analysis. Connect with Vince on LinkedIn.

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