This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
After what seemed like a never ending campaign, Joe Biden has won the presidency. He did so with a campaign team that was one of the most diverse in history, including a staff that was more than one-third people of color and more than half women. His transition team is shaping up similarly. But winning and setting a vision is only the beginning of the work of governing. Translating promises into policy enactment and implementation — that’s where the rubber hits the road.
While much focus will now turn to what President-elect Biden will prioritize in his first 100 days in office, we should also spend time on the who. Setting aside typical horse races over Cabinet-level appointees, the rest of an administration’s staffing decisions are equally as important to translating campaign promises into effective policy, yet rarely garner much attention. The processes senior officials use to make hiring decisions at every level — and the priorities signaled through those processes and decisions — have significant implications, not just for what policies are enacted, but also for how policy is implemented, and for public trust in government moving forward.
President-elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris have an opportunity — and an obligation — to assemble, retain, and empower an administration that prioritizes diversity up and down its ranks, not just in terms of demographics but also in terms of proximity to the challenges that government addresses. Supporting and empowering those whose lives have been shaped by policy action (or inaction) could mark one of the most transformative shifts in how this country is run and whose voices count.
And yet, the Executive branch too often hires the same ways it did 100 years ago. With limited resources to focus on talent recruitment and development, incoming officials select from within their close networks, based on personal connections. Administrations hire based on traditional elite credentials, or from the campaign trail. Lived experience with the issues is generally not valued; academic experience is. Positions and processes are not transparent, and recruitment is basically non-existent. Senior officials expect resumes and individuals to come to them, already holding sector-specific skills.
This illusion of political meritocracy has resulted in decades of administrations staffed overwhelmingly by people who are white, male, well-educated and well-off. The lack of diversity goes beyond the Executive branch, too. In 2018, one study found that across all senior staff in the House of Representatives, under 14 percent were people of color.
There are profound ripple effects from having a federal government made up of people who don’t look like or live like America — and it’s not just a matter of symbolism. Personnel is policy, and the staffing choices made in D.C. have skewed our nation’s policies in favor of the powerful and privileged. The young people marching in the streets are demanding long overdue change, but they understandably don’t trust the government to deliver that change. The absence of people in government roles who understand their challenges is a key reason why.
I’ve seen firsthand how having diverse voices and perspectives at the policymaking table improves the quality of policy. As chief of staff to two Secretaries of Education during the Obama administration, Arne Duncan and John King Jr., we worked hard to build an inclusive team. Through a commitment from our leadership, transparency around data and investment in staff, we made slow but steady progress. By summer 2016, the majority of our political appointees were people of color.
That was progress, but the experience also underscored the importance of prioritizing lived experience and proximity to impacted communities when developing policy. Last year, I launched a new type of think tank, Next100, based on that very guiding principle: policy by those with the most at stake, for those with the most at stake.
In general, we must do better at building a pipeline of next generation progressive talent, something the conservative movement has invested in for decades. It’s especially crucial in this moment of historic civic engagement, when people are rising up and demanding change, that leaders open the doors to communities who have historically been excluded from the decision-making process. We have a once in a lifetime chance to show people that politics and policy can make a difference in their lives. We can help restore trust in government with an administration that is responsive to and representative of those who bear the impact of its policy choices.
Building such an administration will require leadership and a commitment from the top down, as well as meaningful investments in recruitment and talent development. It demands transparent, concrete goals and accountability mechanisms across all agencies and personnel levels. The incoming Biden-Harris administration is already putting in the effort on several fronts to hire a diverse Cabinet and an equally diverse White House staff. Today the Biden team announced Alejandro Mayorkas as his Secretary of Homeland Security, the first Latino and the first immigrant to hold that post. The Biden team also announced today that Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman and an Obama administration alum who worked at the State Department would be the ambassador to the United Nations.
But diverse hiring practices must extend down and across all executive branch staffing positions and departments. And it won’t happen overnight. The Biden-Harris team must put in the time, work, and investment needed to recruit new individuals, from communities that don’t usually see the government as a career path, and develop their skills. They’ll need to support managers and leaders who can build inclusive cultures by empowering less traditional voices, barring unpaid work and addressing biases baked into hiring processes. A Biden-Harris administration must work to make government service an accessible and attractive calling for all — just as it was, and has been, for Joe Biden.
As the campaign transitions into office, it should build on its progress and model what an inclusive, diverse, and welcoming America looks like.
If a Biden-Harris administration is able to do that, it won’t just mean better policies in the next four years. It will also lead to better politics and greater trust in government for generations to come.
Emma Vadehra is executive director of Next100, a startup think tank for next generation leaders, and former chief of staff in the Obama administration’s Department of Education.