A more diverse public service is a national security imperative
© Getty Images

Over the coming decades, the national security establishment will need to dramatically increase the recruitment and retention of personnel with expertise in China and the Indo-Pacific. To do so, it is critical that we draw from a diverse background that reflects the character of the nation that we represent and defend. As leaders in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s (OSD) Indo-Pacific Security Affairs organization, we are privileged to have the opportunity to make a significant impact on how OSD policy and broader OSD enterprise may look in the future, in line with the secretary of Defense’s initiatives to improve diversity, equity and inclusion within in the Department of Defense.

Long-term competition with China is the strategic challenge of our time, and in Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinBlinken calls US-India relationship 'vital' during official visit Senate panel advances Navy secretary nominee Biden zigzags on China policy MORE’s words, “the pacing threat” for the Department, and the Indo-Pacific remains the priority region for the Department. Smart and sustained investment in people is the key to meeting this moment. As in the period after 9/11 when the Department dramatically increased its recruitment and cultivation of experts with Middle East and counter-terrorism experience, the focus on China and the Info-Pacific should have a similar impact on evolving the skills and expertise of the workforce across the enterprise.

Recent studies from the Wall Street Journal, McKinsey & Company, and others confirm that more diverse organizations outperform their peers, earning superior financial returns as a result of higher overall morale and the development of more innovative approaches to challenges. As we adapt the role of the Department of Defense to this era of competition, we need to draw on the best and brightest from all backgrounds, while fostering a culture that facilitates the airing of opposing viewpoints to ensure decision-makers benefit from the broadest array of inputs possible. This diversity is a strategic advantage that our adversaries cannot hope to match, and it is incumbent upon those of us in positions of leadership in this field to take responsibility for realizing our ambitions to take care of our people and develop a more diverse team.

ADVERTISEMENT

Historically, leadership at the highest levels of the civilian workforce of the Department has tended to be a homogenous group, with few women or people of color. The picture is not much better at the levels of middle management, though we are making some progress in building a more diverse and inclusive workforce with new hires, particularly among young professionals in the early phases of their careers. Indeed, while hiring has slowed to a trickle in recent years as a result of reform and budgetary pressures, we are proving that recruitment of a diverse workforce is still possible. Our own organization brought on board 21 new personnel in calendar year 2020, a mix of military officers, experts detailed to us from the intelligence community, academia, or think tanks, career and non-career civil servants. Of this cohort, roughly 35 percent are women and around 20 percent are people of color. While these percentages are slightly below U.S. national labor force participation rates for these categories of employees, they augment our existing ranks, bringing us to a total workforce made up of 47 percent women and 26 percent people of color. Importantly, this is also carried through our leadership team, which is 48 percent women and 16 percent people of color. Clearly there is room for improvement, especially as these macro statistics cloud disparities in type and length of service required by different employees in our organization. Just as clearly, however, despite the widely acknowledged challenges of federal hiring, the means to make that improvement are within our control today.

Two of the greatest barriers to improving diversity in our organization are a lack of awareness about career opportunities and lack of diversity in terms of the pools of candidates from which we hire. In an effort to mitigate these obstacles, our organization has established a proactive approach to recruitment, charging each member of the organization with spreading the word about who we are and what we do. The explicit idea is to expose communities outside of the D.C. metro area to this particular field of public service. Similarly, in recent years, my organization has hired career civil servants almost exclusively from within government service at another agency or from fellowship programs, essentially outsourcing the first review of our candidates. We are now working intentionally to establish relationships with additional federal fellowship programs to diversify our recruitment pools.

Inadequate representation of women and people of color at higher ranks and responsibility points to the likelihood of structural impediments to improving diversity, equity, and inclusivity within our organization. In addition to the historic appointment of Lloyd Austin as our new secretary of Defense and Kathleen Hicks as deputy secretary of Defense, we can and should also take note of the progress our colleagues in the military services are making to revise promotion and retention programs with an eye on building a more diverse and inclusive workforce over the long term. Within OSD policy, decisions on promotion are made by the Career Development Board (CDB), a community organization that draws members from the management ranks across the organization. Improving the diversity of CDB membership will provide new leadership opportunities for women and people of color with the organization and elevate role models for newer employees from similar backgrounds.

Now is the moment to set a course to build the diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace that we need. The new administration will soon publish an updated strategy, but the emphasis on the Indo-Pacific and the need to contend with a rising China will remain prominent priorities for the Department. The convergence of long-term trends in Indo-Pacific security’s centrality to U.S. national security and the national cycle of strategy and policy review offers a rare opportunity to make real progress — if only we’re intentional about attracting and developing the diversity of public servants we need to guarantee U.S. interests in the years to come.

David F. Helvey is acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs and Julie B. Sheetz is the chief of staff for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs.