Four years ago, in an effort to confront and meaningfully address inequities, employment barriers and organizational practices that harm employees of color and other marginalized groups, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners adopted a comprehensive Workforce Equity Strategic Plan.
Last week, with the plan’s first four-year cycle complete, leaders from Office of Diversity and Equity briefed the Board on proposed next steps for renewing and growing the equity plan over the next four years — along with a detailed roadmap that can guide leaders and staff from across the County as they continue advancing toward the plan’s organizational vision.
“If we want to be an organization that states we inclusively lead with race, we have to really understand that we need to demonstrate that commitment not only through our recruiting efforts, but also through a retention strategy that is equally as effective,” Chief Diversity and Equity Officer Joy Fowler told the Board during the briefing Tuesday, April 4.
While the first cycle saw the successful implementation of many of its initial recommendations — even as work to complete others remains in process — Fowler acknowledged that the County must continue working to retain its diverse workforce. She described the workforce plan as one of myriad solutions the County must deploy to reach that goal, and said that the project would “look to engage all levels of the organization” in the renewal process.
Looking back to improve the process ahead
Workforce Equity Manager Alejandro Juárez started his portion of the briefing by looking back, painting the plan as an “ambitious task” that elevated the concerns of staff of color and other protected classes to the Board and to the entire County. Addressing racial and class disparities, he said, required working through the County’s decentralized human resources function, which is spread across the organization’s 10 departments and an additional 10 nondepartmental offices.
Juárez said fulfilling the plan’s recommendations required new investments in equity infrastructure across the County — suggested by a collaboration between the Office of Diversity and Equity, the County’s Employee Resource Groups, County executives and subject matter experts — that the Board has continued to support. These new resources included adding equity managers in every department, creating the Complaints Investigation Unit, expanding the Office of Diversity and Equity’s Civil Rights Unit, modifying Central Human Resources, and improving the organization’s Americans With Disabilities Act accommodations process.
The proposal for the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan Renewal Project, Juárez said, is “essentially our plan for the plan” to craft a multi-year strategy that, critically, builds directly on this equity infrastructure and employs the lessons the organization has learned over the last few years.
“Thanks to your support and investment in workforce equity, we are able to leverage this infrastructure to continue our work to implement workforce equity efforts and go further by engaging in the process to renew the WESP for the next four years,” Juárez said.
Staff and members of Employee Resource Groups provided three main themes of feedback during the development of the plan: operations, engagement and communications.
Juárez said engagement — particularly around employees’ ability to provide feedback, and actively contribute to the plan’s design and implementation — was the area of greatest concern. Additionally, staff and others said the committee structure was too large and unwieldy, making it difficult to address concerns as they came up.
The renewal proposal accounts for and addresses these challenges to improve the process, Juárez said, taking inspiration from existing equity-centered engagement processes like the County’s Community Budget Advisory Committees.
A smaller and more nimble Renewal Steering Committee would act as a temporary decision making body to steer the process over the next nine months. The committee — composed of staff from Countywide workforce equity initiatives and Employee Resource Groups — will review the work of focus-area workgroups, report back to County executives, and communicate frequently with departments, the Board, and the Auditor’s, Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices.
A three-phase renewal timeline: Research, Design, Drafting
Workforce Equity Senior Policy Analyst April Rohman detailed a three-phase timeline for the renewal process that concludes with a November presentation on a set of updated recommendations for the Board’s approval and adoption.
This timeline will allow the County “to include more stakeholders in the development and implementation of the next Workforce Equity Strategic Plan,” said Rohman. And thanks to the foundation laid down by the original plan and by previous workforce engagement efforts, “we are not embarking on a ‘blue sky’ process,” they said. “This is more of a prioritization and strategy identifying process.”
The steering committee will then convene focus-area workgroups, “where the work is going to be,” Juárez said. The project team and steering committee will embark on a nominations process to recruit staff from across the County to build out the workgroups, and will be intentional about ensuring representation from different types of employees, demographic groups, and focus-area interests. Representatives from the steering committee and the Office of Diversity and Equity will serve as liaisons to help guide their work and help them address any issues with decision making.
Phase 2, “Design,” is set for May through August, and will start once the committee and workgroups are in place. During this second phase, committees will engage in design processes that examine organizational concerns like funding, capacity, culture and policies, and will prioritize draft recommendations for the renewed plan.
The third and final “Proposal and Approval” phase will last from September to November, as the steering and executive committees prioritize, review and approve the final recommendations to be presented to the Board.
Once complete, the Renewal Project will result in several distinct deliverables, including:
- An equity-centered countywide engagement structure
- A countywide workforce equity strategic plan
- Guidance for departments as they put the plan’s recommendations into place
- Alignment of workforce equity values, definitions, framework, goals and evaluation methodology
- An ongoing structure for stakeholder engagement, education, relationship-building, and accountability around workforce equity priorities.
Outcomes and next steps
The process that presenters outlined is ultimately in service of delivering results that feel clear and tangible; both Juárez and Rohman referenced feedback from employees who said they didn’t feel the impact of the original plan in their daily work. A refined renewal process, with increased ownership and engagement, should lead to a more tangible impact for employees, Rohman said.
Other expected outcomes from the renewal work include improved job experiences and satisfaction for all employees, and more effective services for the communities Multnomah County serves.
Rohman also said a centralized plan will help “ensure all stakeholders will be kept informed and engaged” — stemming from the project’s commitment to transparency of process and stakeholder engagement. This robust set of reporting and communication activities will include:
- Progress reports to the project sponsor and executive leadership
- Engagement with department directors and commissioners’ chiefs of staff
- Quarterly “Equity Forums” for countywide equity staff
- The quarterly Office of Diversity and Equity newsletter
- A new webpage for the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan’s renewal
- Wednesday Wire articles
The project team will soon begin sharing the renewal plan with stakeholders across the County. That will be followed by the first of many quarterly Equity Forums, which will double as the official launch of the renewal project. Announcements about the forum will be shared through the Wednesday Wire and the Office of Diversity and Equity’s next newsletter.
Questions from the Board
Commissioner Diane Rosenbaum asked the panelists if they intended to solicit anonymous input, as some of the issues touched by the plan can be sensitive.
Juárez said the project team is designing an internal “public comment” period for employees that can be set up in a way that keeps responses anonymous. Crucially, the team would ensure all feedback reaches focus-area workgroups, the steering committee and the rest of the renewal project structure.
Acknowledging the harm caused by workplace inequities, Commissioner Lori Stegmann asked how the team plans to navigate the broken trust many employees feel.
Juárez framed the renewal project as an effort to “bring people to the table and negotiate with each other around these issues.” Whereas the previous plan encountered a challenge in managing the 100 people who were part of the general committee, this new cycle will instead lean on Office of Diversity and Equity staff and department equity managers to facilitate trauma-informed processes and a structure for resolving conflicts.
“The spirit of this is to make sure people have those conversations and that we are intentional about how we navigate them and make sure that we can address the concerns — not just the recommendation concerns, but the issues that people have with values or experiences within the process,” said Juárez.
“Because of the infrastructure we’ve built, there are a lot more people in the County who are practitioners of equity who have those skills that we didn’t have when we first initiated the WESP. We want to make sure we leverage that.”
Commissioner Sharon Meieran asked how each individual commissioner could elevate the renewal and increase their engagement in the project.
Chief Diversity and Equity Officer Fowler said she plans to meet with each commissioner to provide updates and would also attend commissioners’ staffers’ weekly meetings more frequently. Fowler also said commissioners' staff will have more opportunities to engage in the process outlined during the briefing. Feedback from commissioners will be expected and welcome during these interactions, Fowler said.
Chair Jessica Vega Pederson thanked the presenters for their work they brought forward and expressed pride in being the executive sponsor for the renewal project.
“I know how important this process is and getting this process right for us as an organization and for so many of our employees who really want to make sure their voices are heard, their perspectives are heard, and that they’re seeing the action and response from leadership in moving this forward,” said Vega Pederson.
Despite the improvements the County has made since the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan was launched — including the addition of equity managers across departments, new resources that can help employees navigate complaints, and an expanded organizational learning function — Vega Pederson acknowledged the amount of work ahead.
“What we’re going to be getting in November is the next start,” she said. “I’m excited about the idea of where we are today, where we are going to be in November and where we are going to be in the years past that.”