OPM targets data and benefits education to improve equity in the federal workforce

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The federal government HR agency’s report was one of more than 90 equity action plans released by the Biden administration this week.

The Office of Personnel Management said it plans to improve diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the federal workforce through a combination of improved data tracking and better educating federal employees on how to use their benefits.

The Biden administration released “action plans” to improve equity for more than 90 agencies Thursday, following through on one of the president’s first executive orders aimed at identifying and tearing down barriers to service equity. Many of the plans focus on strengthening civil rights law enforcement and advancing equity through the federal procurement process.

As the federal government’s HR agency, OPM’s customers are ostensibly federal agencies and their employees. In an introduction to the agency’s own equity action plan, officials there argued that improving equity for those customers will in turn help them act more equitably in their dealings with the public.

“OPM’s policies and practices influence the composition, compensation and work experiences of the federal workforce,” the agency wrote. “In turn, the federal workforce designs and delivers policies and programs that affect all people in the U.S. and beyond. Advancing equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility are fundamental to delivering on OPM’s mission to build and support a federal workforce that represents and delivers for America.”

OPM touted work over the past year both to advance President Biden’s executive order aimed at improving diversity, equity and inclusion across the federal government, as well as focus group discussions with federal workers on how to improve access to federal employee benefits.

The agency’s equity plan focuses on providing better data for agencies to help them identify and address barriers to equity in the federal hiring process, and better education for feds on the non-salary benefits available to them.

On the data side, OPM said that although agencies have been collecting voluntary demographic data on job applicants for years, it has never been accessible in a way that allows agencies to review and improve their strategies and processes.

“Applicant demographic data is voluntarily collected but historically has not been easily available to, and usable by, human resource offices to identify root causes for drop-off patterns and interventions to address them,” OPM wrote. “In response to this barrier, OPM will expand federal agency access to post-audit (retroactive) candidate demographic data, providing agencies with an easily accessible, comprehensive dataset that will enable a more detailed analysis of barriers in the hiring process.”

Additionally, OPM said that it will focus its federal employee-focused efforts on a pair of education initiatives: improving financial literacy for young federal workers, and making it easier for feds to pick the health insurance plan that’s best for them through the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.

With a better understanding of how to save for retirement, OPM said that young federal workers, particularly from underserved communities, can get a leg up on what has been one of the biggest barriers in the fight against inequality: wealth.

“Resources for early and midcareer financial planning are often limited or nonexistent,” OPM wrote. “These gaps in financial education programs create barriers to equity because wealth accumulation is a career-long effort, and key decisions made early in a federal career compound over a lifetime . . . To address this barrier, OPM will examine how key decisions in early and midcareer can improve the trajectory of wealth building and will work with benefits officers across government to examine existing agency financial education plans and specific government financial education programs.”

OPM also said it plans to revamp the tools it provides to federal workers to help them choose what insurance carrier to enroll with during the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program’s annual open season.

“Underserved communities have conveyed that current tools do not clearly present key aspects of health plan choices, such as the cost and quality of benefits offered,” the agency wrote. “This contributes to a lack of understanding of health choices, furthering inequitable outcomes. To address this barrier, OPM will support efforts by eligible federal government employees; annuitants; employees of entitled and enrolled tribes, tribal organizations and urban Indian organizations; and their eligible family members in selecting the health benefits that best fit their needs by introducing selection tools that are informative and sensitive to their diverse needs.”