Faculty & Staff / Social Justice

Taking Workforce Diversity and Inclusion Beyond Compliance

Dr. Kendra Smith Adler University

Kendra L. Smith, Ph.D.

Kendra L. Smith, Ph.D., recently joined Adler University as an adjunct professor, bringing with her a wealth of knowledge and research on advancing equity and inclusion in communities—and a passion for social justice. Dr. Smith teaches and is involved in course development for the Online Master of Public Administration program.

She recently published a report, “Compliance: Recruitment and Retention of Underrepresented Populations to Achieve Higher Positions in Local Government,” through the International City and County Manager Association. For the report, Dr. Smith looked into four case studies and conducted several interviews with industry experts to provide findings and recommendations to help local governments improve equity and inclusion in their workforce. She shared her thoughts on the goal of the report and how she hopes it will help make a difference for communities.

Why is diversity and inclusion important in local government workforces?

Research has shown both quantitatively and qualitatively that diverse groups outperform homogeneous groups in problem solving, accuracy, and creativity. However, a diverse workforce seldom happens organically.

It is widely known that people of color and other minority populations are largely underrepresented in local government. They are often employed in lower income, lower paying government roles, but are virtually absent in higher level positions. This is a huge problem in many communities, especially urban communities, where local government workforces do not match the makeup of the community.

When the local government workforce does not reflect the makeup of the community, some residents may feel unwelcome in participating in and trusting the governmental process. This can squelch civic involvement and perpetuate a status quo that does not equitably engage the community.

What is the goal of the report?

The report focuses on how local government and administrators can go “beyond compliance” and develop a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce. Many city managers or mayors recognize this issue and have taken aim at developing workforces that are representative of the community. In addition, they are identifying the institutional structures and processes within their organizations that exclude minorities. The goal of the report is to shine a light on the challenges that exist in this area, and share recommendations based on current research.

What surprised you in your research?

The case studies I performed revealed interesting results, showing the diversity of efforts that are out there. There’s not just one way to increase the diversity of your workforce. There are multiple ways, and local governments are framing this work for themselves.

One thing that stood out was how local government structure impacts diversity efforts. For example, the location of diversity offices depends on the structure of the local government. In some instances, the relationship between human resources departments and the office of diversity, equity, and inclusion or human rights were flawed because the two were not able to work well together—and they have to work well together. Part of the reason was a misunderstanding from human resources administrators about the relevance and purview of diversity offices. That is something that will require more research in the future.

Another interesting find was the lack of metrics around diversity and inclusion. These are inherently difficult things to measure. Many local governments simply capture descriptive elements, like the number of people employed within a given demographic group. It takes much more to really gauge whether you are moving the needle with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is also an area that needs more work.

What are you working on now?

A related project that I’m working on is about diversity, equity, and inclusion in urban planning. I’ve always been passionate about urban planning. When considering the built environment in communities, urban planning plays an important role in zoning and policies that affect how people live, work, and play. I’m looking at inclusion, specifically, and will apply for an Adler University seed grant with an Adler student in the summer.

Why is social justice important to you?

Social justice is critical because it defines how you experience life: how you’re treated, how you feel about how you have been treated, and how you feel about yourself. The barriers and challenges that we experience play a critical role in our quality of life. And if your quality of life is diminished, then your opportunity to improve your circumstances is much harder. Social justice is a life issue and if it’s not dealt with in a meaningful way, then we have classes of people who are suffering and who are not able to reach their full potential.