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Politics and Government

Half of state employees don’t think equity, diversity and inclusion are prioritized. Here’s how Colorado is responding.

Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday signed an executive order directing state agencies to create and implement policies that prioritize and educate around building a more reflective workforce. The hope is that the private sector will follow.

Gov. Jared Polis signs an executive order around equity, diversity and inclusion in Colorado's state workforce on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020 at the governor's mansion in Denver. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado surveyed its roughly 30,000 state employees last year and asked if they thought leadership was making workforce equity, diversity and inclusion a priority. 

Only a little more than half of Colorado’s workers who responded said yes. 

“That number should be much higher,” said Kara Veitch, the executive director of Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration. 

That’s part of the reason why Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday signed an executive order directing state agencies to take a hard look at their policies and practices around diversity, equity and inclusion and to ensure they have plans to improve around all three. 

“My goal is really a state and an administration that serves everyone, in which everyone is well served,” Polis said before signing the order at the governor’s mansion in downtown Denver. “We don’t just embrace, we celebrate the idea that no two people are exactly alike. And those differences are a source of strength.”

The executive order is five-pronged: 

  • It requires the Department of Personnel and Administration to guide and direct state agencies in creating long-term strategic plans around inclusivity, anti-discriminatory workplace cultures and equity in hiring, compensation and retention. 
  • It requires that all state employees receive training on equity, diversity and inclusion.
  • It mandates that state agencies report their progress on equity, diversity and inclusion.
  • It directs the state to review buildings, systems, public meeting procedures and websites for language and disability accessibility. 
  • It directs the state to address systemic inequities present  in awarding contracts.

MORE: Read the executive order.

While the order may seem timed to the racial conversations happening across Colorado and the U.S., Polis and his team say they have been working on it since the governor took office in January 2019. The executive order was initially supposed to be signed in March, but then the coronavirus hit. 

“Conversations about this executive order began back in early 2019,” said Web Brown, who leads Colorado’s Office of Health Equity, speaking before the order was signed.” I think that speaks volumes to the importance that Gov. Polis places on truly creating a Colorado for all and making us a more equitable state.” 

Polis, Colorado’s first Jewish governor and the first openly gay governor in the U.S., has faced criticism from Black leaders for not doing enough to ensure people of color are represented in his administration. Specifically, they’d like to see more Black members of his cabinet. 

As for how his administration is currently doing on equity, diversity and inclusion  as it launches into a period of self examination in light of the order, Veitch says so-so. 

“We’re doing OK,” she said. “I think we can do better.” 

A fiscal year 2018-19 workforce report compiled by the state shows that white state employees make, on average, about $10,000 more than their Black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native counterparts. However, in terms of gender, there’s a roughly 50-50 split among men and women when it comes to state employees.

“While we celebrate and acknowledge today’s signing of the executive order, it’s also important to acknowledge that today is a first step. Step one,” Brown said. “We have a lot of work to do to make ‘Colorado for all’ a reality.” 

In the end, Polis and his deputies hope that state government can become a model for the private sector when it comes to equity, diversity and inclusion. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is slated to soon declare racism a public health crisis in the state.

MORE: Why now? The roots (and possible future) of Colorado’s reckoning with racism past and present

Veitch said state government is most effective when it reflects the composition communities it serves.

“We need every state agency rowing in the same direction,” Polis said, “not just appointees, but our career members of the state government as well. Each agency has an active role to play in incorporating the equity mindset into their systems, policies and practices. Long-term equity, diversity and inclusion plans developed by state agencies cannot become just another report that’s created just to be shelved.”


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