An Interview with Zina Merritt

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The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was recently ranked #1 among mid-sized agencies as part of the Partnership for Public Service’s list of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. And while rankings for leadership on diversity issues were not conducted this year, GAO has long held a top spot for its commitment to diversity as well. To learn more about how GAO integrates social equity into their organization and work, I spoke with Zina Merritt, the Special Assistant to the Comptroller General for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Prior to this role, Zina directed audits of national security and international programs and was a longtime advocate of equal employment opportunity to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEI&A) at all levels of the agency. In November 2017, GAO expanded its mission core values of accountability, integrity, and reliability to include people values—being valued, respected, and treated fairly. The underlying tenets of these people values factor into values Zina has long advocated for, and consequently the Comptroller General appointed Zina to serve in this role as GAO’s executive level DEI&A strategist.

Zina has a variety of responsibilities at GAO that include identifying and sharing best practices and programs to support DEIA and monitoring and measuring related performance outcomes of programs and initiatives. She also advises GAO’s Executive Committee, other senior leaders, managers, employee resource groups, and individual employees, while addressing concerns and responding to employee needs throughout the agency. When asked about her strategic
management role, she explained that GAO’s commitment to DEI&A is codified into the organization’s strategic plan and DE&I Strategic Implementation Plan. Specifically, GAO’s current agency strategic plan includes a performance goal that promotes identifying, attracting, and retaining a workforce with the skills necessary to achieve operational excellence. Another performance goal promotes enhancing and sustaining a culture that is fair, diverse, and inclusive and provides opportunities for all employees to excel. In 2019, GAO transformed its prior Workforce Diversity Plans into what is currently our DE&I Strategic Implementation Plan, and it is currently expanding upon this effort by adding accessibility as a focus area. The plan establishes GAO’s processes to review data and trends on demographic characteristics, comparisons to other federal workforces, and DEI&A related performance management goals and metrics. GAO executive level leaders also have explicit leadership and management expectations. For example, the annual performance expectations for GAO’s senior executives clearly communicates the role that they should have as senior leaders in supporting and implementing these efforts. Management and employees also have a critical role in this plan’s implementation through their constructive ongoing engagement in DEI&A efforts.

Zina noted that “Most importantly, effective DEI&A efforts require commitment from the organization’s head, who sets the tone at the top by supporting and engaging in DEI&A efforts at all levels. This includes regularly engaging with senior leadership, managers, affinity groups, and employees on DEI&A related issues to include some of the tough topics, such as acknowledging and communicating with employees regarding external events impacting employees and their families.” She praised the U.S. Comptroller General, Gene Dodaro, for affirming the agency’s commitment to DEI&A in his annual EEO statement to employees, regularly engaging with GAO’s diversity counsel and affinity groups, and participating in many DEI&A events.

Zina explained that the strong emphasis GAO places on respecting, valuing, and treating its employees fairly through a strong commitment to maintaining a skilled and diverse workforce and fostering an inclusive work environment has a direct bearing on GAO’s ability to fulfill its mission: to support the Congress by making government more efficient, effective, and equitable. Research shows that diverse groups allow for critical and innovate thinking, as well as the ability
to better anticipate alternative viewpoints. By leveraging each employee’s unique skills, talents, experiences and characteristics, GAO can broaden the range of perspectives in and approaches to the work. Events over the past year included the pandemic, incidents of police brutality of African Americans, and the most recently, targeted acts of hatred towards Asian Americans. These have brought increased visibility of the inequities and disparities that exist in
this nation and in how the government is addressing these issues. Despite some of the associated challenges, GAO maintained continuity of its DEI&A efforts in their virtual work environment. Zina says that “GAO believes that our workforce should be as diverse as the populous we serve” and that this belief definitely contributes to making GAO such a great place to work.

It also reflects GAO’s commitment to approaching audits of federal programs with a critical eye. GAO included equity as one of the 5 core auditing pillars in an April 2021 Yellow Book update. The technical update provides expanded definitions and examples of the core pillars for examining whether government programs are being administered in a manner that is effective, efficient, economical, ethical, and equitable. This commitment is not new, as equity has appeared in previous editions of the Yellow Book, and GAO has been providing Congress with analysis that includes equity for decades. For example, since the 1970s, GAO has examined racial inequalities in education, voting rights, equal employment, racial profiling, representation in the census, access to capital and housing, health care, and the military justice system. In
September 2020, GAO launched a webpage on Race in America that includes a collection of  GAO reports on this topic.

GAO is currently reporting on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting different racial groups and also has more work planned. GAO will be evaluating whether the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have controls in place to prevent discrimination at traveler screening checkpoints. Additionally, GAO has work underway examining law enforcement’s use of force and will be looking at initiatives, such as de-escalation training, that could help reduce the use of force. While GAO has been examining program disparities for many decades, it continues to refine its audit tools. In November 2020, GAO convened the Emerging Risks Taskforce to ensure the agency is positioned to tackle emerging risks of importance to Congress and help teams to identify and incorporate issues related to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in their assessments, consistent with the agency’s core values and quality assurance standards. This task force will help GAO develop tools to better assess whether and how DEI&A issues are important to audits, engaging the right people within and outside of GAO to provide a diverse range of perspectives, developing and employing the right methodologies needed to answer related researchable questions, and ensuring that review teams have an appreciation for the limitations and sensitivities associated with this kind of work.

Zina is responsible for providing progress updates to the Executive Committee, employees, and select Congressional Committees on GAO’s DEI&A efforts, and also represents GAO at external forums focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility topics. On August 31, she presented, along with other GAO staff, expert researchers, and federal employees, at GAO’s Centennial Webinar Series: Foundations for Accountability: Oversight Issues for the Next
100 Years, on the topic of Leading Practices to Manage, Empower, and Oversee the Federal Workforce. To see more opportunities to view webinars in the series go to https://www.gao.gov/about/what-gao-does/hundred-years-of-gao/anniversary-events.

 

Submitted by NCAC Board Member, Steven Putansu

Categories: Current Events, Policy Tags: Tags: , ,

Political Polarization, COVID, Social Justice Issues, and Where America Goes From Here

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A book review and interview with the author by Natalie Donahue

The inspiration for “The Divided States of America” stemmed from Dr. Kettl’s dissertation.  He decided to take a fresh look at the field to understand what the underlying issues were and where federalism may be headed for the future.  That may sound strange as many people think of federalism (if they think of it at all) as a static concept; an idea grounded in the founding of our current government dating back to when the states signed the Constitution after powers not delegated to the federal government were reserved to the states through the 10th amendment.  But, in fact, there have been four “generations”, as Kettl calls them, of federalism in the United States in which states and the federal government have fought for primacy.

The first generation lasted nearly 100 years from the ratification of the Constitution until the end of the Civil War, where the states were the primary power in the country.  With the passage of the 14th amendment asserting the fundamental equality of Americans with the states being forbidden to “make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities” of any citizen, the idea of federal primacy was clear – leading us into the second generation of federalism which shifted the balance of intergovernmental power away from the states and toward the federal government.  However, the primacy of the federal government was short-lived as the states pushed back and argued that the way the Constitution should be interpreted should be through the decisions they make – with states fighting to sustain a “separate but equal” doctrine.  States’ rights ruled social policy in America with the passage of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 which ended the separate but equal doctrine and with it, state dominance in social policy, creating the third generation of federalism.  Federal dominance was once again short-lived as the fourth wave of federalism began in the late 1960s as states renewed their pre-eminence through the administration of national programs (such as Medicaid).  

In this fourth generation of federalism, the United States has seen increased inequality both among and between the states.  Depending on perspective, this inequality creates unfairness, undermines democracy, and generates distrust.  The roots of this inequality grow in the political diversity of this country.  The battle between both the size of government and the scope of government programs has been at the forefront of politics for decades but is especially acute now.  As Kettl said in our discussion: “The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a great example in that conservatives were against it, liberals were for it, and we saw the two political parties playing tug-of-war in the creation of the program, but the administration surrounding the implementation decisions of ACA was left to the states.  In effect, the ACA, like Medicaid, became not one national program, but 51 different programs” (50 states plus the District of Columbia).  This notion brings us back to the premise of “The Divided States of America” being that federalism guarantees that the government Americans get depends on where it is that they live.  State by state, we see there is tremendous variability and enormous amounts of inequality across the country.  This leads to increased polarization, which leads to increased inequality, with the problem spiraling.

The issue of inequality was particularly acute across the United States in 2020.  I asked Dr. Kettl about the role of federalism as it pertains to the social justice movement rallying behind the cause of racial injustice, particularly around the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others at the hands of police.  Dr. Kettl talked about the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the idea that national principles were truly national in scope – but what we have seen over the past year in particular is that the efforts of the federal government to shape national policy turned out to be resting more in the hands of the states; with great variance between them.  “The idea of having a single national policy dissolved in the face of different kinds of strategies and different states.  Putting all this together, we discovered that the sense of unity that had grown out of federalism seem to have been either short-lived or never really existed to begin with – as the whole movement for civil rights was largely a product driven by the federal government.  [So what we see now] is that not only has the consensus seem to have dissolved, but the consensus about how to frame a consensus has dissolved.”    

Dr. Kettl and I also spoke about the COVID pandemic and the big role federalism has played in the country’s response to it.  A modern principle of federalism is that states are to act as “laboratories of democracy”, meaning states would experiment and be innovative in their policy implementation decisions; where one state found success, other states would adopt those lessons and follow them within their own borders.  However, states are now basing their decisions “much more on an ideological basis than on issues of either principle or evidence.  [Overall, there is an] unwillingness to even count what it is that is working best, let alone to be able to follow what it is other states are doing”, said Kettl.  “When COVID hit U.S. shores last year, we saw early on a political polarization of wearing masks and even whether or not COVID was real; all of which affected the way in which states responded, with the states going down very different kinds of roads”.  The United States saw states bidding against each other for personal protective equipment, states encouraging mask-wearing while others encouraged herd immunity as a response.  

This struggle has continued during the COVID vaccine rollout – where, again, the variance between the states and their approach to vaccination has been the main determinant of the overall health of their citizens.  “It is arguable that the reliance on the states taking the front lines and first devising a strategy for dealing with COVID and now for the states to have the front-line responsibility dealing with vaccinations has, in fact, proven dangerous and cost lives”.  Due to state governments not having the resources, capacity, or the interest in providing a solution for all their citizens (particularly those in underserved communities) and each state going their own way in their COVID response plan, the country as a whole will be unable to be fully safe. 

So how do we move into a fifth generation of federalism where Americans experience less inequality and outcomes are not determined by the state in which we live?  “There is a real urgency for the country to have a national conversation about the balance of power, as we’ve introduced a lot more inequality into the system… which, in the long-run, is dangerous to democracy.”  Dr. Kettl thinks we should look to another founding father, Alexander Hamilton, who was perhaps the strongest champion among the nation’s founders of a powerful, robust central government.  What we need is “not federal government control, but a stronger federal government steering wheel to shape things like a national response to a national issue; issues that affect everyone, whether directly or indirectly, [which are] things that require a stronger national voice and stronger national consensus.  This is unlikely to happen if we allow 50 different states to go 50 different directions – the cost of which would be to encourage and to fuel greater inequality, which is the one thing the country does not need at this point.  There has to be not federal control but a partnership between the federal government and state and local governments.”  

Dr. Kettl believes the rollout of the COVID vaccine provides the perfect opportunity for the levels of government to work effectively in a coordinated way to try to address the issue, and come together as a country to find a solution that works effectively for all citizens regardless of the neighborhood or community where they live.  Now is the time to move to that fifth generation of federalism and find the right balance between federal and state power in order for the country to truly become the United States of America. 

You can buy a copy of Dr. Kettl’s “The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work” at your favorite local bookstore.


Natalie Donahue and is the Chief of Evaluation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and also moonlights as an adjunct at various Universities teaching monitoring and evaluation and public policy courses.  In doing some course prep for a public policy class, she stumbled upon arguably one of the best books to be published last year: Dr. Donald Kettl’s The Divided States of America.