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A response to the US House racial diversity report

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Last month the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released a report detailing the racial diversity among top U.S. House staff. The report showed a lack of diversity in senior positions that, while alarming, is not a shock to many of us who have worked within the halls of Congress.

The report highlighted that not a single Latina/o, Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI), or Native American serves as a staff director of a House committee. In personal offices of White Democratic members, less than 8 percent of top staff are people of color, despite that the districts these offices represent are, on average, comprised of over 37 percent people of color. The reasons for the lack of diversity in Congress are varied, but include the fact that hiring is often based on pre-­existing relationships, making it difficult for people without a congressional connection to get their feet in the door. In addition, many entry ­level jobs on the Hill do not pay a living wage; individuals that don’t have another means of financial support are unable to begin a career and subsequently advance in Congress.

{mosads}So, what steps can Congress take to remedy this alarming lack of diversity, and what cues can they take from other organizations?

At TechCongress, this is a question we are committed to unpacking, and are taking strides to improve our own diversity and inclusion efforts. TechCongress gives talented technologists the opportunity to gain first-­hand experience in federal policymaking and shape the future of tech policy through a one-year Congressional Innovation Fellowship with a member of Congress or Congressional Committee. Each year, we recruit a class of Congressional Innovation Fellows to work on the Hill. We’ve committed to directing at least 51 percent of our outreach to groups working with underrepresented communities, and have exceeded that goal in each of our three annual recruiting cycles. This commitment shapes the procedure for our recruitment process, and the effort is evident in our results.

Our procedures have resulted in classes of fellows of which 46 percent identify as racial minorities and 38 percent identify as veterans. At TechCongress, we are transparent about our successes and shortcomings with regards to diversity and we think Congress should do the same. What can congressional offices do to begin to build more inclusive hiring practices?

Congress should commit to publishing their diversity metrics, at every level, consistent with recommendations from Project Include. It’s important that our legislators be transparent about both their successes and where they’re falling short to improve the hiring process in subsequent years.

In addition to being more transparent about their current diversity hiring practices, congressional offices should redesign their application materials to appeal to a broader pool of candidates. We use an online service called Textio, which reviews job postings for gender bias. Additionally, during the essay review, thanks to a nimble online application tool called Screendoor, we remove names and other identifying information about applicants in order to minimize any unconscious bias. When it is time to select our fellows, minimizing unconscious bias—which research has shown can have a significant effect on hiring—is very important.

When interviewing candidates, offices should use a predetermined set of interview questions to ask each candidate in order to provide a fair and equal interview focused on the skills and qualifications necessary to perform the job. This also prevents interviewers from asking leading questions or giving priming statements that may benefit one kind of candidate or hurt another.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has voiced support of the NFL’s Rooney Rule and interviews at least one minority candidate for each position in his office. All offices in Congress, Republican and Democrat, should commit to that rule as well.

To be clear, we still have a lot of work to do, but we are proud that we’ve prioritized inclusion and diversity since day one of TechCongress’ inception and have continued to make gradual improvements during the three years of the Congressional Innovation Fellowship program. We think these procedures should be adopted by congressional offices in response to the report.

Inclusion is a constant battle. There isn’t a silver bullet solution to address the challenge of diversity in Congress. A lot of the challenges, at their roots, result from a lack of resources—principally office budgets and staff capacity. But there are all incremental steps every office could take tomorrow to improve.

Andrés Bascumbe is the program manager of TechCongress, which connects Congress to technology talent, training, and ideas and organizes the Congressional Innovation Fellowship.

Tags Chuck Schumer congressional staff diversity

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